iTunes Radio vs Spotify free: Which free mobile music service is best?

With the launch of iTunes Radio earlier this year, Apple certainly ruffled a few feathers in the mobile music world. The seamless integration into iOS 7 and iTunes Desktop for Mac and Windows meant that folks who'd never entertained a music streaming service before were being exposed to it for the first time in a simple manner. Well, folks in the United States anyway.

Then, just this past week Spotify finally threw its hat in the free music ring. Previously, free account subscribers were only allowed to listen to music while at their computers, with mobile access requiring a premium subscription. All that has now changed, with a free, ad-supported model to help you get your groove on using your iPhone or iPad – and yes, it's also supported on Android right now.

But, since one is new, and one is provided by Apple, it's a perfect time for a shootout. So, iTunes Radio or Spotify free; which is better?

The service

There are similarities and there are also differences between the two. The similarities are in the way the free nature is subsidized; in-stream advertising. The great thing about both services is that the ads aren't overly frequent, and quite easy to ignore. So far with Spotify this week I've heard nothing but ads for its own premium service, which will likely change but is perfectly reasonable to live with.

The difference comes in the nature of the music delivery. iTunes Radio, true to its name, operates like a radio station, serving up a random selection of music for you to listen to. Searching for artists tells iTunes Radio what sort of thing you like to listen to, it does the rest.

Spotify on the other hand allows you to search for specific albums and artists to listen to. Fantastic. But, there's a caveat, and that comes in the form of Shuffle Play. Without paying a subscription, you're free to enjoy Spotify's entire catalog, as long as you're happy to listen to the tracks in a shuffled fashion. My first thoughts on that weren't great, since I have OCD about listening to an album in full, but honestly it's actually fine. Searching for an artist and just hitting play is a personal favorite, as you're then treated to a random offering from said artist's back catalog.

The music

Both services can boast a veritable feast of music on offer. The iTunes catalog as we know is packed to the rafters, but Spotify is no slouch either. Recent times have seen such massive additions as Metallica, Pink Floyd and just this week an exclusive streaming deal for the Led Zeppelin library. On either front, you're not likely to be disappointed.

The apps

iTunes Radio has a slight advantage in this regard since it's a native app that comes pre-installed on every iOS 7 device. As such it offers a supremely familar experience, since it's just part of the Music player. For a lot of the more casual iPhone and iPad owners, Radio is indistinguishable as a separate feature to anything else on the device. And that's comfortable, reassuring.

Spotify isn't that far behind though. The app is now fully iOS 7 compliant, and while it doesn't look as good as Apple's effort, it's good enough. It doesn't really need to be any more than that. It is a little more fussy though in its design, there's more menus, more on the display. Just more.


Score a massive win for Spotify. iTunes Radio launched only in the United States, and there it remains exclusively. Spotify on the other hand is available in a whole bunch of countries around the world and just this week announced a further 20 expansions – sorry Canada.

It doesn't matter how good the app, music or service is, if folks can't get it, it just doesn't matter.

The bottom line

It's a close run thing, but right now I'd take Spotify free in a heartbeat. Primarily that comes down to availability; iTunes Radio is a fantastic product, but it's only a fantastic product if you're an American. Spotify has been in this space a lot longer, and as such has built up a great catalog and a great network of supported countries. It doesn't provide the full Spotify experience, but without handing over your money this is plenty close enough.

Your thoughts

So, those are my thoughts, what about yours? Do you favor iTunes Radio over all others, or maybe Spotify, or perhaps you're using something else that you think is better. With so many services out there, and so many that are exclusive to certain regions, there's something out there for everyone. These are but two of those options, so if you've got your own recommendations share the what and the why with us in the comments below!

Richard Devine

Editor at iMore, part time racing driver, full time British guy. Follow him on Twitter and Google+