Spotify’s Car Thing: “Why does it exist” is the crux of the questioning

Article By : Brian Dipert

Products that miss their market opportunity windows tend to have short, harsh lives…but in-progress "rooting" efforts may extend this one's relevance.

Sometimes I look at a product and think to myself, “wow, this device was genuinely developed to solve a customer problem.” Other times, I look at it and think “wow, this device exists fundamentally to extract money from customers’ wallets.” Spotify’s Car Thing, which many of you likely didn’t know was ever even a thing (show of hands, readers? Yeah…thought so…) unfortunately IMHO falls into the latter category. Which likely explains why, after first rolling out press review units in April of 2021, followed by a limited public preview that same October and a full release the following February (2022) at $89.99, by that same (last)-year late summer the company began heavily discounting remaining inventory in preparation for a full product discontinuation (although Car Things already in customers’ hands still work). The markdown pricing started at $49.99…by late October, when I bought mine, it was down to $29.99.

Truth be told, I don’t even use Spotify; Amazon Music Unlimited, Pandora and Sirius XM (along with, occasionally, Tidal) are my services of preference. And Car Thing wasn’t compatible with the free Spotify service tier, anyway; you needed to spring for a Premium account (and then spring even more for Car Thing itself…remember my earlier “money extraction from wallet” comment)? But it’s got some cool technology built into it—touchscreen, dial-and-button and voice interface options, for example, along with an OpenLinux O/S foundation and integrated Bluetooth—so I thought it’d make a cool teardown candidate.

In (faint) fairness to Spotify, the product’s lengthy gestation was no small part of the problem; had it come out sooner, when folks’ smartphone screens were tinier and the smartphones’ voice interfaces were flakier, it might have had more of an impact (the company started talking publicly about the initial prototype, which never ended up making it to market, way back in May 2019). But I’m getting ahead of myself; how does Car Thing work?

As the earlier “stock” photo shows, Car Thing has a 3.97” diagonal 800×400 pixel resolution LCD touchscreen, along with a dial in the upper right corner (which can also be pressed in to select a particular menu option) and a switch-only button below it (for “back-menu” purposes). In-between them is an embedded ambient light sensor that raises the LCD backlight intensity for daylight viewing and dims it to avoid distracting the driver at night. Along the top edge is an array of microphones along with several preset-selecting buttons. And Car Thing communicates with a separate (also required) smartphone over Bluetooth.

That’s right; Car Thing’s not even a Spotify receiver in its own right. Essentially, it’s a Spotify-only (albeit for both Android and iOS) second display with app UI control. Now see what I mean about how the large-screen smartphones that are all the rage nowadays, not to mention the multi-app-compatible Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and other UIs built into modern vehicles’ dashboards, have essentially neutered any rationale for Car Thing’s ongoing existence?

Enough background-info banter; let’s get to dissecting. As usual, I’ll begin with some outer packaging shots:

Slip off the sleeve:

Open the top, and here’s what you’ve got:

Let’s first look at what’s underneath the Car Thing:

First, a few pieces of literature:

And below that, three different mounting options—optical disc player slot, vent, and dashboard (the latter permanent sticker-only, no suction cup option), all of which magnetically mate to the Car Thing—a USB power cable, a cigarette lighter socket power adapter, and a screen cleaner:

Spotify thoughtfully supplied an adapter with dual USB power outputs, one for the Car Thing and the other presumably intended for the paired smartphone:

And here are the cigarette lighter power adapter’s specs:

Now for Car thing itself, as-usual accompanied by a 0.75″ (19.1 mm) diameter U.S. penny for size comparison purposes:

Remove the screen protector and reorient the smartphone-as-camera to minimize reflections…

As you may have already been able to tell, Car Thing is fairly svelte:

  • 5” (124 mm) wide
  • 3” inches (64 mm)
  • 1” (20 mm) in depth and
  • weighing 3 oz (90 g)

A top view reveals the five preset buttons, intermingled with four inlet holes for (presumably MEMS) microphones:

A bottom-side view is more mundane:

As are the initial glimpses of both sides:

So, let’s flip ‘er over:

Again, the top edge of the device:

is far more intriguing than either the bottom edge or either side:

The USB-C power input is a bit more interesting:

And then there’s the back-side label itself:

which atypically doesn’t list the FCC ID (2AP3D-YX5H6679, for any of you who were wondering) but provides a potential path inside. While poking at one of the corners of the sticker with a flat-head screwdriver to see if I could get it to detach, I stumbled across the impression of a seeming screw head underneath. No surprise, there ended up being one in each corner:

By alternative means of my thumbnail, I did end up getting the sticker off:

although removing the metal panel underneath didn’t get me far in the grand scheme of things; its seeming “raison d’être” is as a mate for the previously mentioned magnet mount:

So, I turned my attention to the device’s front side, specifically the aforementioned dial. The top portion popped right off when I applied a flat-head screwdriver to it:

The assemblage underneath the rubberized disc lifted right out, too, but only to a point; a flex cable presumably also connected to the main PCB inside the device hindered further progress:

See what look like two silver pins in that last shot? I assumed that they, in conjunction with some adhesive, held in place the plastic ring surrounding the assembly, and that I might therefore be able to pop the plastic ring off by careful flat-head screwdriver application (to avoid cracking the screen surrounding the ring). Unfortunately, my theory didn’t exactly pan out:

Turns out the dial and button are part of the same subassembly, which cracked and punched through the screen. And those silver pins? They were the ends of two screws; initial assembly had taken place from the other (in)side.

In this next shot, you can see the ambient light sensor, also integrated in the same subassembly, in-between the dial and button:

One upside of my inadvertent entry point into the Car Thing’s innards is that it was then straightforward to surmount the remainder of the adhesive surrounding the LCD:

Turns out the flex cable coming from the dial-and-light-sensor-and-button assembly that I showed you earlier didn’t end up directly at the system PCB, after all. Instead, it connected to an amalgam of connectors, traces and circuits glued to the backside of the display backlight, from which exited a larger flex cable which did end up at the system PCB:

Its tether point is the now-unpopulated connector at top in this photo, above the large Faraday cage on the main PCB:

Speaking of which…now for the main PCB and its heat sink to the left. First step, remove those three screws:

Next, the connector to the left of the earlier-mentioned one, whose flex cable hooks up to the five top-side preset buttons and four microphones mentioned earlier:

Here’s a closeup of the buttons-and-mics assemblage, after disconnecting the flex cable. The assemblage was securely glued in place, so I was unable to proceed further with its dissection:

So, I returned my attention to the PCB-and-heatsink smorgasbord, which lifted right out of the chassis with no fuss:

The heatsink and PCB were pressed together with thermal paste on the underside:

Both sides of heatsink standalone, for your inspection:

Since we’ve got the PCB turned upside down, let’s next clean off its Faraday Cage with some rubbing alcohol:

And then pop it off:

More thermal paste to remove; happy happy joy joy!

That large square IC is the system SoC, Amlogic’s S905:

And populating one of the other now-exposed quadrants is an Etron Technology EM6HE16EWAKG-10 4 Gbit 933 MHz DDR3L SDRAM:

Now let’s flip the PCB back over; it’s got two Faraday Cages to pop the tops off, and more thermal paste to subsequently clean off:

The large square IC in the upper right corner can be ID’d by its last two package mark lines:


The product code THGBMNG5D1LBAIL references a 4 GByte eMMC module comprised of a Toshiba (now Kioxia) 32 Gbit NAND flash memory and a media controller. Below it, in the lower right corner of the PCB, is a Cypress Semiconductor (now Infineon) CYW20706 Bluetooth (and Bluetooth LE) SoC; you can see the associated PCB-embedded antenna to its left.

As I previously mentioned, the Car Thing runs on an OpenLinux operating system foundation. Predictably, folks have tried “rooting” the device to give it additional capabilities and otherwise extend its useful life. Here are a few related Github pages I found, for your perusal:

And that just about wraps up this project, at least from my perspective; feel free to continue the discussion in the comments!


This article was originally published on EDN.

Brian Dipert is the Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.


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