Review: Pandora Radio by Pandora Media
This review originally appeared within iLounge’s iOS Gems series within the compilation article, iPhone Gems: 12 Internet Radio Apps for iPhone + iPod touch. Additional details may be found in the original article.
Our top pick in iPhone Internet radio applications is unquestionably Pandora Media’s Pandora Radio (Free). It’s not just the interface, which is highly similar to Apple’s own iPod application but with some cool additions; it’s the power and quality of Pandora’s Music Genome Project-based music search engine, which does a legitimately great job of transforming a simple word or three into a good first track to listen to, then a succession of additional song picks that will likely make you wonder just how much great music you’ve been missing.
Just as with Last.fm, Pandora lets you enter an artist name as a starting point for your search, but rather than using “tags” or hunting through friends’ libraries, you also have the ability to search via song title or composer. Though the ability to search for “rock” or “alternative rock” with Last.fm is useful, in practice, we preferred Pandora’s approach, as we could start with a specific song that we liked and then trust the system to find more songs like it.
Pandora’s interface is similar to the iPod’s, plus icons to indicate your positive or negative impressions of a pick, a pause button, volume controls, and a track skipping button. As noted above, you can only skip tracks six times in a given hour, though the limitation is on a per-channel basis: create a Beatles channel and you can skip six times, create a Yellow Submarine channel and you can skip six more times, and so on. Just as with the other Internet radio programs here, you can’t fast forward or rewind to a specific part of the track; Pandora starts a song playing at the beginning, and you either listen all the way through, or skip to the next track. It’s better than traditional radio, but not as adjustable as with music you own. You can also use the app to bookmark a song or artist, buy the song from iTunes, and see why the song was selected.
Whether we selected an artist or a song, Pandora did a consistently strong job of picking something good to play, and following it up with other interesting options. This is due to the Music Genome Project’s aggressive tagging of songs, which has used smart categories to figure out what sorts of themes create a given track, and then located other tracks that are similar. Songs included album art—with a nice page-flipping animation to introduce them—the vast majority of the time, but as shown here occasionally did not. This didn’t stop the application from finding the song properly in iTunes, along with art ready for immediate purchase.
As with Last.fm, Pandora isn’t perfect. Putting aside its inability to be accessed in most countries outside the U.S., which is a deal-killer for international iPhone and iPod touch owners, there are a few little interface issues, too. You can give it a specific track title to find, and it will even pull up a list with a version tagged with a specific artist, but clicking on that name doesn’t guarantee that you’ll immediately hear that song. Clicking on Toxic by Britney Spears called up not that song but a number of other sorta-similar tracks, and then Maroon 5’s quite different Makes Me Wonder. Whether this was a “mistake” or an intentional component of the system—it’s trying to be radio, not just a jukebox—is open to some interpretation. There’s also the requirement of signing up for a Pandora account, which is used by the app as a place to store the bookmarked favorites you’ve created. If you want to retrieve them, you’ll need to visit the Pandora website; we preferred Last.fm’s ability to just e-mail picks to contacts. As with Last.fm, Pandora’s site offers some nice expanded functionality, but it shouldn’t be a required piece of enjoying the service’s features.
These issues aside, we really enjoyed using Pandora. The sound quality is impressive; Pandora delivers a stereo audio stream over a Wi-Fi connection, and monaural sound over 3G and EDGE, which keeps the bandwidth demands down—if still not to levels most likely preferred by providers such as AT&T—without significantly compromising in-car or in-home listening. We listened to Pandora stations for an hour of driving in a significantly rural, EDGE-only strip of New York State this past weekend, and had only the briefest and least offensive of interruptions—as with Last.fm, better than much of the satellite radio listening we’ve done. For U.S.-based listeners, except for those who are already really devoted fans of Lost.FM, Pandora offers an extremely compelling iPhone or iPod touch customized Internet radio experience; it’s highly recommended. iLounge Rating: A-.