Many people believed that the iPod and iTunes—as the embodiment of easy, instant access to music of your choice—meant the death of radio, which was developed to play music selected for you by other people. Yet although traditional radio has indeed suffered over the past five years, it has also evolved: satellite radio, digital terrestrial radio, and Internet radio have all popped up to offer greater choice and higher quality.
iTunes users have watched as Apple has offered tepid support for these offerings over the years; for instance, it rebuffed an offer to integrate Sirius satellite radio into iPods, but let that company offer Sirius-branded podcasts that haven’t been updated in two years; former competitor XM Radio’s podcasts have quietly offered far more variety. Similarly, Apple developed iTunes Tagging as a means to make money off of digital terrestrial radio, which hasn’t taken off; it also includes an underpublicized collection of Internet radio stations under the heading “Radio” within the iTunes Library, yet hasn’t expanded this feature to support Wi-Fi iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV devices.
Over the past month or so, a number of companies have taken major steps to improve Internet radio on the iPhone and iPod touch, and the results are a collection of mostly free new applications that transform these devices into miniature radio receivers with either Wi-Fi or cellular antennas. There are limitations: some of these programs are U.S.-only, and though some can work on even an original iPhone while you’re driving in a car, they eat enough bandwidth streaming music that users in countries with monthly usage limits may run afoul of them. They all also put significant demands on the devices’ batteries—enough to drain a fully-charged device after several hours—and therefore do better when attached to a charger of some sort. The ones that are free of charge are strongly worth downloading just for the fun of seeing how they work, but we discuss both free and paid options below, providing recommendations for different types of users.
The Heavy-Hitters: Last.fm
Of the three “heavy hitter” options reviewed today, Last.fm’s Last.fm (Free) is the only one that can currently be used outside of the United States, which will instantly increase its appeal to our international readers. Though we see it as a somewhat less impressive version of Pandora Radio, the premise of Last.fm is similarly great: you need to set up and log into a Last.fm account, then can create your own radio “stations” based on artists’ names, tags, or other Last.fm users. Enter a tag like “chill” and you’ll be presented with a list of different types of relaxed music: enter an artist’s name and you’ll be presented with variants to choose from. You can also see what other users are listening to, generally, by entering a user name.
While the tag search creates stations broadly by genre, it’s the artist search feature that makes Last.fm and Pandora such powerful tools. Pick an artist such as Jamiroquai and the software will typically start playing a song by that artist—notably, at the start of the song, not at some midway point as if you’re tuning into a radio station—as well as songs by related, similar artists that have been identified as good matches for the same type of musician. Last.fm typically picked similar artists to the ones identified by Pandora Radio, but Pandora’s picks of both artists and songs tended to be better in our testing. That said, Last.fm was still pretty good.
In addition to playing a song, Last.fm’s interface lets you read a bio of the artist, linked to other information via Safari browser links—unfortunately, clicking on them will interrupt the playback of music. The app also conspicuously identifies similar artists, upcoming events the current artist is playing at, and even the specific locations of the events.
Playback of the songs has a couple of positives and a few negatives. Whereas Pandora’s interface is almost indistinguishable from the standard iPod mode playback, Last.fm’s is murkier thanks to an ever-present gray overlay, cluttered icons, and dodgy controls—particularly volume—that don’t always seem as responsive as they should be. However, Last.fm lets you do things Pandora doesn’t: you can keep skipping to the next track over and over, whereas Pandora caps you at six skips per hour, and you can easily e-mail a link to any of your contacts or Last.fm friends directly from the application while something is playing. There’s also an option to buy the song through iTunes, launching the iTunes Store app on the iPhone automatically.
We tested playback on Wi-Fi, 3G, and EDGE networks, and found that the quality of the Last.fm experience was consistently very good; we were frankly surprised that music could be enjoyed at all through even the EDGE network as we were driving around, which is accomplished—and well—by a brief buffering period. While streamed music isn’t CD-quality, it’s close enough that you won’t notice the difference, and in a car, we found the listening experience decidedly more positive than subscription satellite radio. And it’s free.
One final note on Last.fm is about its web site: whereas Pandora ties its app a little too much into the site, requiring you to go there to retrieve bookmarked songs or artists, Last.fm’s is more passively there to serve as an extension of the iPhone application, providing free MP3 downloads, recommendations, and the like. You can add friends, listen to music on your computer rather than your iPhone, and watch videos, but if you don’t want to visit the site at all, you needn’t. That’s a good thing; we prefer to see these apps self-contained rather than depending on support from a separate web site.
The most powerful reason to download Last.fm for the iPhone is simple: generally speaking, if you have EDGE service, you can enjoy personalized radio anywhere you may be. For international users, it’s the iPhone’s and iPod touch’s best Internet radio option in our view, and for U.S. users, it’s our second-place pick. Additional refinement of the interface and search options would help improve this solid free app for everyone.
iLounge Rating: B+.
The Heavy-Hitters: Pandora Radio
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-.
The Heavy-Hitters: AOL Radio
The other major free Internet Radio app currently available for the iPhone and iPod touch is AOL’s AOL Radio (Free), which takes a different—and more conventional—approach to performing music. Here, the idea is that AOL will serve directly to your iPhone or iPod touch a list of hand-selected stations that will play like traditional radio on your device. It provides them from a list of familiar genres, along with a short collection of “recommended” stations that pares down the wide variety into a short list of popular options.
A major difference between AOL Radio and the prior two apps is that it’s not just music. There’s also a section called Comedy, which offers three channels of comedy programming that won’t be found on the Pandora and Last.fm track lists; you can also select from longer lists of News, Sports, and Talk stations that are just like the ones you’d find on local AM or FM radio dials. The content obviously varies a lot from station to station, but the fact that they sound good—and that most of them are available while you’re using the iPhone on EDGE—is a serious reason to keep AOL Radio installed in addition to another Internet Radio application. There are also a bunch of different stations for any given music genre, each with a specific noted sub-focus, taken from actual FM stations across the United States.
The major issues with AOL Radio are limitations of its interface and functionality. Unlike the other programs, there’s no track skipping, artist selection, or sharing of track information with friends; you’re given a stop button, a volume control, and access to a stream of audio in progress. AOL does save favorites if you want, but there’s no “share with friends” option, and as a mixed positive and negative the application neither ties into AOL’s Radio web site nor adds additional features; it is basically a standalone radio tuner that does only what it appears to do on the surface. Album art is small, and there aren’t many options once you’re playing a station.
That’s not to say that AOL Radio is bad in any way. As with the other apps, you can find a currently playing song for purchase in iTunes, and you can also locate it through AOL’s AOL Music service. A star icon lets you tag a song as a favorite for later lookup with either of those services.
You’ll note that the music stations do contain talk and other interruptions, as well. At that point, you’ll just see the station’s logo and no track information; audio will progress as you listen to the dialogue.
And even though AOL Radio doesn’t permit artist searches per se, some genres do have specific dedicated artist channels, which will actually yield a higher number of songs for these artists than Pandora or Last.fm. We found that the AOL “All B.I.G.” station did a much better job of playing Notorious B.I.G. tracks continuously than any Pandora or Last.fm search we tried, but then, we had no control over the stream other than to adjust the volume or stop listening.
The only other bummer in AOL Radio is its “Locals” feature, which is supposed to find local stations for you, based on your current location. In Western New York, AOL Radio came up with Cleveland—3 hours away—as the closest local station, with only four channels. Then the application apparently fixated upon Cleveland or experienced a bug when we tried to do other searches, telling us that there were no Comedy or other types of stations to be found in genres we selected. Quitting and resetting the application fixed this, but it would be nice to have more user control over what’s considered “local,” as well.
While AOL Radio isn’t as powerful of a tool as either Pandora or Last.fm, and lacks the ability to add non-AOL (and partner CBS Radio) stations such as ones found in the Internet Radio Tuner apps below, the content that it offers sounds good, works over EDGE—again, reliably during a rural area car drive—and includes genres that aren’t represented with the other iPhone Internet radio applications. Because of its limitations, we’d call it recommendably good but not great, though by free app standards, it delivers a tremendous amount of value given its price. iLounge Rating: B.
The Generic Internet Radio Tuners
Not all of the Internet radio applications are locked into music catalogs selected by individual companies; there are a couple that are capable of tuning in Internet radio streams from all sorts of broadcasters, large and small, starting with a number of hand-selected stations and then expanding to include others that you manually enter in after finding them yourself on the web. Here are the options.
BluMediaLab’s StreamItAll Radio ($4) starts with an extremely small collection of preset stations, but includes both a larger database and a + icon that supposedly enables you to add whatever .PLS format Internet radio stream you find on the Internet. We had a lot of trouble getting the stream-adding feature to work properly, finding once that it was supposedly “playing,” but actually silent, and many other times that it was unable to resolve URLs with or without .PLS extensions. The program’s spartan interface provides very little information on stations and tracks, and doesn’t look especially good doing it; however, it did work properly with the included presets. For the asking price, we’d expect a much better list of stations, properly working station adding, and a better interface. iLounge Rating: D.
Nullriver’s Tuner Internet Radio ($6) is StreamItAllRadio done somewhat better. Loaded with genre-sorted stations that are all labeled with bitrates and descriptions, Tuner presents stations with a simple line-based on-screen visualizer, volume controls, and a pause button, letting you bookmark favorite stations and providing simple track information where available. In the Comedy genre alone, you get 3-4 times the stations of the AOL Radio application, and there are similarly Sports and Talk genres as well, some taken from AM and FM radio stations, as well as international stations taken from countries all over the world.
A Top 500 list lets you know what’s popular, and though a search feature yields spotty results—depending mostly on the popularity of your search term in the limited channel descriptive information—an “Open” button enables you to add stations you’ve found on the web. Nullriver makes adding these stations a lot easier than StreamItAll, typing the HTTP:// part of the URL for you, and supporting formats such as AAC+, MP3, PLS and M3U. In addition to properly playing stations that were built in, we succeeded in getting Tuner to play a test station we pointed it towards, and could easily save additional stations as bookmarks. The only major issues with this program are its $6 price, which is steep enough for a program like this one to affect our rating, and its interface, which is iPhone-like and clean, but boring. More visualization options and even easier additional station finding tools might justify the asking price; otherwise, a cut in price would make this more worthy of mainstream attention.