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.
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+.
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Compatible: iPhones, iPod touches