Now that Apple has graced us with its newest feature in iTunes, Radio, I decided to take a look at it and see how it stacked up against what I have become accustomed to with Pandora. Full disclosure for those who have not read my feelings on Apple: I love Macs and will use them as long as there are Macs to use. I am not, however, a fanboy. I don’t have an iPhone, my iPad is the first incarnation – will not be upgraded – and serves its purpose as a portfolio sample display, and the very idea of iCloud and its redesign as a horrific emulation of a mobile phone interface makes me want to puke.
For those of you who have never toyed with free music services, and why wouldn’t you?, Pandora is the standard on which all other services are judged. At any rate, I appreciate the “free” in free music and I am in no danger of ever giving Pandora or Apple any money to upgrade to their ad-free service. Thus, I will only be comparing the two services based on my experience as a cheapskate.
Pandora (www.pandora.com) allows the creation of “stations” based on a musical artist of the user’s choice. The user can give the station a customized name and then the algorithms take over from there. For every new song, there are suggested similar bands or artists that may appear in the future as Pandora continues to feed new material into the station. The user is allowed a limited number of deletes over a set period of time for songs that the user doesn’t want to hear. I am not familiar with the exact number of skips and the limitations of doing this – I basically don’t care. If Pandora throws enough crap at my headphones, I’ll go to iTunes and play my own music or put in a CD.
Similarly, iTunes Radio (www.apple.com/itunes/) allows the user to tap into the iTunes library and hear the full songs rather than just the one minute samples. On the surface, this is a nice idea since the iTunes library is fairly deep, but the selections are obviously geared to be sold and the prices for the songs in the iTunes Store accompany each song title. You will never be allowed to forget that you can purchase your songs.
Basically, the two services do the same thing, but their approaches differ and the difference really describes how well Pandora does what it does and how iTunes Radio still needs some tweaks. Well, now that I’ve spilled those beans, did I lose anybody? For those still here, I’ll explain. On iTunes, you get the station, I’ll use my Beth Orton Station as an example. I can’t change the name of the station – a little annoying, but no real biggie. I can add other musicians or bands to the channel just as in Pandora and let the algorithm do its work. The problem I have run into with iTunes is that I haven’t heard much Beth Orton! I also have run into an issue that if I skip a song, there has been a likelihood that iTunes will replay the previous song I just listened to instead of moving on to something new. This has never been a problem on Pandora. There is a lot of repeating of songs on iTunes – I mean a lot!
The grading systems are slightly varied: Pandora has a “thumbs up/thumbs down” feature while iTunes has a star to click for “play more like this”. A “thumbs down” in Pandora equates to a skip while iTunes has a “never play this song” that is stored in a history list. Both allow the user to fast forward through unwanted songs which counts as a skip. iTunes will tell the user when they are getting close to the limit of their skips; no such feature in Pandora – it will just give you a message that you have hit your limit after you reach it. iTunes also has a feature that allows the banning of entire band or artist catalogs. Pandora is a song-by-song “thumbs down” banning which gets tiresome if it gets into a stretch of poor song choices.
The interfaces are different but neither are customizable. Pandora will keep a list of the user’s stations on the left side of a small active screen area. The top area of the active area is devoted to the current song as it plays, along with the history of what has played. The bottom of the active area is really where Pandora kicks iTunes Radio’s ass up and down the street: an expandable section for the lyrics (if provided) and a biography of the artist or band. iTunes has no such feature and it’s one of those glaring omissions that is inexcusable. In contrast, iTunes keeps its stations in larger picture blocks that are clicked to open up the station. The added and banned artists are kept in separate lists along the left side of the screen, which is much larger than the Pandora offering. There is also a setting bar for “Hits, Variety, and Discovery” which I suppose is a means for telling the algorithm how far away from your added musicians you want to stray – and iTunes will stray! Aside from the lack of lyrics or bio, a constant annoyance (for me) is the “Featured Stations” that resides at the top of the screen. I have no interest in any of the stations “featured” and would like nothing more than to close out that scroll bar to free up the space for what I do want to listen to: my music collections.
All in all, both services will get you the music you want to hear (unless you want to hear Yoko Kanno, which iTunes doesn’t provide – major deductions, Apple!). As iTunes Radio is brand new, it will likely get better as Apple seeks to improve the product, but Pandora, for my not-paying money, is currently the better service. Yet, as iTunes Radio is new, it has the less irritating ads – the bane of free music listening – because Pandora’s ads just flat-out suck!