Bonnie Cha

iTunes Radio: Sleek, but Not the Best DJ

Apple has never been a company to rush a product to market just to be first, or because a competitor is doing it. Instead, the company has a long history of trying to refine and improve on other companies’ earlier attempts. The story is no different with its new music service, iTunes Radio.

Released alongside iOS 7, iTunes Radio is a streaming music service that allows you to create personal radio stations based on your favorite artists, songs and genres. It also provides access to more than 250 DJ-curated and genre-based stations, and offers opportunities to listen to new albums before they go on sale. For example, I was able to stream the second album of Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” before it was released on Sept. 30 (verdict: meh).

There is no cost to use iTunes Radio, though there are ads. If you have an iTunes Match account, which costs $25 per year, you can listen to your stations ad-free. It’s available through iTunes 11.1 on Macs and PCs, Apple TV, and you can access it from within the music player on any mobile device running iOS 7. Unfortunately, this leaves out Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry users. The service is also only available in the U.S. right now.

After using it for a little over a week, I found a lot to like about iTunes Radio. The user interface is attractive and easy to use. It provides a seamless experience for creating stations and purchasing music. I also like that it keeps a history of all the tracks you’ve listened to.

Of course, Apple isn’t the only one to offer such a product. There are numerous music streaming services, such as Spotify and Rdio, but perhaps its closest competitor is Pandora. And when it comes to music recommendations, I found that Pandora did a slightly better job.

I did most of my testing on my iPhone 5, though it also worked fine on my MacBook Air. One perk of iTunes Radio is that you don’t have to open a separate app to launch the service; you can access it right from your music player using the toolbar at the bottom.

Along the top, you’ll find Featured Stations, which showcases some of the different preprogrammed stations available, such as The Beatles Radio and L.A. Rock Scene: 60s and 70s. iTunes Radio may not offer as many genre-based stations as Pandora (which offers more than 500), but it does have playlists curated by Apple and guest DJs like pop star Katy Perry.

I’m not a huge fan of today’s pop music, but I still like to keep tabs on current hits, so the iTunes Top 100: Pop station was a nice way to do that. It was less annoying than actually listening to the radio, where DJs and commercials are constantly interrupting every few songs. By comparison, I only heard about four to five ads in an hour on iTunes Radio. That’s on par with Pandora, though the latter’s ads can get annoying with pop-up windows.

To create a station, you just press the large “plus” button and enter an artist, song title or genre. Apple says it offers the largest music catalog of all the Internet streaming services, though the company wouldn’t provide me with any specific numbers. Pandora offers more than one million tracks from more than 100,000 artists.

Using both services, I created at least a dozen stations for a wide range of artists, including Sleigh Bells, Bad Religion and John Coltrane, with no problem. I also searched for some more obscure, independent artists, such as my friend’s Phoenix-based band, Bad Lucy. While iTunes Radio had it, Pandora did not.

As a song plays, iTunes Radio displays album art and provides you with standard playback controls, such as pause and skip. (Due to licensing rules, you can only skip up to six tracks per hour, per station.) The “star” button brings up another menu where you can instruct the service to play more songs like the current track, or to never play the song again, similar to Pandora’s thumbs-up and thumbs-down feature. You can also add a track to a wish list if you want to purchase it later, or you can instantly buy it using the iTunes store link in the upper right-hand corner.

Overall, I thought iTunes Radio’s features were more aesthetically pleasing and better-integrated than Pandora’s. For example, it takes a couple of extra steps to buy a song on Pandora. But one thing I did miss in iTunes Radio is Pandora’s feature where you can tap on the screen to get more information about the artist and lyrics to the song.

As for song selection, iTunes Radio uses a combination of what’s in your iTunes library and a computer algorithm to help determine what tracks to play for a certain station. But this method didn’t always lead to the best results. For example, when I created an Al Green station, it played a lot of Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. While I have numerous songs from both artists in my library, and some younger artists have collaborated with Al Green on an album (including a musician who has worked with Badu), I wouldn’t consider them his contemporaries.

Pandora served up songs that I found more appropriate, and featured more of the artists I was looking for, such as Marvin Gaye and Percy Sledge. Pandora uses a combination of data points collected by humans and computers to come up with its music recommendations. Pandora also has the benefit of being in business longer than iTunes Radio, so it has collected more information about people’s listening behavior to really fine-tune its song selection.

Apple does say that the more you use iTunes Radio, the better it will be in providing a more personalized experience. You can also further tweak a station’s settings by pressing the Information icon at the top of the screen, and adjusting the slider button between Hits, Variety and Discovery. Hits pulls tracks that are closest to the artist or song, Variety casts a wider net into other genres, and Discovery is even more far-reaching.

I experimented with all these, and after several days of using iTunes Radio, I thought the results were slightly better. Even so, I found myself pressing the skip button on iTunes Radio more often than on Pandora.

ITunes Radio has a lot of great things to offer, including a large music library, curated radio stations and easy-to-use interface. With more time, its music recommendations could get better, but until then, it’s not a complete replacement for services like Pandora.

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— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik