First Impressions Of iTunes Radio

By Chris DeVille / September 18, 2013

Along with today’s iOS 7 upgrade came iTunes Radio, Apple’s entry into the online radio wars. As a frequent Pandora user and an Apple devotee, it was go time. Here are a few quick thoughts after my initial experience:

  • In order to get the mobile version of iTunes Radio, you have to upgrade to the new iOS 7 operating system, which is like a high-tech holographic version of the previous iOS. The radio software, accessible through the “Music” icon along with your song library, follows suit. Visually, it’s somehow both flashier and cleaner than Pandora’s clunky interface. It’s sleek and stylish — definitely an Apple product. The desktop software isn’t as futuristic.
  • Here’s what Pandora users will recognize immediately about the functionality: You select a musician as the foundation of your station and proceed with a series of songs from similar artists. You’re given the option to approve songs (“Play more like this,” marked by a star), reject them (“Never play this,” marked by an X) or let them play without offering feedback. Like Pandora’s “add variety” function that allows users to build a station around multiple artists or songs, iTunes Radio features an “Add artist or song” button. There’s a share button for sending the station to friends via email or social media. You’re given the option to purchase the songs. Some pre-programmed genre stations are offered.
  • Theoretically, the coolest feature on iTunes Radio is a tuner bar that allows you to program the station for “Hits,” “Variety,” or “Discovery.” Thus far, toggling the bar hasn’t affected the output yet. When I programmed my Usher station for “Discovery,” it fed me songs by Chris Brown and Mary J. Blige, not exactly obscure selections for an Usher fan. When I set up my Radiohead station for “Discovery,” it gave me a Remy Zero song, which seems like it could be at least somewhat under-the-radar for Radiohead fans, but the quick succession of Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, and Arcade Fire that followed suggested the “Discovery” feature will only be helping the most clueless music fans uncover something new. However, that also might be because my user history isn’t established enough yet for the program to know what constitutes “new” music for me. (This lack of user history also means there’s no way to tell yet if there will be certain songs that always pop up eventually, like Chris Brown’s “Deuces (Remix)” does for me on Pandora.) I haven’t been able to find the tuner function on the mobile version yet, but again, so far it hasn’t seemed to affect the song selection very much. If Apple can get this thing to work properly, it will be a major advantage over Pandora.
  • There’s an “Allow explicit” function that toggles on and off. Take it from someone who’s been watching his four-year-old nephew a lot lately: This is a handy function.
  • In addition to approving or rejecting songs, you can also select “Add to my iTunes wish list,” designated by a plus sign. Those songs then show up in a Wish List in the iTunes Store, which could be helpful if you buy a lot of music on iTunes.
  • After songs play, they remain cued up in a list along with a price tag. There’s definitely a big push here to get you to use the iTunes store, as expected.
  • In addition to genre options like “Alternative” and “Pure Pop,” pre-programmed options include “Guest DJ” features from the likes of Diplo and Katy Perry. Based on my limited experience so far, it’s unclear how listening to Diplo’s Guest DJ station is different from listening to the Diplo artist radio. More promising were “3 of a Kind” stations for the likes of “The Killers + Imagine Dragons + Neon Trees” and “Mumford & Sons + Of Monsters & Men + The Lumineers”; although those artists mostly aren’t my personal preference, the stations were well-curated.
  • You can skip 6 songs per hour on each station and full iTunes-window advertisements play occasionally.
  • Playback was exceptionally choppy Wednesday compared to streaming I did on Pandora and SoundCloud. I’ll chalk that up to lots of users trying to check out the new product, but if the playback was always like that it would be a death knell for this service.

What are your thoughts on Apple’s Internet radio service? Have you tried it? Do you plan to? Should Pandora be worried? Are you waiting for Pono?