Pandora Radio: Streaming Music Service with Radio Stations

1
An Introduction to Pandora Radio

New Pandora Radio
New Pandora Radio. Image © Mark Harris - Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Rating: 4.5/5.0

Pandora Radio which was first realized as the Music Genome Project in 1999, is a unique digital music service that recommends content based on your likes and dislikes. Using complex algorithms for profiling the character of audio tracks, Pandora Radio intelligently suggests new music using your feedback history (thumbs up/down system).

Pandora Radio has now had an 'HTML 5' face-lift that promises a faster and richer user experience, but can it deliver? And more importantly, can Pandora build on its success against stiff competition from other streaming music services like Spotify, Grooveshark, and others?

To get the lowdown, be sure to read this full Pandora Radio review that separates the wheat from the chaff.

Pros

  • New sleeker-looking HTML 5 interface offers better and faster user experience
  • Smart algorithms help you to quickly build customized radio stations
  • Excellent service for music discovery
  • Pandora One yearly subscription cost is good value for money
  • Good social networking facilities

Cons

  • Pandora only available in the U.S.
  • Skip limits (Pandora One subscribers: 6 song skips per hour (per station) / Free accounts: 12 skips per day)

System Requirements

  • Broadband connection
  • Internet Browser (Windows: Internet Explorer / Firefox / Chrome) ¦ (MAC OS X: Safari / Firefox / Chrome)
  • Windows Minimum Hardware Specs: Desktop (CPU: 2 Ghz+ / RAM: 1 GB+) ¦ Laptop (CPU:1.6 Ghz+ / RAM: 1 GB+)
  • Mac Minimum Hardware Specs: Desktop (CPU: PowerPC G5 1.8 Ghz+ / RAM: 1 GB+) ¦ Laptop (CPU: 1.5 Ghz+ / RAM: 1 GB+)

Streaming Audio Specifications

  • Compression format: AACplus
  • Bitrate: Normal Quality: 128 Kbps / High Quality: 192 Kbps (Pandora One only)

2
Pandora Radio's New Website and Features

Pandora Radio Interface
Pandora Radio Interface. Image © Pandora Media, Inc.

Website Experience

Pandora's original website design was getting a bit long in the tooth and so it's nice to see that it has now had a facelift. This has made a huge difference (thanks to HTML 5) to the user interface -- it is far more intuitive and also seems to deliver on speed too. There are a few new features too like better auto-complete music searching; enhanced integrated music control, and a social networking facility called, Music Feed, that helps you to see what your friends are listening to and discover what other users are enjoying with similar tastes to yours. Overall, we found that the layout of a website, coupled with an enhanced set of tools, gave a much-improved website experience compared to the original one.

Signing up

As always, signing up to Pandora Radio is a simple process that only takes a few minutes -- that's providing you reside in the United States of course. If you live outside the U.S., you'll see a message displayed with your IP address advising you that Pandora isn't available in your country. This is a big downside to Pandora Radio that isn't going to be resolved anytime soon -- thanks to the complexities of international music licensing rules. If you're lucky enough to live in the U.S., all you have to do is provide an email address, password, birth year, and your zip code. This step is necessary for you to be able to create an account for saving your personalized radio stations and accessing Pandora from multiple computers or mobile devices.

3
Pandora Radio Music Service Options

Pandora Radio - Station Options
Pandora Radio - Station Options. Image © Mark Harris - Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Pandora Free Account

Just like other services that offer a free account to try out their service (like Spotify, Grooveshark, etc.), Pandora has one too! This level is what you'll initially get when you create a Pandora account. However, the trade-off for getting a free service (as always) is that it comes with advertisements along with other restrictions. Currently, there is a 40-hour listening maximum per month for free accounts. If you reach this limit before the end of the month, all is not lost. For a small fee ($0.99 at present), you can upgrade to unlimited listening for the remainder of that month. This is a handy additional option if you plan to stay at this level.

Another restriction is a daily limit on the number of songs you can skip. This restriction (maximum of 12 skips per day) can be annoying when you have to wait for this limit to be reset overnight. The Pandora One subscription tier (covered later) still has skip limits, but they are much more relaxed.

Even though Pandora's free account has some restrictions, these are thankfully minor and don't overshadow the fact that you can access millions of full-length songs for free. This service level is also a great way of discovering new music without the financial commitment that some other services demand.

Pandora One ($36)

If you find that the free account doesn't offer everything you need, then you can upgrade to Pandora One for $36 per year. There's only one 'paid alternative' to choose, but it packs a good range of extra features. There're no advertisements for a start which is a must if you hate interruptions while listening to music. Paying a yearly subscription also gives you the luxury of unlimited music streaming without the worry of hitting the 40-hour barrier as with the free account.

There is a downside however that Pandora hasn't been able to shake even for its subscription model-- song skip limits. Although not as aggressive as the free account, you will still be limited to 6 song skips per hour (per station). If you have created a lot of stations, then this probably won't be a major issue as you can listen to other stations for an hour while this mechanism resets. However, if you have only built up a few Pandora Radio stations, then you might find that this limit gets in the way far too often. Incidentally, song skips can be accrued by clicking the Skip icon or Thumbs Down button while a song is playing.

Subscribing to Pandora One also gives you other benefits like an option to switch to a higher quality streaming mode. During our listening testing, this enhanced audio mode made a big difference -- streams come down at 192 Kbps rather than 128 Kbps. Other extras include the Pandora desktop application; custom skins, and listening up to 5 hours without having to interact with Pandora.

4
Finding New Music Using Pandora's Radio Stations and Social Networking Tools

Pandora Radio - Social Networking
Pandora Radio - Social Networking. Image © Mark Harris - Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Music Discovery

Probably one of the biggest benefits of using Pandora over other Internet radio stations is its ability to quickly and accurately help you find new music using its powerful Genome system. This is a unique feature of Pandora that makes it one of the best music discovery services to use for exploring the world of music. This Internet radio service also serves up a lot of background information on the artists you listen to (including song lyrics and other relevant albums you might not even know about). However, the magical thing about Pandora as you use it is the consistency of the information that it displays. Other recommended artists are usually very close to the style of the music you're listening to.

You can also purchase tracks too via Pandora. Clicking the Buy button next to a track gives you the option to purchase from iTunes, Amazon MP3, or buy a physical CD from the Amazon.com website

Pandora Radio Stations

The hub of your digital music experience in Pandora is through the creation of radio stations; you can create up to 100 unique stations. To get started, you can simply type in an artist, song, or composer in the text box at top-left of the screen. once you've created a station, it can be tweaked by using the Add Variety button. This is where the true power of using Pandora shines through by having a more granular control on how you customize your stations. You can hybridize your station by adding similar artists. It's beyond the scope of this review to detail all the options that revolve around Pandora radio stations, but you can tweak to your heart's content and watch your custom stations evolve over time.

When you've built up a selection of different stations, the shuffle feature in Pandora is quite flexible in allowing you to play back your playlists in a number of ways. You can choose quick-mixes that have: genre combinations, only the stations you choose, or all of them!

Social Networking

There's a great multi-faceted social structure to Pandora that is never very far away wherever you are on the website. For example, you can click the Like button for an artist and comment on a particular album you've found, or see what other users think. Creating stations are very social too. You can share your creations with others, find people who also have similar musical tastes, and leave comments on stations about your thoughts -- you can also share just one track. As well as sharing on the Pandora network, you can also extend your social networking reach to other platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or even good old email.

Pandora's Music Feed tool is a particularly impressive social feature. It enables you to follow what other people are listening to (and vice-versa of course). This is a great tool for two-way music discovery and helps you to follow your Facebook friends who also use Pandora. Alternatively, you can find people using the search box in Music Feed and type in their name or email address if you know it.

5
Pandora Review: Conclusion

Pandora Radio Top Bar - Search and Play
Pandora Radio Top Bar - Search and Play. Image © Mark Harris - Licensed to About.com,Inc.

Pandora Website

The first thing that you'll notice if you're already a Pandora Radio user is the slick new interface. This isn't just eye candy but is a great improvement over the old site design. The revamped website is clean and more user-friendly to use than before; its speed also seems to have been cranked up too. There's also a lot more logic to how all the controls are arranged. All these improvements certainly enhance work flow as you navigate through Pandora's menu system.

Free Account

Even with the restrictions of 40-hours per month, advertisements, and a daily song-skip limit, using the free Pandora Radio account isn't bad at all. It still gives you access to millions of full-length songs and a very impressive system that accurately suggests new music based on your responses (thumbs up/down). Paying 99 cents after you exhaust the listening limit gives you unlimited time which is a stellar option for a free account. Overall, this option is a great starting block for music discovery without the financial burden that some other services force you to commit to.

Pandora One

Even though this subscription option still has song skip limits, this doesn't detract from all the bonus features that it has to offer. The enhanced elements that it provides in conjunction with Pandora's rock-solid music discovery engine makes this an excellent streaming music option which is almost a steal for $36 a year.

Overall, new Pandora Radio offers an indispensable resource for music discovery that provides an intelligent platform that's been enhanced both visually and feature-wise. Highly recommended.