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iTunes Radio for iOS review: Built-in radio that beats Pandora

Apple's late entry into the competitive streaming-radio field, iTunes Radio comes baked into iOS 7 and is now available in the US.

Jaymar Cabebe Former Associate Editor
Jaymar Cabebe covers mobile apps and Windows software for CNET. While he may be a former host of the Android Atlas Weekly podcast, he doesn't hate iOS or Mac. Jaymar has worked in online media since 2007.
Jaymar Cabebe
5 min read

Editors' note, July 7, 2015: iTunes Radio has been rolled into Apple Music, built into iOS devices. It's still available for free with ads, or with a $9.99 Apple Music subscription for ad-free listening.


iTunes Radio for iOS

The Good

Unlike Pandora, <b>iTunes Radio</b> has Featured Stations that are great for discovering both new hits and lesser-known songs. Purchasing music from within the service is a simple, seamless process. The music library is significantly larger than Pandora's.

The Bad

There are no non-music options like talk radio, news, or sports, and there's no access to live Internet radio streams. For now, it's only available in the US.

The Bottom Line

It doesn't offer live radio streams or non-music options, but iTunes Radio is the best way to listen to programmed radio on iOS.

iTunes Radio may be late to the party, but it's still better than Pandora when it comes to streaming programmed radio on iOS. Like its competitor, iTunes Radio lets you create personalized stations based on one or more artists, songs, or genres of your choice, which makes it an attractive alternative to your personal iTunes library and a nice vehicle for discovering new music. Beyond that, though, it offers seamless purchases through iTunes, a curated selection of Featured Stations, and a music library that easily dwarfs Pandora's.

Stream stations with iTunes Radio (pictures)

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If you're already using the built-in Music app as your mobile media player of choice, then jumping onto the built-in iTunes Radio (new in iOS 7) is almost a no-brainer. And if you're using something else at the moment, you still might want to consider the switch. For a first attempt at a streaming-radio product, iTunes Radio definitely deserves kudos. It is worth mentioning, though, that as of now, it's only available in the US.

Content and controls
One thing that clearly sets iTunes Radio apart from competitor Pandora is its Featured Stations. These blend the personal touch of a curated list with the scale and smarts of an underlying algorithm. So far, I've found Apple's Featured offerings to be exceptional, as they range from simpler stations themed around popular genres to more nuanced mixes that combine the styles of a handful of hot artists. There are even stations dedicated to live events and music that's currently trending on Twitter. Altogether, I find Apple's Featured Stations to be more interesting and relevant than those of other services offering hand-picked streams.

Because Apple was able to strike deals with all the major record labels, iTunes Radio already has a sizable music catalog that audiophiles should find attractive. In fact, as of today, Apple's radio service has approximately 27 million tracks in its library, while Pandora has a comparatively miniscule 1 million tracks. Of course, the folks at Pandora might argue that their library carries only the songs people want to hear, but I actually think it's nice to know that Apple's offering caters to niche listeners as well.

iTunes Radio's clean and intuitive layout makes it easy to control playback, fine-tune stations, and even make purchases. Screenshot by Jaymar Cabebe/CNET

The Now Playing screen is where most of the magic happens. It's got a big piece of album art front and center, with all of the basic playback controls nicely laid out along the bottom. If you're driving or otherwise unable to use these onscreen controls, you can also call on Siri to do things like pause and play a track. Conveniently, you can even ask Siri to give you a song title or skip a song. And in case you're wondering, just like its competitors, iTunes Radio allows you up to six skips per hour, per station.

One thing I love about iTunes Radio is its minimally intrusive ads. Every so often between songs, it will give you an audio ad accompanied by an image in the album art box. Meanwhile, Pandora seems to bombard you with not only audio ads, but also pop-ups and full-screen interstitials that all inevitably get annoying. Of course, you can upgrade to an ad-free experience on either service (via iTunes Match and Pandora One), but for those who don't want to shell out the cash, iTunes Radio will undoubtedly offer a less intrusive experience.

What iTunes Radio doesn't have are non-music options. There are no stations for talk radio, news, or sports, which could be disappointing to users who are coming from Slacker Radio (which does have such stations) or who simply want a break from the tunes. Similarly, Apple's offering doesn't let you listen to live Internet radio the way an app like iHeartRadio does.

Customizing your stations
From the Home screen, creating a new station is as easy as tapping the New Station button and running a search. As I mentioned above, you can create a station based on one or more artists, songs, or genres, and you can tinker with different settings to improve the stations as you go. For instance, while you listen, you can tap the Play More Like This or Never Play This Song buttons, which are analogous to Pandora's thumbs-up and thumbs-down options. You can also use a slider to adjust a station's balance between top hits and lesser-known tracks, which is great if your intent is to discover new music.

To customize a station, you can input additional artists and songs that you like and dislike. Screenshot by Jaymar Cabebe/CNET

One thing that Apple obviously has over its competitors is access to your iTunes account and all of your purchase data. Because of this connection, the more music you play and purchase, the better iTunes Radio gets at creating featured stations that are tailored to your taste. On top of this, iTunes Radio makes it easy to quickly jump from radio play to the iTunes Store to purchase the track that is currently playing. Apple, of course, hopes that this bridge between music discovery and purchase will make for a very profitable (for the company) loop for users to engage in.

Final thoughts
When it comes to programmed radio streams, iTunes Radio is the best I've seen on iOS. Even at such an early stage of its development it's a standout product, with its enormous library, minimally intrusive ads, and overall clean aesthetic. Also, it offers a seamless experience for purchasing music through iTunes (not surprisingly).

But what really sets iTunes Radio apart in the programmed-radio field is its Featured Stations. Both hand-curated and algorithmically programmed, these stations are a great way to stay on top of both popular hits and more obscure releases waiting to be discovered. And with Apple currently ramping up its roster of music programmers, we can only expect it to get better. Meanwhile, Pandora doesn't offer such curated items. Other apps like Slacker and iHeartRadio do, but Apple's stations still seem just a bit more interesting and relevant, as they're tied to new album releases, live events, and even trending artists on Twitter. So, if you're looking for a way to stream programmed radio stations on your iOS device, look no further than Apple's own iTunes Radio.

That said, programmed radio may not be everything to you. Other apps like Slacker Radio and iHeartRadio bring things like live Internet radio streams, sports, and news radio to the table, which could make them better options if you happen to be looking for those specific features.


iTunes Radio for iOS

Score Breakdown

Setup 10Features 8Interface 10Performance 10