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Editors' note, July 8, 2015: See CNET's guide to Internet radio services for a more up-to-date evaluation of this service, along with an analysis of how it compares to competitors.
The newest version of Pandora Radio for iOS improves playback buffering to better prevent music stoppages and lets you use all the URLs you can on the Web site. The improvements to the app are probably in response to the impending launch of iTunes Radio to keep users listening to streams on Pandora instead of jumping ship.
Just like the Web-based version of the service, the Pandora app lets you tap into an incredible library of music to create stations of similar artists and songs using an algorithm based on the Music Genome Project. You can browse through genre-based stations, or fire up a QuickMix. If you're already a Pandora listener, you can enter your existing log-in credentials, or you can create a new account right from the app.
As you listen, Pandora lets you rate tracks up or down, or skip tracks at will. Your ratings will help Pandora home in on exactly the types of music you like, so it's important to be an active listener. If you're a lazier listener, you can just as easily let Pandora do all of the programming on its own and skip when you come to a song you don't like. Just don't expect the app to get much better at doing its job. If you hear something you like, you can bookmark the track or artist for future reference. Some tracks let you buy the current song on iTunes right from the app, something iTunes Radio inevitably will have as a standard feature for all songs.
The Pandora app lets you share stations with those who follow you on Pandora, via e-mail, on Twitter, or with your Facebook friends. Also, like on the Web site, you can add variety to stations by adding an additional artist to make your station more diverse.
If you're not a Pandora One subscriber, then be prepared for a lot of display ads. Some are pop-ups that almost completely cover the album art, while others take up the whole screen for a full 30-second commercial with audio -- obviously very distracting. If you usually just fire up a station and put your phone in your pocket, pop-up ads won't be a problem, but you'll still hear the commercials. At the time of this review, Pandora will let you get rid of the ads by paying $3.99 a month for a subscription.
In the last major update, Pandora got a face-lift, making the interface more streamlined than those in previous versions. Touching the album art during playback minimizes the cover, revealing the artist bio, track information, and even lyrics in some cases. It also lets you swipe up from the bottom of the screen to pull up a nifty volume slider and a song progress timer. The overall look is much more streamlined, and now it appears the folks at Pandora are improving the app under the hood.
With the latest update, Pandora has increased the buffer size so more music is stored on your phone ahead of time to avoid stutters when you have a weak connection. The app also now lets you use all the embedded URLs you can use on the Web site, letting you quickly browse from page to page.
It's tough to say whether users will start leaving Pandora for iTunes Radio once it is released, but the Pandora app for iOS continues to improve with interface enhancements and new features for sharing and controlling your stations. It's true the ads can get pretty distracting, especially when interacting with the app, but for continuous listening it's still a solid music discovery tool.