8 great streaming apps: Which works best behind the wheel?
Audio-streaming apps are just the bee's knees. Back when I got my license to drive, music management meant fumbling with a binder full of compact disks at 60 mph. These days, I can just tap a few virtual buttons on my smartphone and hear any album I want. There is, however, a catch.
These wonderful apps are usually designed to be used with the phone in hand -- a massive no-no in these days of strict distracted-driving laws. Place the handset at arm's length and it can be difficult to perform a function as simple as skipping. CNET's Wayne Cunningham has already taken a look at one solution to this issue -- app integration with infotainment systems and aftermarket car stereos -- but what if you don't want to run out and buy a new car?
With that in mind, I've rounded up eight of the most popular audio-streaming apps for Android and iOS to see how user-friendly their mobile interfaces are when suction-cupped to a dashboard. Keep in mind, this isn't an evaluation of audio quality or song selection, and it's not an all-inclusive list. Don't see your favorite audio-streaming app here? Let us know in the comments below.
What's good? Pandora may not have been the first, but its algorithm-generated radio stations pretty much kicked off the streaming-audio revolution. The service is free with ads, but there is a paid version without ads and higher quality. Of note, Pandora is the most widely supported app for integration with OEM infotainment and aftermarket stereo systems. Even on its own, the simple interface leaves little to distract the driver.
What's not so good? There's limited skipping on the free version and only fuzzy control over what actually gets played beyond seeding the station and thumbs up and down, although this could also be considered a "pro," since you can't spend a lot of time browsing songs while behind the wheel.
Verdict: Perfect for use in the car, if you don't mind having limited control over what you listen to.
What's good? Like Pandora, Spotify offers algorithm-generated radio stations based on genres, artists, and songs with its free version. Pay a monthly fee for the Premium service level and gain access to browse and play Spotify's entire library of more than 20 million songs. Sharable and collaborative playlists aid in music discovery.
What's not so good? Menus, playlists, and onscreen buttons are simply too small and difficult to tap when the phone is mounted on the dashboard. The app's new landscape orientation option somewhat fixes that by enlarging the onscreen buttons, but still wastes a lot of screen real estate with blank space that could be used by virtual buttons.
Verdict: Best to pick your playlists before hitting the road or just stick to the radio function while driving.
What's good? Like Spotify, Slacker has a paid service plan that includes mobile on-demand access to millions of songs and a free service level that streams genre and artist based Internet radio stations with basic skip controls. However, in Slacker's case, some of those stations are curated by human DJs, which makes for a more natural song selection.
What's not so good? Holy cow! Those are some tiny buttons for play, pause, and skip! I love the way this app looks, but I found those buttons to be impossible targets at an arm's length -- which is frustrating, because there's so much wasted space in the app's landscape orientation. Fortunately, the station selection screen is much easier to use on the go.
Verdict: Slacker's strength is its curated radio stations, so stick to those when behind the wheel. Limited skip controls for free accounts will keep you from reaching for the microscopic controls.
What's good? Wow, Google Play's music service has improved dramatically since its launch. The new All Access service adds new "Listen Now" and "Radio" features that ape Pandora and Spotify's ability to generate playlists based on an artist or song title. Google can also recommend stations based on your music library stored on its cloud servers and integrates with Google Now's voice features. Just say, "Listen to the Strokes" from Google Now's search screen and All Access will start playing.
What's not so good? Users have complained about absurd bandwidth usage for Google Play's streaming service, so you'll want to monitor that if you're on a low-cap data plan. For now, All Access is an Android-only party.
Verdict: Google Play All Access is a massive improvement over the apps's old interface; its ability to choose songs for you adds a good level of autonomy to Android's stock music app.
What's good? iHeartRadio could hardly be simpler. The app basically streams terrestrial radio stations from around the world using your phone's data connection. There are few controls: just a toggle for play and stop, and large shortcuts to stations in the area (or your preset favorites) on the home screen. A companion app, iHeartAuto, is designed to work with aftermarket and OEM integration systems, eliminating the need for onscreen controls.
What's not so good? Well, it's terrestrial radio over the Internet, which means loads of commercials between the blocks of music. Then again, maybe you're like me and occasionally feel nostalgic for the local jingles of your hometown's businesses.
Verdict: iHeartRadio most perfectly duplicates the low-distraction experience of terrestrial radio by behaving almost exactly like terrestrial radio.
What's good? Stitcher is unique to this list in its focus on news, talk radio, and podcast streaming rather than music. This type of content is usually longer form, so there's not much fiddling to be done once you've got your program of choice playing. I do like that Stitcher will play the next program within a chosen genre -- for example, Comedy Podcasts or Tech News -- and will automatically seek recommended content when it runs out of things to play, figuratively stitching together channels.
What's not so good? Stitcher's app is anything but car friendly. You'll definitely want to set up your channels and add your favorite shows before getting in the car. It's got the same issues with tiny buttons for play and skip and complex menus that many apps on this list struggle with. However, Stitcher gets a pass because, as a news and podcast streamer, it's not really the sort of app that I expect listeners to be skipping around.
Verdict: If you're looking to get into listening to podcasts while driving, or are a fan of talk radio, Stitcher is a solid option. Set it and forget it.
What's good? Rdio's "Now Playing" screen makes some of the best use of its space of the apps in this roundup, with large buttons for pause, skip, shuffle, and repeat. I also like that it gets those buttons up and near the center of the screen, where they're easier to aim for with my finger. The song selection screens also feature large album artwork that's easy to tap to select.
What's not so good? Rdio doesn't default to its Now Playing screen; then again, most apps on this list do not. Thankfully, it's easy enough to access by swiping up from the bottom of the screen.
Verdict: There's always room for improvement, but Rdio's interface is almost right on the money for in-car user friendliness.
What's good? Mog's radio slider: Papa like! When streaming a radio station, I was able to adjust between hearing only songs from the artist upon which the station was based and a greater mix of related artists. This slider adds just enough flexibility and control of the radio station without distracting the driver terribly so.
What's not so good? I wasn't just being lazy with the screenshot; there's no landscape orientation -- at least not in the Android app -- which makes task switching awkward if you like to navigate in widescreen. Placing the skip buttons at the bottom edge makes it easy to accidentally tap "home" when you were just trying to "pause."
Verdict: Mog may be a good streaming app with some innovative features, but its interface makes it less than ideal for use in the car.