iTunes Radio from Apple launched last month on September 18th as an free, ad-supported streaming music service that can be accessed from all Apple devices, including all current iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Mac, PC, and Apple TV models using iOS 7.x for mobile or OS 10.7.x (Mountain Lion) and the most recent iTunes update (11.1 for Mac, and iTunes for Windows). iTunes Radio is directly integrated into iTunes OSX and iOS 7’s native Music app, but is a standalone app via Apple TV. The service is also offered ad-free if you’re an iTunes Match subscriber.
Apple had included Internet radio (“webcasting”) almost as an afterthought with iTunes since its initial release back in 2001, but they quietly dropped support for that service in 2007 and have finally ditched it completely with the most recent iTunes update. In the intervening years to the roll-out of iTunes Radio, they’ve tried and failed to turn the aging media player into more of a recommendation and social sharing app (Ping), as well as giving it better data mining capabilities (Genius) that allow it to pick through your music library to create playlists according to user song ratings. Neither feature created much of a ripple even as iTunes has been updated over the years to allow for management of digital books, movies, TV shows and podcasts.
With iTunes Radio, Apple is trying something a little different… hoping to compete with existing services that already dominate the music streaming category, while offering their own top quality experience that seamlessly allows users to keep listening while they’re shopping for music via the iTunes Store. I think they’ve done a fine job, especially in regards to the most important aspects of internet radio… ease of use, sound quality and music selection.
The new clean and bright design of iOS 7’s UI is quite evident throughout iTunes Radio. Whether using it on a laptop Mac or iPhone/iPad or Apple TV, the service is easy to navigate, search and use. If you’re familiar with the iTunes environment, iTunes Radio is the perfect complimentary feature for the media player.
Within the iTunes window you’re presented with Featured Stations that the big music labels hope you’ll notice as they tend to feature most of their mainstream hit artists. The Featured Stations category also contains genre compilations by era and type of artists, as well as sponsored stations such as Voice Radio, Pepsi Pulse Pop. One of the cool things about Featured Stations is that you’ll get a first look at certain new albums before their release (called “First Play”) and also get Guest DJ updates featuring music artists or other well known celebrities programing their own playlists. This month, for instance, it’s Jared Leto, though I’m not sure on how high-profile a celebrity that is for iTunes Radio’s launch (he’s apparently a musician in his own right). Hopefully, over time, Apple will showcase more than just mainstream artists and celebs for their take on that perfect playlist, but for now, it’s an interesting feature that may help you discover new artists and songs.
My Stations allows you to pull together your own radio playlist easily using a big plus (+) button to get you started, though like other streaming services you won’t hear a specific song up front. Rather the service selects music that closely resembles what you’ve chosen… and then allows you to like a song (“play more like this” for better recommendations) or request that a particular song never be played. You can also add the specific song to your iTunes wishlist (for later purchase), and create new stations from either the song or artist currently playing. Apple has built in a “Tune This Station” slider which allows you to tweak the station you’ve created for more Hits, Discovery or Variety based on the previous main tracks you’ve liked.
Of course you can also share the current tune during playback (via email, Twitter and Facebook) and go directly to the iTunes store to buy the song and see more from the artist. Even easier, depending on whether you’re using the desktop or mobile app, just hit the buy button and keep listening to radio while the song loads. It’s slick, quick and allows for uninterrupted listening… anything more complicated makes for an app killer instead of a killer app. Apple has done it right, without forgetting that the main reason for having iTunes Radio in the first place is to expose music lovers to new stuff in the hope they’ll buy it on impulse.
The OS X iTunes interface is just ever so slightly bit more robust than than the mobile version, but not by much. For instance, I found it impossible to access playback history from the mobile version (which would better enable me to like songs I missed while listening to them), and it’s a bit harder to see previous songs you’ve listened to via the mobile iTunes app. The Apple TV version is structured a little differently, but essentially offers the same access to functions and features. Needless to say, because of Apple’s tight fusing of their services under iCloud, the moment you play a song on one device, you’ll see an instant update in the iTunes Radio history section via other iDevices.
When Apple does something, they don’t do it half-assed. Sound is on par with their cloud-based personal music streaming service iTunes Match. Crisp fidelity is key, and songs playing through iTunes Radio offer a nice rounded sound that, using iTunes’s EQ feature, can be modified to hit all the right high, mid and low sounds. While listening via any device, I get the feeling I’m hearing a very high quality bitrate via the free or paid version. Like other music streaming services, iTunes Radio has song skipping restrictions (only six times within one hour), and does use advertising to support the service, though their ads are neither as numerous nor as annoying as other free streaming services, and can be removed entirely if you’re subscribed to iTunes Match (which makes that $25 per year service even more of a bargain and value).
Music selection is probably on par with other services. After all, Apple is signed up with the big music labels and a never-ending plethora of indie banners and artists who prefer to deal with directly with the Cupertino company rather than go through a recording industry middle man. Unlike Pandora’s integration with the Music Genome Project to produce recommended results, Apple has once again used its iTunes integration to more closely mirror your musical tastes by way of your personal iTunes music library, but it doesn’t tie itself down to just that type of data mining… Apple also uses your iTunes purchase history as a way to gain insight to the type of music you might enjoy. To me it the selection of artists and songs is as varied as Pandora or Spotify, but the reality as of today is that you’re likely to discover more music using a variety of streaming services than just one. As these things go, Apple will grow the service over time, and as it evolves, there will be greater opportunity to discover more new music, which is pretty much the whole point of algorithmic-based streaming services.
In the end, Apple has birthed a direct competitor to Pandora more than Spotify, though both services seem to be on its radar for a marketplace disruption. Remember, Apple isn’t necessarily a company that invents and innovates so much as they improve upon existing technologies. Apple has certainly done that with iTunes Radio… to me it offers an improvement on other free, radio-type streaming services. Since first using it a few weeks back, I’ve rarely tapped into Pandora at home, at work or in the car and hardly even think about Spotify at all.
[box_light]If you’re already an Apple iDevice in the U.S. adherent then iTunes Radio is definitely made for you and I highly recommend it. International iTunes users should note that Apple is set to expand the service to other countries. It is also currently available to Windows desktop (including Windows 8); however, it is not clear if it will be made available to Android users or other mobile OS platforms any time soon.[/box_light]
Apple's typically elegant user interface (UI) / Ease of use / Very well integrated into iTunes via any iDevice or computer / Helps make iTunes Match well worth the subscription price / First Play is a great way to hear a new album before you buy
First Play and Guest DJ might be expanded beyond mainstream artists (First Play seems focused on a big featured releases only) / More diversity of music genres (more genre categories needed) / More like Pandora than the superior Spotify
Christian Hokenson is a writer based in Burbank, CA. He's interested in technology, movies, and home entertainment. If you're nice to him, he might buy you ice cream.