Since its release in July of 2008, the Pandora Internet radio iPhone app has been one of our favorites and a consistent top download from Apple's iTunes App Store. Pandora's uncluttered and intuitive interface, coupled with its unique knack for song recommendations, makes it an ideal no-fuss app for anyone looking to add streaming music capabilities to their iPhone or iPod Touch.
In version 2.0, Pandora adds several new features without undermining the simplicity that made the original app so great. Users can now listen to 30-second previews of bookmarked tracks directly within the app, without bouncing over into the iTunes store. You can also send links to songs now, as well as stations, to contacts from your address book.
Creating new personalized radio stations in Pandora has never been easier. As before, Pandora lets you create stations by entering any artist, song, or genre as a starting point. In addition to creating stations from scratch, users can now create stations on the fly based around any artist or song on Pandora's Now Playing screen or user bookmarks.
Pandora 2.0 now offers biographical information for the currently playing artist right from the Now Playing screen (similar to the Last.fm app), as well as a detailed account of why each song was chosen to be included in your station. Pandora also added a track progress bar to the Now Playing screen, showing how far along you are within a particular song.
One of the more visually striking new features in Pandora 2.0 is a Cover Flow mode, which lets you review the details of previously played tracks when the iPhone or iPod Touch is turned on its side. You still can't revisit the actual audio of previously played songs (for legal reasons, there's no backwards skip or repeat functions in Pandora), but the new Cover Flow view allows you to glance back at the artist, title, album art, biographical data, and song details of previously played songs.
Chalk it up to good timing, but Pandora's "Buy Song from iTunes" option just got a whole lot more useful, as well. As of January 2009, the iPhone's ability to download songs from Apple's iTunes store over cellular networks, as well as Wi-Fi, gives music fans more opportunities to directly purchase music they hear from services like Pandora's.
The Pandora app's biggest competition comes from Last.fm and Slacker. All three apps have something unique to offer, and all three exist as popular online music destinations beyond the iPhone. Generally speaking, if you're already comfortable using Pandora, Last.fm, or Slacker's Web-based services, it makes sense to stick with what you know--especially if you've already spent a few hours cultivating your personal radio stations. All things being equal, however, we prefer the wider range of features included on Last.fm's app (tour dates, top listeners, similar artists, personal listening stats) to Pandora and Slacker's more straightforward approach. That said, Pandora has the most elegant and intuitive interface of the bunch, and is the best point of entry for anyone just getting started with personalized internet radio. (Disclosure: Last.fm is owned by CBS Interactive.)
From an audio point of view, all three apps deliver roughly the same sound quality under the best circumstances. Pandora, however, is the only app of the bunch with an adjustable audio quality setting specifically for cellular connections (Wi-Fi audio quality remains unchanged). By switching Pandora's cellular audio quality setting to low, people have the option of trading audio fidelity for improved reception (fewer song dropouts), which can be a real advantage if you're streaming music in your car or in an area with poor cell coverage.
Pandora 2.0 for iPhone and iPod Touch is available as a free download from Download.com.