iOS app face-off: Spotify Radio vs. Pandora

Pandora reigns as my go-to for free music on the iPhone and iPad. But a new contender from Spotify threatens to dethrone it. Spotify updated its iOS app this week with Spotify Radio, a free option that’s part of its larger services. To herald Spotify's arrival on the scene, I put it up against Pandora in an app death match.

Until Spotify's recent update, you could only use the Spotify iOS app if you had a subscription to its streaming service. (For more on streaming music, including Spotify, check out our comparison of the five major services.) The new version brings ad-supported radio stations to any iPhone or iPad user: you select an artist, song, or genre, and the app generates a station that plays songs similar to your choice. Sounds a lot like Pandora. And it is, though the two services differ in some important details.

Catalog

Spotify Radio’s huge catalog is its greatest asset. You hear well-known versions of songs from major artists.

Spotify Radio has access to a much-bigger music library than Pandora. Thanks to contracts with several major labels, Spotify's catalog is estimated at 15 million songs. Spotify Radio picks from the same songs you can play on the desktop software—that’s a whole lot to choose from.

Pandora, on the other hand, selects from a much narrower pool—about a million songs, based on most reports. And in my experience, much of its song library doesn't consist of the traditional recordings we’re used to hearing on the radio. I get a lot of alternate takes and live versions on Pandora. Spotify plays the versions you’re familiar with.

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Recommendations

But just because Spotify has the songs doesn’t mean you’ll hear the ones you expect. Pandora’s greatest strength remains its recommendation algorithm, which is based on the Music Genome Project.

When I create a Pandora station based on Bob Dylan’s song "Visions of Johanna," for example, I get a station full of songs that are like it: mellow and thoughtful. Spotify Radio stuggles mightily in that area. I created the same song-based station in Spotify and got "La Bamba" and several songs from Dion’s early catalog. The moods of the songs clashed with the singer/songwriter vibe of "Visions of Johanna."

Like Pandora, Spotify Radio lets you give tracks a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to help refine your station. If you like a track on Spotify, it gets added to a playlist so you can easily listen to it later—and that playlist is available through Spotify’s desktop application. (Oddly, stations you create through the iOS app aren’t reflected in the desktop version. ) However, Spotify's level of refinement needs work. If you dislike a song, Spotify skips to the next and says it is improving the station, but I didn’t see many improvements. And it takes a ‘like’ a little too seriously—when I liked a The Strokes song on the Alternative genre station, I heard The Strokes three times in the next half hour.

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Fine details

Pandora’s "edit station" feature allows for better refinement than Spotify Radio.

Pandora shines over Spotify Radio in the details. In addition to providing better recommendations, Pandora also lets you edit stations by adding artists and song seeds, which helps it refine what it plays. Spotify Radio doesn’t offer this level of refinement. However, in some cases, I’ve refined my Pandora stations too much; with its limited catalog, I felt like I ended up hearing the same 10 songs over and over.

Both apps let you choose the streaming bit rate, as well. Higher bit rates sound better, but on a mobile device, those extra bits can quickly eat up your monthly data allotment. On Spotify, you can choose a 96-kbps or 160-kbps Ogg Vorbis stream (paid subscribers can choose 320 kbps, which really sounds great). Pandora uses AAC+ as its format and streams at rates between 64 kbps and 128 kbps. (192 kbps is available to Pandora One subscribers, at a $36-per-year upgrade to the free service.)

But Pandora doesn’t make you choose between quality and convenience. If you’re on a Wi-Fi network, Pandora delivers the 128-kbps stream; if you’re on a cellular network, you get up to 64 kbps. It’s a considerate touch for the bandwidth-conscious. You can also turn off this cellular network option to receive up to 128 kbps over 3G.

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The Winner

At this point, I’ll stick with Pandora because it plays songs that stick to the theme of the station—and also because of the refinements it’s added over the years.

But I’ll keep an eye on Spotify, if only because of that huge song catalog. The needed refinements may come to Spotify Radio over time, and if Spotify can figure out how to play songs closer to what I’m looking for, Pandora will have to bulk up its catalog to compete.

[Michael Gowan writes about music and technology for Macworld, TechHive, and other sites. Follow him on Twitter @zebgowan.]

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