Pandora was the pioneer in music streaming but it’s been behind the times for years now. With the broad launch of its new Premium service this morning, Pandora has finally entered the world of on-demand streaming — the service popularized by Spotify and then Apple Music. There is some good news to being late to the party — Pandora Premium has been able to improve on areas where Spotify and Apple Music still struggle, namely the user interface and better playlist creation.
We’d say Premium is now the sleekest of the three. Still, it might not be enough to compel any of Spotify’s 50 million users to switch. Where Premium might succeed is in convincing users of Pandora’s free ad-supported radio service to pay £10 a month for an on-demand alternative.
Pandora has focused on the user experience in areas where Apple and Spotify tend to fall short.
It’s easy to play music as soon as you enter the Pandora app — your most recently played and recently added songs or playlists appear with “play” buttons right away. There’s no need to sort through playlist and artist menus to get back to the song you played last time you were in the app (as is the case with Apple Music) or the one you added yesterday (as is the case with Spotify). Having to hit a few buttons before playing a song isn’t something you necessarily notice as an annoyance when you use one of the rival apps, but Pandora’s simplicity is welcome.
One gripe: It’s arguably too easy to play music. In our tests, Pandora started up with our most recent track as soon as we opened the app, before we hit any buttons. It’s less than ideal in an office setting.
We like that Pandora pulls a color out of the album art and changes the app’s background color accordingly. The app just looks pretty, especially compared to Spotify’s harsh black color scheme and Apple Music’s utilitarian feel. For those who don’t have the energy to make playlists, Pandora’s algorithms can help.
We like a feature that allows you to “add similar songs” to a small playlist. We added a few relatively popular songs by different types of artists, and Pandora did a good job of identifying our tastes. Some of the artists we chose dabble in different genres, but Pandora’s algorithms knew from our song choices that we liked the more slow tracks and suggested new music accordingly.
We learned about some new songs this way. The algorithm did struggle a bit, though, on a few lesser known tracks. When we added some show tunes, for instance, Pandora only shot back Hamilton songs — and not necessarily ones that stand well on their own.
The service matched Spotify in terms of predicting what music we’d like, and far surpassed Apple Music on this.
Pandora, meanwhile, hasn’t given up on its trademark thumbs-up. Pandora prepares a customized station of tracks related to every song you’ve ever “thumbed up” in your history of being a Pandora user. For folks who might not have used Pandora much in years (since migrating to Spotify, say), you also get a playlist of everything you’ve liked on the service going back perhaps a decade.
Of course, by “thumbing” songs, you give Pandora more data on your listening habits, which feeds back into its algorithms. That virtuous cycle should improve Pandora’s recommendations even more in the months ahead. In general, Pandora’s focus on playlists is smart.
By creating playlists for you and making it easy to build onto existing playlists, the service makes building a library less of a chore. That, too, is appealing to people who’ve never tried an on-demand streaming service before. If Pandora were starting on equal footing with Apple Music and Spotify, all these positives could push the service to the top of the pack.
But here’s where being late becomes painful for Pandora, and possibly fatal: It’s still hard to justify leaving a service like Spotify where you’ve spent years creating and perfecting your own library.
But if you’ve never used Spotify or Apple Music, start with Pandora Premium.
The personalized recommendations are lightyears ahead of what you’ll get from Apple Music and comparable to what you’ll find on Spotify — and it has by far the cleanest design and easiest interface of the bunch.