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App of the Week: Pandora vs. iHeartRadio

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If you haven't been paying attention, a very tiny little war has been brewing over access to the ears of people who like to listen to radio online or on their smart phones. I say it's a tiny war because, at the moment, it is. While many of us who love music and like to listen to it a lot will do whatever we can to seek out alternatives to what we have, the vast majority of people are satisfied with commercial radio.

However, that becomes less and less true and the demographics are skewed younger. Music lovers under 30 continue to abandon the traditional radio format in favor of a wider range of options and flexibility. The hugely successful U.S. launch of Spotify should be fairly obvious proof, but a more interesting battle is being waged between a virtual David versus an online Goliath.

For anyone who hasn't tried it, Pandora is one of the most interesting and wildly successful online music tools ever created. But its domain is being infiltrated by a very big kid on the block, Clear Channel Communications and its relatively new iHeartRadio app. Which is better? Let's find out.

Pandora

Pros: Easy interface, scary accurate examination of user choices Cons: Limit on tracks per hour, audio advertising

iHeartRadio

Pros: Big catalog, streams existing radio as well as created stations, no ads Cons: Slightly clunky interface, choices can be all over the place

What's the Same?

Both services provide the ability to create stations based on an artist or song. Once one is chosen, a station is created. Songs can be liked or disliked and you can fast-forward to the next song, but there is a limit on the number of skips per hour due to licensing restrictions.

What's Different?

iHeartRadio provides links to a whole bunch of currently existing radio stations that can be streamed through its interface. In fact, that was its original intent -- to stream the music of Clear Channel Stations. It just recently began offering college radio alternatives as well including former KTRU, Rice Radio. Creating a channel via an artist or song works in a similar way to Pandora though the underlying mechanics are different. It allows you the option of choosing songs based on greater familiarity or a wider range of discovery.

Pandora's unique music filtering service uses an algorithm to help the service figure out what songs you might like and what songs you'd probably pass on. It's remarkably accurate and learns as you like and dislike songs.

What's the Verdict?

iHeartRadio has one big advantage and that's the ability to stream existing stations. If you want to listen to a radio station that is already out there, this is a great app for doing so. I've used it on the road, out jogging and in other various locations and it rarely drops.

Having said that, for music, Pandora is still king, primarily because of the engine that drives it. It comes up with some really unique suggestions. Just to test it, I set up a couple different stations and checked the results.

With a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers station, Pandora chose artists like the Hollies, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Blind Lemon while Clear Channel went with The Doobie Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steve Miller Band and Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band. A Kanye West station delivered Kid Cudi, Jay-Z and Lupe Fiasco on Pandora while iHeartRadio streamed Kid Cudi, B.o.B. and 50 Cent.

Neither of those are dramatically different, though the Tom Petty Pandora choices seem wider in range. But, when I set up a station by song, that's when Pandora really set itself apart. Its algorithm is based on elements in the actual song, so it delivers strikingly similar offerings. Wilco's "One Wing" produced some really accurate and unique choices like "Refuge" by Matthew Perryman Jones (very good), "For Us" by Pete Yorn, "Go First" by Damien Jurado and "Walden County" by Magnolia Sons.

iHeartRadio on the other hand was much more all over the map, choosing "I Can Hardly Spell My Name" by Lambchop, "Stanley Kubrick" by Mogwai, "Queen of the World" by The Bottle Rockets and "So Lovely, So Lovely" by Central Falls along with multiple other Wilco songs.

While these were nice songs, they were not really remotely close to "One Wing." The choices were clearly made more on genre than on style, which goes to the heart of the success of Pandora.

Bottom Line

While I am no fan of radio giant Clear Channel, they've done a very good job designing a streaming radio app that gives us access to all their radio stations and they've done a decent job with the customization part of it. If all you need is an app for streaming your favorite radio stations and maybe you want some unique music options thrown in, this is a quality app.

However, if you are a music fan and you like to find new music, nothing touches Pandora. Even with about 10 percent of the catalog of iHeartRadio (900,000 songs versus 11 million, seriously), Pandora outperforms iHeartRadio with music selections every time.

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