Home > Music > Spotify Radio vs. Pandora: Hands-on showdown

Spotify Radio vs. Pandora: Hands-on showdown

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Check out our comparison of the Spotify Radio and Pandora mobile apps for the latest on the two streaming services.

Spotify announced early on Friday that it has revamped its Radio functionality, making it possible for non-paying customers to skip past as many songs as they wish, and add as many stations as they like. This move takes direct aim at Pandora, which allows its free users to skip only six songs per hour, with a total limit of 12 skips per day.

The new Spotify Radio is technically still in beta, with the fully finished product set to roll out in the next few days. But we’re impatient, so we thought we’d take it for a test drive, and see how it stands up to Pandora’s Music Genome Project-powered products.

Note: For this test, I’ve decided to use the Web version of Pandora, which is by far the most accessible option. Of course, Pandora also has a desktop app, and a mobile app, both of which provide the full functionality that its Web version provides. For now, Spotify Radio is only available on its desktop client, and does not yet work on its mobile app, which is only available to paying subscribers, anyway.

Creating stations

spotify-create-station-tom-pettySpotify

Once you download the newest version, which takes only a minute, you can launch the new beta version of Spotify. You’ll find the Radio app under “Apps” in the left-hand menu. (Slightly below where it was on previous versions of the platform.) When you launch the Radio, Spotify will automatically create a number of stations for you, based upon your most-played artists. It also lists suggested stations based upon your favorite tracks, along with other popular stations, as well as an assortment of generic genre stations.

To create an entirely new station, just click the “Create new station” box, which appears at the top of the main window. You can type in either song name, or artist, to launch a new station. All your recent stations appear beneath the ‘currently playing’ window, which shows album cover, artist and song name.

create-station-pandoraPandora

Compared to the whiz-bang flashiness of Spotify, Pandora’s user interface feels a bit antiquated. In terms of functionality, however, it works basically the same. A control bar appears at the top of the browser page, where you can type in artist, track or composer to create a new station. Also on the bar are the play button, thumbs up, thumbs down and skip button.

For those of you not familiar, both the thumbs up and the skip button allow you to jump to the next song. Though thumbs down has the added affect of further refining which songs Pandora chooses to play. Thumbs up, of course, does the same thing, but in a positive, rather than negative, way.

Below the control bar, you’ll find your list of stations on the left, the currently-playing album art, song title, artist name and album name. Pandora now also includes a share button, which allows you to post the station or track on Facebook and/or Twitter, as well as a buy button for purchasing the album on iTunes or Amazon. Beneath that, Pandora provides song lyrics, artist bio, and a list of similar artists.

Winner: Tie

Both options have their pros and cons. While some might like the graphics-heavy Spotify, we found the straightforward list of our stations on Pandora easier to navigate, even if it’s not as pretty. That said, Spotify offers more suggestions for stations you might want to create, which is great when you can’t just think of something off the top of your head.

Song selection

This is a particularly difficult thing to test, without spending hundreds of hours meticulously recording each track that plays next, for each service, so we’re just going to go with broad, likely inaccurate, estimates here.

From what we found, the songs chosen by Pandora were, in fact, much more what we wanted to listen to than what Spotify chose. That’s not to say Spotify’s selection was bad by any means. It just lacked a certain, let’s say, polish, that the Pandora selections have.

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This is, of course, good news for Pandora, as the entire premise of the Music Genome Project was choosing songs you’ll actually like, rather than just other songs in that genre. We don’t know the exact algorithm Spotify uses to choose the lineup for each station, but it definitely felt more like it was simply selecting from a pot of “similar bands,” rather than a finely tuned batch of tracks that share similar musical qualities.

Winner: Pandora

Like we said, we’re basing this judgement more off of a subconscious inkling, a glimmer, a hunch, than hard, scientific fact. And even then, the differences are minimal. But if we had to choose one service on this factor alone, it would no doubt be Pandora.

Music discovery

Song selection and music discovery are almost the same thing — but not quite. By “music discovery” we mean finding new music, that you’ve never heard before, that you like. And again, if this were the only element of this, we’d again have to go with Pandora here, since the selection of songs was better overall. But because Spotify has both a superior catalog, with 15 million songs, and because when you find a band or album you like through Spotify Radio, you can simply search for it, pull it up, and listen to it, without having buy anything, Spotify gains a ever-so-slight edge in this category.

Winner: Spotify

Skipping and station limits

Obviously, Spotify has the edge here, since 12 skips in a day is simply not enough. Same goes for its option of unlimited stations, but that’s not nearly as big of a deal, since 100 stations (Pandora’s maximum) is likely perfectly adequate for most users. We will say, however, that since Pandora offers a better selection of music in the first place, we found there to be less of a desire to skip songs on Pandora than on Spotify. Still, if you listen to Pandora all day long, you’re going to want to skip more than 12 times. And we have long felt restricted by this limit. Long story short: Pandora needs to do away with the skip limit, or it’s going to lose users (and, therefore; ad dollars) to Spotify.

Winner: Spotify

spotify mobileMobile

This one is quick and easy: Pandora is available, for free, on iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and WebOS handsets. Spotify users must pay to use the mobile apps, and even then, Spotify Radio isn’t yet an option. We’re sure this will change — the Spotify Radio part, not the paying part. But for now, Pandora has this category in the bag.

Winner: Pandora

Conclusion

As you can see, this showdown is more of a tossup than anything. Which service is better depends on how you like to listen to music. If you want to just set it on shuffle, and not think about it for the rest of the day, Pandora is the better option. If you want to be more interactive, Spotify is better, as it always has been. And, of course, you can always just use both.

That said, the updates to Spotify Radio bode ill for Pandora. Spotify is quickly evolving so that it dominates its competition on all fronts. And because of that, Pandora is already starting to feel a bit behind-the-times. If Pandora wants to remain a major player, it’s going to have to start ushering in more features. For now, however, if you’re simply looking to throw on some tune in the car or as background music at a dinner party, Pandora is the way to go.