By David Thomas on September 20, 2013
The release of a new smartphone operating system has sure become more of a cultural event than anyone could have ever imagined five or 10 years ago. The release of the latest iOS from Apple also brings a new feature to the iPhone and other Apple devices — iTunes Radio.
It is essentially a music-streaming service along the lines of Pandora and Spotify, but it's organized by broad, curated channels more akin to SiriusXM with optional searches.
After some initial Cars.com testing of iTunes Radio, satellite radio should indeed be worried, while music aficionados may need some convincing.
iTunes Radio sits alongside a device's downloaded music. It appears as a new option to playing those tracks via playlists, artists, songs and albums. However, once you click the icon you're a world away from how you listen to those tracks.
A home page allows you to go straight to featured stations or add your own. There are dozens of these pre-populated channels to choose from, including eight just for smooth jazz.
These stations can vary broadly in what they play, and I found many to feature artists I wouldn't necessarily associate with the channel name. Classic Rock seemed to offer the most logical bands per genre of those I tested with Modern Rock not being as accurate — to my mind. You can also select how you want the station to deliver songs, prioritizing "hits," "variety" or "discovery." I didn't get a thorough enough test to prove these three out, but it's a nice option to have if you're not a fan of mainstream artists of any genre.
You can also search for artists and create a station based on them in a fashion nearly identical to Pandora. This, too, didn't deliver the artists I expected/wanted. The overall genre might be right, but if you like one avant-garde band in a genre you're less likely to also enjoy the most lame traditional ... which happened many times during my test across numerous artists. It was so off-putting that I wouldn't use iTunes Radio myself during solo driving.
Two other editors used the app via Bluetooth streaming in new test vehicles with no glitches in terms of skipping tracks via the car's controls or with the songs being delayed or dropping out.
You don't get unlimited skipping though, nor do you with Pandora's free service. I counted seven skips on multiple occasions — without listening to a full track — before it stopped working. You can change the channel to get more skips, similar Pandora.
Ads pop up at what seem like random intervals and are between 20 to 30 seconds long. You can get rid of the ads by buying iTunes Match, a $24.99 annual service that puts your iTunes collection in the cloud across devices but does not let you download new music without paying the full fee.
If you do hear a song you like, it is very easy to purchase it via iTunes. And if you can't buy it right away because you're doing something important — like driving — a convenient history of songs is accessible.
In a car, iTunes Radio's seemingly unending catalog of music will fill many a commute or road trip with good vibes. It is an internet application though and will use your data plan if you're not connected to WiFi. That is the major drawback to using iTunes Radio over SiriusXM. If you're not a user of SiriusXM's exclusive stations and shows then I can see iTunes Radio, podcasts and other internet radio, like ESPN Radio's app, taking its place.
Pandora should be concerned since iTunes Radio is so similar. Spotify, on the other hand, has a more robust set of features, namely dropping any song you listen to into a playlist to come back to later, as well as playing entire albums in order.
However, to get those Spotify features on your smartphone you need to pay for a premium service. Otherwise the free app on the phone has less functionality than Pandora or iTunes Radio.
Is iTunes Radio perfect? No, but none of the services we've tested are without flaws or a cost. For people who enjoy radio stations, whether terrestrial or satellite, iTunes Radio will likely be well received.
If you want more control of your music, Spotify still seems hard to beat.
Managing Editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David