Saturday, August 18, 2007

Is that Pandora in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

I thought that I had another year to go on my previous cell contract, but once Pandora had survived the deadline for royalty crisis, I checked to be sure. To my surprise, I was free to switch, and so I started getting Pandora on the Go a few weeks ago.

The first decision was which of the dozen available phones to choose. I started thread over at the Head-Fi forums eliciting any opinions about the audio quality of the possible phones. No one replied. And so I researched the phones over at Phone Scoop. The only significant difference in the specifications that I could see that might be relevant was that the Sanyo M1 had about 20 times the internal memory at one gigabyte than the other phones. Sprint had discontinued the phone a couple months ago (three or four of the phones listed by Pandora are discontinued), but several on-line merchants were still selling it.

All the phones required a two year contract, and you must have a Power Vision plan to have the unlimited internet time that Pandora requires. I went with the cheapest talk-time plan at $30/mo., and the cheapest Power Vision plan at $15/mo. A subscription to Pandora is also required at $3/mo. My previous plan was $40/mo., and so I'm spending about $8/mo. more to get Pandora everywhere Sprint can reach.

Unfortunately, Sprint's reach does not include my house. The nearest cell apparently ends about 100ft away from my driveway. Even with good reception, the PCS call quality is not as good as I was used to with T-Mobile. On the other hand, the customer service efficiently cleared up a set-up problem, and I like the operating system better than that which was on my T-Mobile RAZR. After the initial setting up, Pandora is just the push of two buttons away.

The M1 does connect and download swiftly. It comes with a 2.5mm (male) to 3.5mm (female) headphone adapter/microphone. However, the wire on the adapter is thin and a bit too long. I wanted a male-to-male adapter and ordered one from Crutchfield. Unfortunately, there is more than one kind of 2.5mm jack. Most cellphones have four contacts (left out, right out, microphone in, and ground) and most 2.5 mm adapters only have three. Using the wrong adapter means you'll only get sound out of one channel. I then purchased the one Pandora suggests, and it is shorter and sturdier. The remaining downside is that there are four connections between the phone and my ears: the 2.5 mm jack to the phone, the adapter to a lead, a lead to my head-amp, and the head-amp to my phones.

The sound quality is not as good as that from a computer. The M1, at least, has a noticeable amount of distortion, and particularly sibilant highs. The stereo definition and width of the soundstage are actually pretty good, though, even on the Sennheiser MX500 buds I use on the go. These audio problems are clearly the fault of the M1 since I use the same components through my computer at work, and the sound is definitely better on the computer.

A different audio problem is a fault of the Pandora player, however. Momentary interruptions of receptions can be heard as gaps in the music resulting in occasional blips and blurts. If you've ever had internet problems on your computer, you know that the Flash version of the player will almost always continue to the end of a song before it stops. That is, the Flash version uses the computer's memory to buffer the song in the background while the song is playing. The cellphone player does not buffer at all: when the reception stops, the music stops. I wish that the cellphone version of the player would avail itself of the available memory, but I must admit that the other phones have less than 50 megabytes to work with. (To compare, the Flash version requires 250MB to work at all.)

My only other complaint with the cell player is that when listening to your Quickmix, there is no display of which station a particular songs is coming from. I prefer to give my feedback in context of the station which is playing the song. That is, even if I like a particular, say, punk-pop song, I would like to give that song a thumb-down if it's coming from my Ska's The Limit station because I'm trying to weed out the ska-punk from that station.

In all other respects, the cell player is phenomenal. It was incredibly easy to set it up to access my Pandora account and stations. The interface is easy and intuitive, and it allows you to do everything the flash version does except edit your station pages (which I would not want to do without a thumbpad). One button is clearly marked thumbs up, another thumbs down. Skipping is the right direction button, reviewing the previously played songs is the left direction button, and changing stations is the up direction button. Extraordinarily clean and well designed. Great job, Tom.

And so each morning, I put on my buds, turn on the head-amp, and start the player. It loads as I drive down the hill, generally kicking in before I reach the first stoplight. The reception ends on BART under Oakland. I click the enter key to launch the player again when we emerge from the tunnel. I listen to another tune through West Oakland, and then lose the reception a second time in the Transbay Tube. As we pull into the Embaracdero I press the enter key again for the short walk to my building. I switch over to the computer when I'm at my desk. I switch back to the phone over lunch, and again when I head home. From 7:00 to 5:00 the buds are in my ears except for meetings and bathroom breaks. An unending, inter-venous connection to beautiful music. I love my mobile Pandora.

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