Thursday, July 31, 2008

July Listening Test Results

I have not posted the updated charts for my station tests since September of last year. As you can see below, my satisfaction peaked towards the beginning of the year. There was a marked drop in May and June, and the ratings have come back quite well. The player seemed to deliver fewer previously thumb-up songs in June as can be seen in the second chart.

Once it became clear that the stations were exploring more than usual I wrote Tim and Tom. Unusually, neither relied (normally both or quite responsive but my e-mail would have been during their crunch time in creating the iPhone App), but as part of Tom's reply on my review of the iPhone app he confirmed my impression. The chart below shows the number of previously thumbed up tracks (out of 40 possible tracks in each test). As you can see, the player has recovered substantially and was exploring even less than usual this past month.

Of course, the right amount of exploration that the player does is a hard thing to determine. If the player went to only playing previously thumbed-up tracks, then by these tests my satisfaction ratings would go to 10 for each station, and the previously thumbed-up counts would all go to 40. There's no doubt that is exactly the behavior that some people want and even expect from the player. However, I do like hearing new music.

For me the ideal player would maximize my satisfaction while minimizing the previously thumbed up tracks. It would take an infinite amount of music for the player to be perfect under that criteria. However, from the drop in performance in May and June, it's clear that the selection algorithm can not tolerate much more exploration at this point. Additional exploration is particularly hard on stations which try to do something other than deliver genres which are easily identified by the genome (like my novelty song station, "The Best Medicine", for instance). Thus, given the current genome pushing the player towards less exploration is probably better (though unsatisfying). Of course, if we could tailor the exploration to each station, that would be best of all.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Pandora App For The iPhone, A Complete and Utter Review

[Updated including feedback from Pandora's CTO, Tom Conrad (see end of article)]

So I managed to run my Sprint cellphone through the laundry two weeks ago. I immediately checked my options at to see what phones could now run mobile Pandora. The iPhone firmware 2.0 and the iPhone 3G had launched that Friday, and to my shock and delight the iPhone was suddenly an option. I would have to pay the penalty to get out of my Sprint contract. But, come on, Pandora was available for the iPhone! Of course, it helped that Sprint billing was terrible (they changed plans on me in the middle of the year without my authorization, upping the bill to over $100/mo which they reversed, but still..), and Sprint coverage did not, unfortunately, cover my house in the Oakland hills.

I ordered my 3G the following day at an ATT store two blocks from work. It arrived this past Friday, ten days after I placed my order. And so here's your full, in depth comparison to the mobile and Flash versions of Pandora.

Welcome to the World of iTunes

iTunes? What would iTunes have to do with Pandora? Well, if you want to download any apps for your iPhone (including Pandora) you'll need to have an iTunes account. It's free, but it does mean that you must download the iTunes software onto some computer, and create an account. If my recollection is correct, you could also use an AOL account.

The installation and set-up of Pandora was fast and easy after iTunes was set up. You have to key in your Pandora account which is whatever e-mail address you used to create your account. The iPhone touch keyboard works reasonably well, and certainly much easier than the usual cellphone text input.

The Hopes

The night I received my notification that the iPhone was winging its way from Texas I made a list of the features I hoped the app would have. I hoped that the app would buffer songs so that at least the current tune would complete when leaving coverage. (BART goes under ground through downtown Oakland and under the Bay which would cause the mobile version to immediately stop playing). I hoped that when playing Pandora's quickmix, the station which generated the song would be displayed. I hoped that the station web pages would be accessible and editable while the music played. In short, I hoped that the iPhone app would be closer to the Flash version of the player rather than the mobile version of the player.

The Reality

As it turns out, the iPhone app has even fewer features than the mobile version, and absolutely none of those hopes were realized. There is no buffering like the mobile version. [ETA: Strangely, this morning Pandora continued through the 19th St. Oakland BART station whereas Sprint never came close to that. I do not know whether is a matter of buffering or coverage. Sprint seems to do better around West Oakland, but ATT seems to perform better in some other locations.] Quickmix does not display the station, and you cannot access the Pandora station pages even if you happen to know the direct URL.

In all previous versions of the player you can scroll back through the songs that have played in the current listening session and assign feedback (thumbs up or down) to those songs. That feature is not available in the app for the iPhone. Thus, you can only give a song feedback while the song is playing. It is unclear whether thumbing down a song in the app initializes a new set, but it has been unclear for the past half year whether songs are still being generated in sets of three or four even on the Flash player.

Furthermore, the app does not remember which station you were playing on start up. Every time the program initializes, you must select a station. However, after the program initializes, you can exit to go to the iPhone homepage which will stop the music, but the app will then continue the song and the station when you return. This feature is new and superior to the mobile version which had to be re-initialized whenever you exited it.

There is no way to add new artists or songs to a station in the iPhone app. This feature is another one which is available on both the Flash and mobile version of the player, but is lacking on the iPhone app. However, to be fair, the feature was pretty much useless in the mobile version since inputing text was difficult. I never used that feature because of that difficulty; however, I might have on the iPhone since inputting text is easier with the touch interface.

In all other respects, the Pandora app does what you would expect it to in comparison to the mobile and Flash versions. Selecting stations is MUCH easier using the touch interface than either of previous versions of the player. It turns out that sweeping your finger across the screen is a great way to scroll through a list. On the other hand, adjusting the volume with the app's slider is a nightmare, but the volume adjustment on the side of the iPhone is available and much more effective.

The Sound

The audio quality of the iPhone is superior to that of my old M1 as one might hope given its iPod lineage. The highs are a bit brittle, but certainly less sibilant than the M1. The M1 still had, strangely, the wider and deeper sound-stage. The iPhone jack is 3.5mm rather than 2.5mm, but it is a TRRS jack rather than the TRS jack used by most headphones. The extra ring supports a microphone, and so I'll need to get an adapter to use my other headphones. The iPhone puts out a heck of lot of radio interference which apparently can induce noise in head amps. I've already heard that noise in my GoVibe 4.0. The noise also makes the CRT on my home computer flicker a bit if the iPhone is near and roughly pointed toward the screen.

And so I purchased the $10 Griffin iPhone headphone adapter. I had heard rumors on the forums that the iPhone puts out a lot of radio-frequency interference (RFI, as they say). Indeed, my CRT at home jumps around a bit when the iPhone is near pointed at it; however, my iPhone sits happily in the same pocket as my GoVibe v4 headamp with no discernible noise. (Although I did get strange electronic bleeping coming up the stairs at the BART station this morning which I never had before.) The iPhone sound is distinctly better than my old M1 on the same rig and headphones. Furthermore, I was able to use the iPhone as a source for my home stereo with a simple 3.5 mm to RCA cable which is was never able to do with the Sprint phone because of the lack of coverage. The sound was quite good.

[Update on the RFI. When I did my usual walk about for lunch today, I got a bit more of the RFI. It's not loud or unpleasent. It's sort of an electronic buzzing chatter. Pulling the iPhone away from the headamp definitely eliminates it. It's intermittent, only tends to occur when you're moving around, and only occurs when you are using a head-amp. You can stop it immediately by moving the iPhone away from the amp or plugging the headphones directly into the adapter. I still think the rig sounds better through the head-amp, and so I plan to live with it.]

The Interface

The design aesthetic of the app is that of the iPod interface implemented on the iPhone rather than that of the mobile or Flash versions of the Pandora player. The huge album art is lovely to see, and it's much more easy to see who the artist is by glancing at the cover than trying to read the tiny font listing that information on both the mobile and iPhone apps. Songs for which there is no available album art get a white square with a couple of gray eighth-notes just like any song not purachased from iTunes playing on the iPod app. (Of the three default images, I guess I like the gradient blue field of the mobile player the best.) The icon indicating that a song has already been thumbed up is tiny and weirdly placed beside the button which calls up the focus traits for the song. There is a cool animation of the album flipping over when you press that button, however.

Switching to the iPod and back during the tunnels of my commute was reasonable, but a bit cumbersome. Going to the iPod requires clicking the home button, and then three selection touches. Going from there to Pandora requires essentially the some number of inputs, but you have to wait for the app to load before a mandatory selection of the source if there are any wifi signals around you. Neither the mobile or the Flash version of the player require you to select a station at start-up since they remember the last station you were playing, but you must select a station when switching back to Pandora on the iPhone since that information is not retained nor is a there a default station. (To be fair, the iPod app does not remember what playlist you were last playing or have a default playlist either.)

Speaking of wifi, it should also be noted that the iPhone manages its connections to the internet far better than my old cellphone. As I've said, Sprint missed covering my house by about half a block. The ATT signal is quite strong at home, but that does not even matter because the iPhone connects to my home wifi the moment I step in the door.


And so, given that the Pandora app has fewer features than the mobile app, am I disappointed in moving to the iPhone? Not at all. Pandora still sounds and works great on the iPhone. Furthermore, the interface and display on the iPhone in general is substantially better than most cellphones. I could play Mp3's on my old M1 but I never did because it was comparatively difficult to move music onto it and switch in and out of the apps. The iPhone does chain you to the world of iTunes, but within those fetters moving music to the iPhone and switching between apps is relatively effortless and intuitive.

Thus, as a Pandora power user I strongly recommend the iPhone app despite the missing features. It's a true pleasure to use. That being said, I do hope that Pandora does continue to develop the app and incorporate more of the mobile and Flash features over time. I also hope that Pandora receives a cut of the monthly fess going to ATT and Apple since the iPhone app does not require a subscription to Pandora which the mobile version did.


I sent the link to this article to Tom Conrad and Tim Westergren. Tom acknowledged the lac of features, but noted that the app had been put together in five weeks. Five weeks. In that case, the app is truly amazing. Tom also mentioned a number of features they are planning to add in forthcoming versions of the app. (Imagine what they'll have after, say, ten weeks of development!) I will not include that list here because they should not be held to promises made to a completely obscure blogger; however, I will pull the following quote:
Rest assured over time this will become the best on-the-go Pandora listening experience there is.


I will also note some observations about the player after a day of typical use at work. The app seems more stable than the mobile player on the M1. I typically had to restart the mobile version two to four times per day (after providing feedback usually). Perhaps, providing feedback on previous played songs is trickier and caused network problems. In any case, the iPhone app required no rebooting yesterday at all. The M1 phone would also need to be turned off and restarted entirely maybe once every couple of months indicating, perhaps, a small memory leak. That behavior, of course, is not possible to detect for my iPhone usage to date, but early indications are that the current app is quite stable.

On the other hand, there are times during the day when there are noticeably longer gaps between songs on the Sprint network than on the ATT 3G network. Whether this an app issue or a network issue, I cannot tell. Nevertheless, there are times when the Pandora app fails to provide music for up to a minute.