Why iTunes Radio Is Disappointing [Opinion]

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With last week’s iOS 7 launch, Apple also released iTunes Radio, its long-awaited internet radio service that’s available for free on all iOS devices and iTunes on the desktop. While iTunes Radio was thought to be a Spotify-killer before Apple’s Eddy Cue unveiled it at WWDC in June, how it works is more similar to Pandora. You listen to stations based on artists or genres you like, and more importantly to Apple, you can quickly buy played songs through iTunes.

I’ve had access to iTunes Radio all summer through the iOS 7 beta, and I maybe used it for a total of 10 minutes. Since everyone got access last week, I’ve tried using it more to see how well it works post beta. My experience was largely one of frustration. It’s obvious that iTunes Radio still has a lot of growing up to do.

In case you haven’t tried it yet, iTunes Radio is nestled in the iOS 7 Music app and in the iTunes section of the same name. Apple is good at making straightforward, easy-to-understand user interfaces, and iTunes Radio is no exception. No qualms there. It looks really good… most of the time.

Actually using the darn thing is a different story entirely.

iTunes Radio is free, but ads are played every few tracks. If you have a $25/year iTunes Match subscription (a chance to finally put that thing to use, right?), there are supposed to be no ads. I say “supposed” because I had to re-enter my iTunes Match information multiple times into my iPhone’s Settings app to make the ads actually go away. And even when they did, Apple still told me what station I was listening to over and over. I know I’m listening to the “Pure Pop” station, Apple. You don’t need to play a 9-second clip in between songs telling me so. What purpose does that serve the listener when they already know what station they chose?

Certain tracks are being promoted over others in iTunes Radio, and I’m not sure if it’s a sponsorship thing or just an attempt at more curation on Apple’s end. When Katy Perry’s new “Dark Horse” single (which isn’t that good, by the way) came on for the first time, a 3-second chime played telling me that it was an official iTunes Radio “pick.” Okay. Why not just put that information in text form next to the album artwork? Do I really need my listening experience interrupted with that audio blurb?

It’s incredibly buggy and unpredictable

If I’m being told that I’m getting a premium experience for paying with iTunes Match, then I expect to hear no ads or radio-like segues between tracks. I’ve been a Spotify Premium subscriber for over a year now, and I love it because it I hear nothing but the music I want playing. Spotify, Rdio, and Pandora are also reliable, which brings me to the biggest problem I’ve had with iTunes Radio.

It’s incredibly buggy and unpredictable.

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There have been multiple times when I tried to open iTunes Radio and it just didn’t work at all. Then sometimes album artwork doesn’t load. You’re supposed to be able to star tracks to play more similar stuff, but that and the “never play this song” option hardly ever work for me.

When I play a station in Pandora, I have faith that it is going to play without problems. That hasn’t been the case with iTunes Radio.

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Apple still hasn’t been able to quite figure out cloud services

And if I’m paying for this with iTunes Match, why am I limited to a only 8 skips per station? Apple should let people skip as much as they want so more music is played and, by extension, bought. I can’t scrub through a track, which is also annoying. Apple has basically modernized the traditional concept of radio, but services like Spotify and Rdio are already catering to what people want when listening to music: complete control. iTunes Radio offers hardly any, and the only advantage it has over Pandora is iOS-level integration.

It also highlights how Apple still hasn’t been able to quite figure out cloud services. If you subscribe to iTunes Match, you won’t get ads in iTunes Radio, which is a good thing. The problem is that iTunes Radio can’t recognize that your Apple ID has a Match subscription tied to it; you have to manually log into iTunes Match in Settings on the device you’re using to play iTunes Radio.

That’s not a big deal by itself, but when I enable iTunes Match on my iPhone, then iTunes on the desktop won’t let me manually manage songs from my Mac, which I like to do. So I’m forced between choosing to sync my music the way I want or not having ads in iTunes Radio. That’s a ridiculous decision to have to make.

I don’t think iTunes Radio is all bad. Some of the stations I’ve tried are actually pretty good in terms of music selection. But it’s buggy, unreliable, and the most recent example of Apple’s struggle to make a software service that works as well as its hardware.