It is good to be a BlackBerry user these days. Developers are embracing the platform and options exist today that didn't just a year ago. One of my favorite programs over these past few months has been Slacker Internet radio. Since I cancelled my satellite radio subscription, I have been using Slacker almost exclusively as a way to keep my music fresh and varied.
A few weeks ago, Adam let us know that Pandora Internet Radio (which had long been a favorite when I would stream music from my PC or Mac) was now available for the BlackBerry. Sadly, being a T-Mobile subscriber this wasn't available for us...yet. Just last week, a new update made Pandora available for T-Mobile customers (and, I presume, most others) in the US.
So, what do we do now? Which is the king of Internet radio for the BlackBerry? I did a full comparison and have my thoughts on the matter below.
To give a fair comparison, I will divide this review into three sections; Setup and ease of use, Options and Interface and Musical Depth and Sound Quality. My BlackBerry for this review was the T-Mobile 8900.
Setup and Ease of Use
Both Slacker and Pandora are available as OTA downloads from their respective web sites - www.slacker.com and www.pandora.com . Before you download either program, make your Slacker and Pandora accounts on your PC or Mac. Setting up accounts on both web sites from your computer is easy - you register with your email address and you choose a password.
Each computer based web site gives you similar options - listen to pre-programmed stations in various musical Genres or "Create Stations" based on artists that you like. I am a huge fan of the latter approach - I have 8 or 9 stations based on very different artists. Each web site will then match similar artists to the one you choose as the "base" for that station. You will hear more of that particular artist's music than any other, but not so much that you get tired of it.
OK, so now I have accounts at Pandora and Slacker and I go to both web sites from my BlackBerry and download the BlackBerry plug in.
Setup on Slacker went painlessly on my BlackBerry. I downloaded the software and then was prompted to restart my Blackberry - sort of a pain, but no big deal.
Slacker asked me if I had an account, I input my email and password and then all my favorite stations from my Computer account showed up (with album art) on the BlackBerry.
Slacker installed on my BlackBerry Curve 8900
Setting up Pandora on the BlackBerry was just as painless. The Pandora Web site recognized my BlackBerry, I download the software OTA and I was set to go. Just like Slacker, I input my email address and password and all my favorite stations showed up. Unlike Slacker, however, I did not have album art for my "Favorites," just a list of stations.
Pandora installed on my BlackBerry Curve 8900
Slacker Ease of Use
Using Slacker is very easy. Once you are signed in, you choose to either go to your favorite stations, to create a new station (right on the BlackBerry) or to scroll down the list of available stations. In a genre like Rock, you might find that there are upwards of 15 stations to choose from.
Just choose the station and it will begin playing a song from that particular artist or genre. To access the options (discussed in the next section) just press the MENU button on your blackberry.
Options and Interface
Many of the differences between the two programs is largely cosmetic, but there are some that are more significant.
The interface of the Slacker BlackBerry client is very clean. The Album Art interface is nice for scrolling and choosing what to listen to. Sometimes, a piece of album art might trigger a nice musical memory and inspire you to click and listen.
Creating new stations on the fly is very easy and fun with Slacker. Just type a name into the search bar and you are off.
Options during playback are pretty standard for Internet Radio. You can Pause or Play the current song, "Skip" a song, set that particular song as a "Favorite" or "Ban" that song from playing on that station. It should be noted that in the "Basic" edition of Slacker, you only get six skips in a particular listening session and there are some very brief commercials.
Press the MENU key and the options are very robust. You can get a bio of the artist, you can get a review of the album, you can ban the artist altogether from that station and, my favorite "Slacker Option" - you can "Cache" the station.
This is what really sets Slacker apart from other programs - if you have your memory card inserted, you can cache stations. When you select the Cache option, Slacker tells you how much space you have for cached stations. Choose to cache the station, and Slacker "records" what you are listening to your Micro SD card for later playback - a very cool feature and a nice way to build up your music library. It doesn't actually record at that minute - you receive a notice telling you that the next time you connect over USB, the station will be stored on your memory card.
Pandora also has a nice user interface. There are advertisements that are rather prominent at the bottom of the "Now Playing" screen, but that seems fair on a free program.
When you start Pandora, it remembers the last station you were listening to and it immediately starts off with that station. If you want to listen to something else, just click on the "stations" tab and you go back to your list of created stations.
Like Slacker, you can create a new station right on the BlackBerry. Your options for playing music are not as robust as with Slacker. You can choose a "Quick Mix" which takes songs from the "Stations" you have already created and sort of shuffles the genres.
Your only options are to listen to your pre-made stations or to make new ones - you can't browse by genre and just look for a dozen rock stations.
Press the MENU key and your options are also not as robust as Slacker. You can Bookmark a Song, Bookmark the artist, choose "Why this Song?" Which is sort of a strange feature where Pandora rationalizes why that particular song has been chosen to go in that list and you can shut down Pandora - that's all.
When playing music, you can choose a "Thumbs up" or "Thumbs down" which is just like the "Favorite" or "Ban" feature on Slacker. You can pause the song and you can skip to the next song - there is no limit to skips on Pandora.
Musical Depth and Sound Quality
For me, this winds up being the most important feature. I do like the idea of Caching music, but I have an extensive music library and use Genius playlists that I Sync to my BlackBerry and I can listen to streaming Internet Radio - so, Caching is sort of overkill.
Both Pandora and Slacker offer an impressive array of music when you create a station.
I have been listening to both of these programs pretty extensively as of late. I find that with Pandora, I have a better option of hearing the same song repeat - but it may take a couple of hours. With Slacker I can go an entire day, sometimes two days, and never hear the same song - assuming I don't pick an obscure artist around which to create a station.
That being said, I find that Slacker offers a "Deeper" musical library around my chosen artist. Pandora mixes up the tunes, but it draws from fewer artists than does Slacker. Slacker offers deeper cuts off of some of my favorite albums that I just don't hear on Pandora.
I do like the choices that Pandora makes and I find myself "Skipping" much more in slacker. Why is Madonna on the Sheryl Crow station in Slacker? I rarely find myself skipping to another song when listening to Pandora.
This is a very subjective issue - we all have different ears and use different equipment. On the go, I used a pair of Klipsh headphones that are pretty amazing. At home, I plugged my BlackBerry into my office stereo with 5 channel surround and powerful amp and subwoofer.
This was the one category that surprised me - the only one with a true "Hands down" winner. That winner was Pandora. Pandora offered much deeper bass, crisper highs and pure silence between songs. Slacker occasionally had that Wi-Fi high pitch scratch that I sometimes get when making UMA calls on my BlackBerry. Most of the time, Slacker sounded great - but it didn't sound as great as Pandora.
I didn't know if this was the stations themselves or my BlackBerry, so I tried both Slacker and Pandora on my MacBook using the digital audio output to a high quality stereo. There was no high pitch scratching here - so I think that must have been a Wi-Fi Issue with my BlackBerry. However, Pandora still sounded better - it seems as though they are using a higher quality feed than Slacker.
* UPDATE: It is really amazing how CrackBerry has the eyes and ears of the BlackBerry world. A Slacker rep contacted me this morning after this article was published to make an important point; the sound issues I heard on my 8900 were real -= but they are issues with the 8900 OS, not the Slacker program. He suggested that is we do a sound comparison using a Bold, the sound quality of Slacker should be much improved. **
The good news for BlackBerry users is that we really don't have to choose- we can have both. Slacker and Pandora really advance the Streaming Internet Radio options and mean that we can have great quality and fresh musical choices wherever we are.
Slacker wins with regards to in program options - I like looking up the artist history and I love all the stations I can just scroll through.
Slacker also wins with regards to caching music - this is an amazing feature and means that you can really be free from iTunes and other programs and you can just cache your favorite stations for great musical variety. The other huge advantage is that both these programs are memory and resource intensive. If you are not in a Wi-Fi zone or on 3G - forget it. I was able to use both on EDGE, but, eventually, both crapped out.
Pandora is the winner, however, in the very important category of Sound Quality. I can't speak as to why that is, but, for me, it was consistently cleaner and crisper with fuller bass and no noise.
I would recommend that you try them both and see which works for you. I keep both on my BlackBerry and now use them all the time. It is a great time to be a BlackBerry lover!