Definitive review of Apple's new streaming music service, iTunes Radio, and how it works on Mac and Windows PCs

First announced in June at WWDC 2013, iTunes Radio has been in private beta ever since, accessible only by registered iOS developers. With the public release of iOS 7 and iTunes 11.1, iTunes Radio is now ready for the big time. Sadly, the service is still U.S. only at this point, though with Apple's global reach in the music space already, we can't imagine it being the case for too long.

Available on iPhone, iPad and iPod touch with iOS 7, OS X and Windows in iTunes 11.1 and the Apple TV, here we're going to focus on the desktop. How well does iTunes Radio integrate into the iTunes application, and how well does it stand up to some of the competition.

The interface

If you've ever used iTunes on the desktop previously to manage your music, then you'll be right at home. Accessing iTunes Radio requires nothing more than clicking on the "Radio" tab, and you'll be presented with an extremely familiar looking window. Across the very top are a series of Apple chosen "Featured Stations" which includes iTunes Top 100, and a series of selections chosen by guest DJ's, which right now includes Katy Perry and Jared Leto.

Below the Featured Stations section is where you'll find all the custom stations you have created. Right next to those is a simple toggle to turn on or off explicit music. Great if you don't like swearing in the tracks you listen to, but far too easy to access should you be a parent perhaps trying to restrict what your kids are listening to. To lock it out, you need to head into the parental controls in preferences, and turn it off completely.

A little further down the main screen, when one of your own stations is selected, you'll be able to access its history and customize it a little. By using the slider, you can fine tune the sort of tracks you want to hear by hits, variety or discovery. You can also tell the station to play more tracks like the current song or artist, and likewise never to play anything by an artist or an individual song if there's something you really don't want to hear.

To the right of all this the history will display all recent tracks listened to in that station, as well as a handy one click link to that song in the iTunes Store with its current price displayed. After all, Apple wants you to buy music from them. The purchase links are small and unobtrusive enough not to really notice them, yet handy if you want them. You also get the same link in the now playing box at the top of the iTunes window.

So, all in all, it's as you would expect. Not at all complicated, and seamlessly integrated into the iTunes desktop experience.

Creating a station

Creating a station really couldn't be simpler. Next to "My Stations" the "+" is what you'll be looking for. When you click on it you're presented with some suggestions from Apple by music genre or you can search manually by genre, song title or artist name. Searching by artist will also bring up suggestions based on some of the popular tracks by them, so you're presented with plenty of options to start filling up your stations list.

Managing your stations is pretty straight forward as we've already discussed, and it's great to see customization options available to tailor it specifically to your tastes. The same options are available to you from the now playing bar, and also from the mini player. With a couple of clicks you're able to register your distaste for a particular track, or that you want to hear more like it. Or, with the same couple of clicks start an entirely new radio station.

Stations will by default name themselves after the artist or track from which they're based, but thankfully you can call them anything you want.

The iTunes Radio experience - The music

Since iTunes Radio has the full might of the iTunes music collection behind it, the selection on offer is excellent. In fact, it's pretty exceptional. One of the frustrations of some other music streaming services is sketchy availability of music. iTunes Radio so far has served up no frustrations, no missing artists, and has delivered something based around whatever I've searched for. For a free service, the quantity and quality of music available seems pretty fantastic.

Listening to music does take on a radio like experience. If you're listening to a curated list from a guest DJ, every so often you'll hear them chime in and talk for a little while. Tracks don't seem to repeat on themselves too often, and every now and then an advertisement will be spliced in to the stream if you're using it without an iTunes Match subscription.

Skipping tracks is something to bear in mind if you're going to be using iTunes Radio regularly. Free and paid users may only skip a total of 6 tracks every hour. As an end user it's disappointing, but there'll be some licensing, red-tape type reasons behind it, so we're stuck with it. Just think before you skip.

The iTunes Radio experience - The advertising

Advertising is only found in iTunes Radio for anyone using it for free. If you're an iTunes Match subscriber, the ads go away. So far though, ads have seemed few and far between, and pretty minimal at that. Apple has posted both audio and pop-up advertisements for something on sale in the iTunes Store as an example. It lasted less than 20 seconds and then went away. Compared to something like Spotify's implementation of advertising on free accounts, Apple comes out on top.

If you're already an iTunes Match subscriber, then none of this will concern you. But, if you were considering subscribing primarily to dispense with ads in iTunes Radio, I implore you to live with it on a free basis first. The ads really aren't that bad, and unless you're going to use the other features of iTunes Match as well, you could save yourself a little cash.

The iTunes Radio experience - Limitations

This isn't necessarily a 'negative' or 'things we don't like' section, but there are limitations to iTunes Radio over other music streaming services that need to be highlighted. The first has its clue in the name; Radio. iTunes Radio is in the closest sense of the word a radio service. It picks the songs to play and when to play them. While you get to tweak the stations to your own tastes, you have no control over which exact tracks play. If you're looking for somewhere to find an album and play it track-by-track, you'll need to try another service.

And, since this is a radio service, there's no offline music support. On the desktop, that's perhaps not so much of a limitation as it might be on mobile, since there's a high chance you'll also have an Internet connection. But there'll be no caching of music locally for that trip abroad.

The other, pretty huge limitation, is availability. Right now, iTunes Radio is only available officially in the United States. Again, red-tape and licensing will be at work, but it doesn't make the millions of non-American iTunes users feel any better that they can't get their hands on it. It's sure to change, but we have no clue as to when, and how widespread that will be when it does eventually happen. If anyone can get it out there, it's Apple, but we'll have to sit tight for now.

One limitation that is a negative against iTunes Radio, is that you can't manage and tweak your radio stations unless you're listening to it at the time. It's pretty disappointing you can't conduct a little housekeeping without ending the track you're half way through and starting another station entirely. As you build up a larger library, this could become quite irritating.

iTunes Radio vs the competition

Apple is the last major player to get into the streaming music space, with Google and Microsoft both with services arriving in some form ahead of iTunes Radio. The main difference with Apple's offering and most of the competing services is the lack of album support. It's just radio, and while Spotify, Google and others all have radio type features built into their streaming products, they're not the focus. Arguably Spotify has the best balanced product of all, with a strong mix of discovery and finding your favorite albums.

The strength of iTunes Radio is in its simplicity and its integration with familiar products. Other services require either the use of a web browser, or another desktop application. iTunes Radio is built right in to a product most will have been using for years - iTunes. It's free, and it ships with every copy of iTunes 11.1 downloaded from Apple. Which not only puts it on millions and millions of Mac and Windows computers, but it also doesn't differentiate so much as a new product. It's more like a new feature of an already familiar product.

The good

  • Simple implementation, seamlessly integrated into iTunes
  • It's available completely free of charge
  • The power of the iTunes music catalog behind it
  • Advertising has been handled extremely well
  • Focused product - it does what it sets out to do extremely well
  • Unified experience for Mac and Windows users

The bad

  • Six song skipping per hour is disappointing, licensing or not
  • U.S. ONLY!
  • Can't manage a radio station without listening to it at the time

The bottom line

If you use iTunes, there's very little reason not to put iTunes Radio to work if you want to listen to great new music. That is, as long as you're within the United States. It's free to use, and honestly, I've been happier with the tracks served up here than on other similar radio focused services. The power of the iTunes music catalog shows through, the advertising isn't at all intrusive, and the curated playlists are also pretty impressive.

The main disappointment is that in the three months since WWDC 2013, Apple hasn't made any further in-roads into pushing it wider than the U.S. at launch. There's a ton of reasons why, but it still stings if you're anywhere else in the world.