When it comes to Internet radio, Pandora is the king. It’s been around since January 2000, nearly 13 years, and is going strong. Even though its stock definitely hasn’t gone anywhere good since the company went public last year, it has remained the most popular Internet radio service. On-demand streaming services like Spotify have tried to compete but Pandora holds its place well.
One of the problems with this great service is its availability. It’s always been a browser-only thing and the developers don’t care to expand it to have its own native app on anything except a mobile phone. There is an official lightweight Mac app, but it requires that you have Pandora One, a monthly or yearly subscription. It’s also not a very nice app, being coded with Adobe Air and Flash. Instead, Maha Software’s PandaBar, a native Mac app that sits in your menu bar, seems like a great alternative. Let’s take a closer look.
PandaBar isn’t a full app, nor is it a tiny Dashboard utility. It’s a sort of hybrid between the two. If you’ve ever used the Day One quick-entry creator or Mint QuickView, you know what to expect. This is a menu bar app, a miniature version of Pandora’s Web site, only redesigned a bit.
When you first start the app, it will ask you to put in your username and password for Pandora. This may seem confusing because Pandora’s Web site says email and password. Just sign in like you would on the Web site and disregard this. Once you’ve put in your credentials once, there’s no need to worry about them again — they’re remembered automatically. Now, on to listening.
Everything You Need in a Small App, Including Last.fm
This app is only 305 pixels wide, making it a tiny addition to your Mac. It’s got all the basic things you’d expect: a play/pause button, a skip button, thumbs up and down buttons, a volume control slider, and a stations selector with a way to add new stations. There’s even a fullscreen mode, which, while seeming unnecessary, is very nice. (It is not yet available but will be included with the next update.) If you’re going to use the app for listening to music at your small business (like a café) giving it the whole screen is a good way to know what’s playing without clicking anything. The artwork is even nice and clear.
Keyboard playback buttons work as usual, so feel free to pause and skip.
Another little thing that makes this app worth using is Notification Centre integration. As with Spotify, Bowtie, and other music apps and tools, PandaBar will tell you what’s just started playing with a notification. Strangely, clicking it won’t take you to the app, but that’s okay. If you’re reading all this and have Growl, don’t worry about being left out because it has support for that too. This (notifications) is something iTunes should have had earlier this year, but will probably be saved for the new version that’s planned to release at the end of the month.
One feature you wouldn’t expect to see in a Pandora app is Last.fm integration. With this app, you can Scrobble what you’re listening to; now that’s fun. Just go to the Preferences screen, click Last.fm, and check the “Enable scrobbling to Last.fm” box. PandaBar will then automatically send Last.fm all the songs you’re listening to in realtime.
The last notable feature is in an update to the app. Version 1.2.9, which should be released soon, will be including sharing features for Messages, Twitter, and Facebook and the aforementioned fullscreen mode. There’s also a Buy in iTunes button on the share menu if you’re enjoying the song that you’re currently listening to. Do be aware that the sharing features are going to be available for OS X 10.8 or later only.
Not So Nice-Looking
The little bear has all the needed features, but when it comes to design, things really start to decline. PandaBar’s layout is simple and there’s nothing wrong with that. The appearance of the entire app, however, is somewhat boring. Having the hint of green does spice things up since the rest of the user interface is grey, yet somehow it still manages to look monochrome — in a dull and uninteresting way.
Since this is one of the few native apps (Muse has a cool name, but it’s just an overpriced browser window) available for the Mac that streams Pandora, it’s okay to give it some slack. After all, competitors like Streambox have poor design as well, but at least it’s more consistent. (There is a more handsome app called Radia that looks like it’s worth a try, though I haven’t tested it out yet.) Even if PandaBar picked up an iTunes Mini Player-like interface, that’d be better than what it currently has. The current design simply hurts the app’s charm.
If you’re looking for an app with more consistent design, you could try Fury, a sort of basic menu bar app. It doesn’t have any originality to it whatsoever and requires Flash to play Pandora in a mini-browser, but it does look nicer than this native client. That’s one of the other options out there if you want something less than the full Pandora Web site.
Slight Delays, Yet No Ads
During my listening experience, everything sounded very good even though I don’t have a Pandora One subscription. Interestingly, there were no advertisements. I’m not sure how the developer is achieving this, but it’s great. If you’re willing to pay a $4.99 one time, you’ll get ad-free Pandora hopefully for life, unless the service does something about it.
I did encounter one issue during regular listening. It’s not something I had expected and maybe it’s just my 1.5 Mbps Internet connection coming back to haunt me. Whatever the case, there were some gaps between songs. It’s not always noticeable, but when changing stations there’s a definite 5–10 second delay. On occasion the gap between songs can also reach this length, but it’s typically only one to two seconds, which isn’t a problem.
Mostly Better Than the Web App
This app’s main purpose is great, and the idea behind it makes it worth purchasing. However, the problem lies in its design, which is less appealing than Pandora’s Web design. That’s a disappointing thing to see in any third-party client, but the extra nifty features compensate for the lack of aesthetics. Last.fm integration, for example, is one of the main reasons a lot of people will be using this app, as strange as that sounds. Sure, it’s a competing service — that doesn’t mean Scrobbling can be done elsewhere.
As a whole, the app is just okay. Before it’s something I could recommend, the design efforts would have to be increased, and the strange gaps between songs would have to disappear. The latter may not be possible, and if that’s the case, it’s a shame, though understandable. Not having advertisements during listening is definitely an advantage, as is the Last.fm integration and Notification Centre support. Right now, this app is the best Pandora experience on the Mac, but the design might annoy you.
On Sale for $1.99 to Celebrate Thanksgiving
This app is currently on sale for $1.99, 60 percent off, for a limited time to celebrate Thanksgiving. If you like what you’ve read about it and see it as something useful for your menu bar, be sure to grab it as a bargain while you can.
Pandora in the Mac menu bar is a dream, and this app makes it come true. Sadly, it's not as pretty as it looked in your dreams, even with though you won't be hearing any advertisements for your favourite products.7
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