May 13, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Review: Last.fm Radio for Web, Smartphones

Last.fm isn’t the best online radio service, but it is very good. What’s more: It’s very easy to get to, and almost easier to stay on. That’s because Last.fm isn’t only about providing listeners with streaming radio stations — rather, it’s focused on providing users with a portal for music education and discovery.

Users can upload photos of artists to cycle through their respective songs.

We have a feeling that most new users stumble upon Last.fm entirely by accident. If you run a Google search for a song, it’s likely that Last.fm will show up somewhere in the first page of results. In some cases, that’s a turnoff, because Last.fm’s interface can be overwhelming and simply pressing “Play” can prove somewhat of a more difficult task than it should be. But anybody willing to spend some time on the site will find that it’s a beacon of information for the musically minded.

Station Creation

As with most online radio services, creating a station can be as easy as typing in an artist, genre, or song and pressing play. However, other options go beyond that standard functionality.

Last.fm offers a number of different playing options.

First, Last.fm (purchased by CBS in ’07) does a fine job of recommending music. It still can’t match Pandora’s ability to queue up completely unknown music you’re likely to enjoy, but Last.fm’s catalog seems way more intricately indexed than Slacker’s. As such, the music that plays on your personalized radio stations will always feel a little better suited than what you can find on Slacker. Listening to the “War on Drugs” station, for instance, I came across Reading Rainbow, Twin Sister, and Toro Y Moi — all bands with still-just-enough mystique.

If you play around with Last.fm enough, you’ll find that just about every button on the page leads to a station. The site can scrobble every song you listen to, indexing all of your choices, likes, and dislikes in third-party programs ranging from iTunes to Tomahawk, and throws out suggestions for stations at every turn. “Indie,” “Neko Case,” and “female singers” are some of the choices we came upon.

The third, and maybe most effective, method for creating your perfect personalized radio station is to play one station based on your Library, which includes all of your scrobbling and other activity. Creating your station this way allows Last.fm to tweak the playlist using something that you’ve already spent years (hopefully) curating.

Mobile Apps

Now that Last.fm has erected a paywall around its mobile apps, you get fifty free listens on your mobile device before you need to sign up for a subscription ($3/month). The subscription comes with uninterrupted listening, the ability to play as much music as you want on your phone, and ad-free browsing. Or, with Apple AirPlay, you can enable Last.fm to play on external speakers.

With Last.fm, listening on your mobile is more straightforward than in your web browser. All the playlist options and pieces of information (that, frankly, can be a bit distracting) are nestled onto other pages when you have your mobile app player open, so you can tool around to find band info without being inundated with options.

The Events tab exists as an option on the web browser, but it’s featured more prominently on the mobile app as a tab at the bottom of your screen. Last.fm uses this to recommend shows in your area based on the music that you’ve been listening to — part of the Last’s social network that we’ll get into a little later.

The other tabs consist of “Profile,” “Recommended,” “Search,” and “Radio.” They make for a far more simplistic experience than the one you’ll have on Last.fm’s website.

The biggest downside to using the mobile app: No offline playback, even if you pay to subscribe.

Design

Last.fm’s design won’t win any awards, but it gets the job done. Once you can figure out how to get the player playing (there are so many “play” buttons that it can be hard to determine which one to press first), you’re basically looking at a first screen that’s entirely dedicated to the song you’re listening to. Last.fm does a good job of using its social network tendencies to share entraining uploaded pictures of the band.

Last.fm provides users with an extremely comprehensive array of artist and song information.

Below that, Last.fm flashes a wealth of information for you to check out while you’re listening to music. There’s an artist bio, a similar artist section, an events area, and a list of related stations should you get bored of what you’re on at the moment. There’s also a (usually extensive) comment section that you can get involved in if you have an account.

The iPhone’s mobile app follows in the way of interface, though it’s integrated somewhat into the standard iPhone design. You’ll see that a lot of buttons and tabs look similar. Unlike with Slacker, you won’t be venturing into unchartered territory when you open up Last.fm’s mobile app.

Sharing

Last.fm will either be your favorite online radio service for sharing, or your least, depending on how you like to share music. Because it’s a social network unto itself, Last.fm has made no efforts to integrate Facebook, Twitter, or texting into its sharing options. Instead, you can send your song/station to an email address or to another member of the Last.fm community.

Payment Options

As detailed above, Last.fm is mostly free. They get their money through a whole lot of advertising (that right now is mostly just for a certain sandwich chain). If you want to listen to Last.fm on your mobile device after the first 50 songs, it will cost you $3 per month. Considering the size of the catalog and Last.fm’s recommendation services, we consider this to be a relatively good deal.

Do You Get What You’re Looking For?

For casual listeners, with Pandora as the guiding light for music recommendation, Last.fm has firmly planted itself in the mid-to-upper echelon of online radio services. You won’t be exposed to a new band as often as you are with the Music Genome Project-powered Pandora, but its selection is solid, and you won’t see repeats come up as often as they do on other services.

Those who are more fiendish with their online radio — willing to update their stations diligently with ratings and scrobbling – will find that Last.fm’s $3/month subscription package offers a superior system of information gathering that can make your listening experience far more enjoyable, largely on the strength of its scrobbler feature.

Last.fm dominates social media-driven radio sites, and you can use that expertise to find all sorts of music by “following” people whose music selections you respect and seeing what they’re listening to. While building your Last.fm network may take a while to get to the point where you can pool large audiences of fans for new music, there’s certainly enough reason to stick around.

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