Pandora Radio's HTML5 redesign hands-on

Earlier this week, Pandora announced that it would finally be dropping its longtime support for Flash in favor of HTML5. The move is one piece of a big redesign for the site, one which will begin rolling out to Pandora One (the $36 / year premium version) subscribers in pieces, as part of a limited testing period before being made available to the service's entire massive user base.

The timing could have been more ideal, of course. A day after the announcement, Spotify quickly grabbed the attention of those following the online music industry by formally launching in the US. It's important to note right off the bat, however, that these two services are not really direct competitors, in spite of how some might spin it. Spotify is an all-you-can eat subscription service, making it more akin to the likes of a Rhapsody and Napster. Pandora, on the other hand, is built largely around passive music discovery. You log-in, you enter an artist, and you let the music come to you. This redesign takes that ease of use to a whole new level. Check out our impressions below.%Gallery-128497%

Simplicity has always been a key part of Pandora's strategy, and it's a game plan that has worked well for the company, giving it a broad appeal, even with the most technophobic among us. The redesign embraces that simplicity, making the site cleaner, easier to read and navigate, and much faster. That last bit is thanks to the decision to swap Flash for HTML5, which really does shed precious seconds, as promised.

As before, the service works straight out of the box, firing a song up the second you log in. At the top of the homepage is a thin bar featuring a home link and drop down menus for your stations, your account, and various other options. Directly below is a large toolbar that follows you around across the site. The persistence of this makes it possible to navigate to different pages without popping up new windows -- the music continues to play and you're always a simple click away from the front page.

The right side features information and a small thumbnail for your current track. To its left are a larger set of play / pause, track advance, thumbs up and down, and volume buttons, plus a music status bar. Thumbs up have also been scattered through out the site, Facebook-style, making it possible to like songs and albums all over the new Pandora. Artist pages aggregate those who have liked the musician. On the far left is a new search field, with auto-completing results, which are broken down into Top Hits, Artists, and Songs. The service now also makes suggestions based on your listening habits. Clicking on the name of an artist will generate a new station, autoplaying it in the middle of the page.

The center of the homepage is dedicated to your current selection, featuring a much larger piece of cover art -- hovering over the image will pop up the option to give the track a thumbs up or down. The size of the image can be quickly increased or decreased, as well. Links to the track, artist, and album pages are directly beneath, along with options to buy and share. The area also offers up expandable lyrics, a quick bio of the artist, and links to similar acts. To the right is a list of your stations, which can be sorted alphabetically or by date, along with buttons for shuffling and adding variety to your current station.

Buttons along the top of the area bring you to the site's social features. Clicking "Music Feed" will stream your friends' activities, which should prove familiar to anyone who's ever logged into Facebook. Here you can see what your friends are listening to and liking and take a look at the stations they've created -- after all, forcing your musical tastes on people is the whole point of having friends, right? Clicking "Find People" brings up a search bar you can use to locate users by name or email address. If you're logged into Facebook Connect, the site will offer up a list based on your friends on that site.

The social aspect of the new Pandora is focused more on in-site communication, rather than sharing information over external sites like Facebook and Twitter. The latter is possible, but service now defaults to its own newly expanded feeds and profile pages, to avoid "spamming" followers on other sites, 4Foursquare-style.

The new Pandora isn't revolutionary -- in fact, most of the upgrades are fairly minor. The core of the service is still those customized radio stations, but the redesign has happily made listening and sharing easier, faster, and generally more enjoyable -- a big thumbs up on all accounts. Pandora's charm is, as always, in its simplicity -- unlike Spotify, Rhapsody, Napster, and the like, the service is all about letting the music come to you.