I've been a fan of Pandora Radio since it launched in 2000, but the growing number of ads interrupting my stations is annoying. One such ad told me that I could avoid the ads if I upgraded to Pandora One--by buying a year's subscription. Does spending the money make more sense than ignoring or muting the ads?
Similarly, video streamer Hulu touts better audio/video quality and more content with its subscription service. I took both offerings for a spin to see if they're worth the cost. (For a Hulu Plus hands-on by my colleague Melissa Perenson, see "Hulu Plus Subscription Service Streams TV for $9.99 a Month"; for a Q&A plus suggestions for free alternatives to Hulu Plus, see PCWorld blogger Sara Jacobsson's posting "Hulu Plus Subscription Is Not That Big a Deal.")
Features: Pandora One ($36/year) delivers ad-free playback, higher-quality audio (192 kbps), and unlimited listening (you can use the free service for no more than 40 hours a month). You also get the Pandora Desktop Application, which you can customize with skins and launch outside your browser.
There's also no daily skip limit with Pandora One. With the free service, users can skip songs (by giving them a ‘Thumbs Down', by skipping, or by clicking ‘I'm tired of this song') only 12 times per day across all stations. The hourly six-skips-per-station limit remains because of Pandora One's licenses with music studios.
Assessment: The difference in audio quality from Pandora to Pandora One is noticeable, and I enjoyed having hours and hours of playback without a single advertisement. Using the browser-based version is already very convenient, so I didn't use the Pandora Desktop app often. The limit on skips per station each hour is unfortunate (ten per hour would be better), as Pandora's Music Genome Project can be a bit random in what it decides to play. For me, Pandora One's value doesn't justify the expense. If you're curious about upgrading, you can subscribe to a 24-hour free trial--no strings attached.
Features: Hulu Plus ($10/month) offers HD-quality video and lets you watch every episode in the current season of top shows from ABC, NBC, and Fox. The free version limits you to the five most recent episodes. The premium service also gives access to a bigger library of past seasons of current and discontinued shows; you can watch on your iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Samsung TV or Blu-ray player, or Sony PlayStation 3. Support for the Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony and Vizio TVs and Blu-ray players, and other devices is coming.
Unlike Pandora One, Hulu Plus is still riddled with annoying ads, which are up to a minute long and sometimes repeat two or three times in the course of a single episode. It's a drag.
Assessment: For TV addicts with multiple media devices, Hulu Plus is a dream come true. And at $10 a month, it's pretty affordable. If you don't own a supported product, however, you should hold off until Hulu adds more devices to its roster. Also, if you're a Netflix member, you probably won't get a lot out of Hulu Plus. A lot of the older material on it (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Law & Order: SVU) is already on Netflix Watch Instantly. And finally, if your favorite shows are on Comedy Central, CBS, or the CW, forget Hulu Plus: It doesn't support them. Hulu offers free one-week trials of Plus, but you have to request an invitation.