Review: Griffin iFM Radio Browser
When Griffin Technology released its combination FM radio tuner and remote control Navigate back in April, something was conspicuously missing: Griffin's promised free App Store iPhone and iPod touch application iFM. This week, the app finally became available as iFM Radio Browser 1.1 (Free), and though it's in markedly different form from the pre-release version we'd previously tested, most of the changes the company has made are for the better. Still, some relatively serious issues limit its appeal.
Whereas Navigate is capable of acting on its own as an FM radio tuner for any Dock Connector-equipped iPod or iPhone model, iFM transforms iPhones and iPod touches* running iPhone OS 3.0 into something more: an assisted, one-click or finger-dialed radio with an on-screen list of currently available stations, marked by genre, and complete with the names of currently playing artists. The station and currently playing song details are provided in major U.S. cities by Mediaguide,** and worked more or less properly in our tests of the new 1.1 software; they’d had some issues in the prior beta version.
By “more or less properly,” we mean to say that iFM does about as well as can be expected given the manner in which it’s achieving its results: most of the time—with an iPhone, at least—you can load the app, quickly see a list of stations, click on one, and hear what the list says is playing. With the song on screen, you can switch to a display that lets you add the track to a wish list or find it in iTunes for a purchase; another button displays additional track, biography and events detail. You can visit your wish list at any time, see a list of the tracks that were playing, and assemble a list of favorite stations; individual station details actually let you see the last five tracks they played, although the track list also includes individual advertisements, which cut down the number of listed songs.
That said, iFM has its limitations, including a notable one: the software depends upon both location services and an Internet connection to acquire the station names and current track details, which makes it more useful on the go for iPhoners than iPod touch users, at least those who aren’t connected to Wi-Fi when they’re listening to Navigate. On the iPhone, iFM quickly figured out where we were and gave us a list of stations with some details on what was currently playing. In tests with a second-generation iPod touch, iFM initially requested use of location services—Skyhook—to figure out where we were, and oddly came up with San Francisco rather than our actual location in New York. We exited the app and went to Maps, which pinpointed our exact location within seconds, and on restarting iFM, the app did so as well. For those with more persistent location service problems, a manual region setting screen is available, and most users will only need to use it once. Additionally, iFM initially refused to install on the first-generation iPod touch, and Griffin’s App Store description didn’t list it as compatible with that device. [* = Following our review, Griffin updated the App Store listing to add first-gen iPod touch compatibility, saying that its omission was accidental.]
While iFM’s station and track details aren’t quite as impressively implemented as we’d hope, they suffice for a free app. In the pre-release version of iFM, Griffin used a nice white-on-gray interface for its stations, which has shifted to a more plain black on white list of station numbers, names, and genres, with the current artist in smaller gray letters underneath. While this main station list updates on a certain set schedule, it’s not minute-to-minute current, and for some reason, clicking through to some stations with “no recent information” will display artist, song, and album information anyway, though it appears to be outdated and inaccurate as the list suggests. Click on other stations and you’ll see details for a song that’s not playing any more. [** = Following our review, station and song-tracking provider Mediaguide told iLounge that it “passively monitors” over 2500 terrestrial radio stations in 150 markets, without cooperation from the radio stations, and uses a digital fingerprinting system takes 5-10 seconds from the start of a track to identify what it is, hence the lag. According to the company, it provides its findings in realtime to iFM, which then procures album art, artist bios, and the like from other sources.]
In other words, and due in part to technical limitations, iFM isn’t precise; it’s a blunt tool attempting to match data it has retrieved from Mediaguide to whatever’s actually on the radio, and though it updates that data with regularity, it’s not quite realtime, or perfect. A potential fix would be to enable iFM to read data from the Navigate remote, which has an RDS radio data chip inside and sometimes gets updated artist and track details before the application does; this could, however, have its own issues. In any case, our guess is that this level of two-way communication isn’t possible with the current version of Navigate, but with the release of iPhone OS 3.0, it wouldn’t be a huge shock to see Griffin and other companies releasing apps that talk properly with wired and wireless accessories. An updated version of Navigate might well be necessary.
That brings us to iFM’s final issue—one that could be blamed on the Navigate hardware, iFM software, or Griffin’s approach to getting its products to talk with each other. Every time iFM is launched, it puts out an audible, disturbing beep that can be heard through the Navigate headphone port unless Navigate has already been switched into radio mode—a step that needs to be taken on the accessory itself—and also through any other Dock Connector accessory that might be connected. This beep is actually a quick series of tuning tones that is supposed to tell Navigate to change stations, and gets filtered out only when Navigate’s radio mode is activated, instead causing what sounds like a tiny gap in the audio when stations are changed. On other devices, it never gets filtered, and sounds loud through speakers every time a channel is selected. This implementation is a less than totally thrilling workaround to create accessory and app compatibility, and Griffin suggested back in January that the sound would not be audible in the shipping product. The fact that it’s here, despite Griffin’s decision to ship multiple revisions of Navigate—some early ones apparently without iFM compatibility—is a real disappointment.
On one hand, iFM Radio Browser is hard to dislike: whether or not you’re using Navigate, it enables you to find out more or less what’s currently playing on the radio, and what was previously playing on a given station, as well as enabling you to quickly learn about the artist and iTunes availability for given songs. To the extent Griffin is offering it for free, and leveraging Mediaguide’s information to enable iPhone and some iPod touch users to get better informed about their local listening options, it’s a good little app. But its Dock Connector noise, the related need to manually switch Navigate into radio mode, and lack of ideal performance in procuring current track details keep it from being all it could be; the noise in particular is an annoyance that takes the app out of our general recommendation category. This 1.1 version of iFM Radio Browser is a good start, but it needs some more work before it will qualify as a real selling point for either Navigate or other radio-equipped accessories.
[Editor’s Note: This review was updated following publication with updated iPod compatibility details as per Griffin and more specifics on the Mediaguide technology as per Mediaguide; it remains otherwise in its original form.]