Review: Apple Computer iPod Radio Remote
Pros: A convenient iPod shuffle-like remote control for iPod 5G and nano with the added ability to tune in radio broadcasts. Radio tuning is accomplished on the iPod’s screen, with a great new interface that makes manual tuning, scanning and presets easy to use. Strong reception and audio quality. Easier than its predecessor to attach to clothing, thanks to a wider spring-loaded clip.
Cons: At least in current versions of iPod firmware, RDS data display can be unpredictable, particularly on the iPod nano. Lacks radio recording ability found in Griffin’s original iFM radio remote, and competing MP3 players. Not designed for use with iPod 3G, 4G, or mini.
For years, we’ve heard what Apple has only this week implicitly acknowledged: many iPod owners want to hear FM radio programming, too. Three other companies began catering to this need in 2005 - BTI released TuneStir (iLounge rating: B-), then came Griffin’s iFM (iLounge ratings: A/B+), and DLO’s miniFM (iLounge rating: A-), made solely for iPod mini. None of these devices has been perfect, but each has offered something the others lacked.
Now Apple has released the iPod Radio Remote ($49), a redesigned version of its prior iPod Remote for 3G, 4G, and mini iPods, now with added FM radio functionality. A new Apple Remote of some sort has been necessary since last year, when iPod 5G and nano lost the top-mounting connector the old Remote relied upon. This version instead connects to the iPod’s bottom Dock Connector port - now with a newer, shorter connector - and makes a few other major changes as well. It is the second FM radio-equipped remote to work with 5G iPods and nanos; Griffin released a modified version of iFM with a Dock Connector (iLounge rating: B+) right before the end of 2005.
The new Radio Remote looks identical to the control portion of the iPod shuffle: volume up and down are the top and bottom buttons of a ring that includes track backward and forward buttons on its left and right, and a larger play/pause button in the center. As has often been said about the iPod shuffle, it’s hard to imagine a simpler and more intuitive control scheme than this one. There’s also a Hold switch on its top surface if you want to prevent accidental button presses, and the back has a flat, Radio Remote-wide shirt clip - a bit of a surprise given the chrome backs of current iPod models.
The new clip is larger than the last Remote’s, and though intended for shirt or jacket mounting, is easier to attach to a belt. A wire dangles from its bottom to the iPod’s, and a top port on the left accommodates your choice of headphones.
Apple also includes a modified pair of its standard iPod earbuds (and two sets of black foam covers) with every Radio Remote. The only difference here is that the earbuds’ cord is shorter than normal, and specifically intended to minimize cable dangling when used with with the remote. Of course, any other pair of headphones will still work, and the radio tuner still works if you attach the Radio Remote’s headphone port to a pair of speakers. Finally, there’s a Dock Connector protector cap for use when you’re travelling.
The iPod Radio Interface
Users of earlier FM transmitters may be asking a question at this point: where’s the FM tuner? That’s how Apple’s remote distinguishes itself from other options - at least, for now. When you connect the Radio Remote, a brand-new “Radio” option appears on the iPod’s main menu; it disappears whenever the Remote is disconnected.
Selecting the Radio option brings up a new on-screen FM tuner. As with the iPod’s recently added Stopwatch feature, Radio uses a brushed metal interface with a large faux green LCD screen and black numbers to let you see what you’re doing. A radio icon with power waves appears on the top left corner of the screen, and the top right side of the full-sized iPod’s display also includes a clock - the nano’s smaller display does not. On both iPods, clicking on the iPod’s center button brings up a dial-style tuner at the screen’s bottom.
When the tuner is turned on, you brush your finger against the iPod’s Click Wheel to scroll upward and downward through the list of available stations. The iPod automatically begins to play whichever one you stop on, without requiring a confirming button press. Like Griffin’s iFM, you can toggle between US and international station tuning with Radio Remote: a new Radio Region option appears under Settings, with USA, Japan, and Europe as choices.
US tunes from 87.5FM up to 107.9FM in .2 steps, while Europe tunes from 87.5FM to 108.0FM in .1 steps, and Japan from 76.0 to 89.9 in .1 steps. When you’re done tuning, the bottom tuner disappears entirely, giving way to what alternately appears to be a blank second screen or a text display, depending on the station you select.
This is the Radio Remote’s other obvious distinctive feature - support for RDS, a way that broadcasters can send limited text data to radios. RDS text varies from entirely absent to just a station’s name to a real-time display of artist and track names. Useful? A little. Cool? Definitely. But it’s also somewhat unreliable. The 5G iPod’s RDS feature doesn’t pick up all the text shown by our car stereo’s RDS display, and the iPod nano’s RDS seemed to pick up even less text than the 5G’s. (iLounge readers in Europe have already reported odd experiences when using the RDS feature overseas with nano.) From our perspective, this is not a critical part of the Radio Remote’s - or, actually, iPod’s - feature set, but it would be nice if it was more predictable and robust. We’re hoping for improvements in later firmware.
There’s one other feature here that really deserves praise, however, and that’s the iPod’s station preset system: presets are unlimited and as easy to use as can be. You tag a station as a preset by holding down the iPod’s center button, and remove it from the list in the same way. All presets are listed on the radio dial with small arrowheads, but you don’t need to bring up the dial to access them. Skipping through stations on your list is as easy as hitting the iPod’s track forward or backward button at any time, while scanning through stations is accomplished by instead holding one of those buttons. This worked perfectly in our testing, and we were once again impressed by Apple’s intuitive design.
Audio Quality and Conclusions
Of course, the critical feature of any FM radio receiver we’ve tested is sound quality, and the Radio Remote left us quite satisfied. On reception, it performed roughly on par with Griffin’s iFM, which we found to do a great job outdoors, and a solid one indoors. Signal strength was roughly the same on the two devices, with slight variations between them depending on the channel. At times, Griffin’s tuner appeared to have a slight edge on static levels, but Apple’s station scan feature sometimes did a better job of automatically locating radio programming under challenging indoor situations. Outdoors, they performed about the same. Some other iPod and non-iPod portable FM tuners we’ve tested struggle much more to tune channels, especially indoors, so Apple’s option is amongst the better ones we’ve seen. Audio quality of the Radio Remote was similarly comparable to iFM’s. We’d give a slight edge on treble response to iFM, but the difference was small; average users will not care. This is a very good radio tuner, backed by an excellent interface.
Is the Radio Remote missing anything? At least right now, it lacks one major feature that briefly propelled Griffin’s iFM to the top of the pack when used with a 4G iPod: recording. Last year, Griffin found a way to record iFM’s live radio broadcasts to the iPod’s hard disk, albeit at low quality. Neither the Radio Remote nor Griffin’s current Dock Connector-equipped version of iFM has this feature, an especially unfortunate omission given the 5G iPod’s dramatically enhanced recording capabilities. Apple could (and should) update the iPod’s firmware to support radio recording, a feature that’s found on many competing MP3 players - it’s the only major omission from an otherwise excellent accessory.
Though our rating isn’t impacted by this factor, it’s also worth noting that the Radio Remote’s FM tuner is incompatible with iPods released prior to the nano and 5G - at least as of the date of this review, Apple has not released firmware to support FM radio playback on the iPod 3G, 4G, or mini models. For that reason, there’s no reason besides cosmetics for prior iPod owners to buy this instead of the previously released $39 standard Remote. Older iPod owners looking for a radio-ready remote control should give strong consideration to Griffin’s original iFM instead. (Our photo below shows the newer, black iFM, which lacks recording capabilities and connects to iPods’ bottoms. The size difference between the two devices isn’t trivial.)
For the $49 price, what Apple’s Radio Remote delivers is a superior package to its $39 predecessor: you get added functionality, a superior control design, and remote-ready earbuds. You also get an FM radio experience that’s superior to Griffin’s similarly-priced iFM on interface, presets, and physical accessory size, too. While we’re not normally enthusiastic to see a higher-priced official Apple accessory replace a lower-priced one, this particular offering is an exception because of two factors - we liked its shuffle-like controls and know that numerous cheaper, non-radio remotes for iPod nano and 5G are near release. While we expect that 2006 will bring many new wired remote control options to the table, the iPod Radio Remote makes FM tuning easier than ever before for iPod owners, and is worthy of our high recommendation.