Pros: Excellent FM radio tuning and remote functionality in an attractive, micro-iPod-style enclosure. Highly easy to use, requires no external batteries, includes integrated belt clip. Original headphone port version is capable of making radio and voice recordings with certain iPod models with a single button press. New Dock Connector version works with iPod 5G and nano, lets you select and turn on or off your favorite equalizer with one button press.
Cons: New black version lacks recording capabilities altogether. On older model, radio recording performance is problematic on 3G iPods, and absent on iPod minis, while Apple’s 8 KHz monaural sampling limitations of 4G and color/photo iPods limit quality of radio recordings. Old version’s internal microphone for voice recording is only acceptable as an unexpected bonus feature tangential to the product’s core features.
Editor’s Note: Originally posted August 26, 2005, updated December 7, 2005 with iFM Radio and Remote for iPod with Dock Connector Version section at bottom, and new Pros and Cons at top. If you’re looking for a version of iFM to use with a 5G iPod or iPod nano, skip directly to the bottom of this review.
The news we reported years ago tells most of the story: April 2003’s announcement of iFM, then described by Griffin Technology as “the world’s first FM radio for the iPod,” planned for Summer 2003 release, in “a design that’s so unique it has to be seen to be believed.” Then there was the follow-up story in October 2003: “we estimate that we are about 80% completed with the project and will likely get it to market in November.” And finally, the cancellation notice in January 2004, explaining that the product originally developed for the second-generation iPod was “impossible” to develop for the third-generation iPod.
Go ahead. Insert your own “leave it to Griffin to accomplish the impossible” joke here. But more than two years after the initial announcement, iFM ($49.99 MSRP, approx. $30 street price) has been reborn as an actual iPod accessory, compatible with fourth-generation black-and-white and color iPods, and almost entirely compatible with third-generation iPods and iPod minis. And it’s been redesigned from the ground up with better features. Amazingly, it was only beat to market by one other FM radio attachment – BTI’s TuneStir (iLounge rating: B-) – which turned out not to be as good as originally expected.
Not yet available in stores, the iFM unit reviewed here was delivered to us in final packaging by Griffin, which has told us repeatedly that the version received is reviewable final product. If any changes are found in units that are actually sold to consumers, we will update this review to note them accordingly.
With a thin metal and plastic casing that looks like a further minaturized version of the iPod mini, iFM is almost “cute” when you first see it – one iLounge editor commented that it looked like the iPod shuffle should have looked. There’s a backlit LCD screen, a three-position switch on the left side of iFM to toggle between OFF, FM and REMOTE positions, and two total buttons for volume (up/down) and track/tuning (left/right) on the right side.
A plastic belt clip on the rear is small and not especially resilient feeling, but not awful, either. We wish the screw at the top was a Philips head, so people could easily remove the clip.
What’s missing from the design? A battery compartment. iFM doesn’t need one. It runs off of the iPod’s power, and deliberately manages its backlight (and the iPod’s screen) to use as little power as possible while it’s turned on. You’ll still want to turn it off when you’re not using it; otherwise, it will stay on when the iPod’s turned off, waiting for your input.
Our only slight issue with iFM’s look and feel was a deliberate strategic decision on Griffin’s part. Two cords dangle off the bottom of iFM’s body, one to connect to your headphones and another to connect to the iPod’s extended headphone port. iFM’s functionality as a remote justifies its dangling design in this case, but the same design in a top-mounting iPod accessory would have been even better.
iFM includes a total of three key features and one “bonus.” The feature most critical to its appeal is an integrated FM radio tuner, which we can say with confidence has actually been done right here. Not only is the tuner highly visible thanks to a relatively large, light green LCD screen that’s brightly backlit, and the interface very easy to use thanks to very simple controls, but the radio sounds great by portable FM radio standards. It does well at tuning in stations, even indoors – better in fact than Griffin’s RadioSHARK in our experience – and compares in overall sound quality to the best FM tuner we’ve played with in a non-iPod portable device.
What does that practically mean? Outdoors, iFM sounds outstanding, bringing in any station we tried without fail. As with all but the best home or car stereos, light static is occasionally evident, but neither offensive or overwhelming. Music preserves most of its dynamic range, and sounds great during music, talk, or even silence. Indoors, iFM does as well as its surroundings will permit, and we don’t mean those words in a negative way. If you’re in a structure that’s unfriendly to radio, iFM will do as good a job as possible at bringing in stations, and we honestly felt quite pleased by its indoor reception in our testing.
Other than sound quality, Griffin’s masterstroke in the FM radio tuner’s design is something that you need to use badly designed tuners to appreciate. Griffin allows you to toggle between three different frequency modes: United States, Europe, and Japan, each indicated on the LCD screen in turn when you hold down the small red face button for five seconds. US mode tunes from 87.9FM to 107.9FM in .2 increments, EU from 87.9FM to 108.0FM in .1 increments, and JP mode from 76.0FM to 90.0FM in .1 increments. The result is a tuner that works virtually anywhere in the world you might take it, and doesn’t require US users to hit the button two times for every station change when at home.
Pressing iFM’s center play/pause button cycles through six preset stations, indicated by P1 to P6, a very simple way to keep your favorite stations available within a few quick button presses. Holding down the button turns any current station into the numbered preset that you’re on. Overall, the unit’s buttons and switches are few in number and work exactly like you’d expect them to, a point we wouldn’t dwell on as much if not for the major difference between this and BTI’s TuneStir.
Another key feature of iFM is indicated by one of three words on its LCD screen – FM / REMOTE / REC, the latter of which is for recording. iFM records FM radio to 4G and color/photo iPods with a single button press, and stops recording with a single button press. Volume boosts temporarily in your headphones to insure a good recording, but otherwise, the process is transparent. The little button to the northeast of the large play/pause button activates recording, lighting up red when it’s happening. Like Griffin’s new version of iTalk (2), iFM doesn’t require you to use the iPod’s menus for recording, and in fact keeps the iPod’s screen on only as little as is necessary during the process. Once it’s done, the iPod turns off and the radio continues playing.
When you want to listen to the recording, you switch the iFM into “remote” or “off” mode and go to your Voice Memos menu. You’ll find a time/date stamped recording, which sounds just about as good as the iPod can muster with its low sampling rate. Again, that’s more of a compliment than it may sound. We fooled a listener into thinking he was hearing a live radio broadcast – an impressive one, to his ears – by playing back straight from the iPod. When he actually heard the superior-sounding live transmission, he was further impressed by iFM’s tuning ability, but still surprised that the recording was as clear and listenable as it was.
This isn’t to say that iFM is perfect on radio recording. It works just fine on 4G iPods and color/photo iPods, with the expected – iPod-related – compression in recording.
You might hear a high-pitched sound when listening to the recordings on the iPod, as is unfortunately the case with all of the iPod recording devices we’ve heard, but shouldn’t hear it in iTunes. Also because of iPod design limitations, IFM won’t record when connected to an iPod mini, and it’s somewhat surprising that Griffin lists it on its packaging as largely 3G iPod-compatible. Though Voice Memos comes up on a 3G iPod, its record button won’t work, and radio recordings we made manually with the iPod were raspy and unpleasant, even when cleanly tuned in. When a station wasn’t cleanly tuned in, the recordings were even more unpleasant. Thankfully, iFM works fine as a FM radio tuner (and remote) on both the iPod mini and 3G iPod, so two out of three major features ain’t too bad.
There’s not a lot to say about iFM’s third key feature, which is its ability to act as a slightly larger substitute for Apple’s iPod Remote, a decreasingly prominent accessory that’s sold as part of a set for $39. You toggle iFM into remote mode with its left-hand switch, and use the right-side and front buttons to change play/pause status, tracks, and volume levels. The LCD screen is mostly useless in remote mode, another omission from the iPod’s design that everyone has hoped against hope would be remedied by some text-laden remote control system. iFM doesn’t display text information of any sort during remote playback, and we don’t think any current-generation iPod remote will do so, either.
The belt clip on iFM’s rear makes it easy to wear the device on your pants if you want to toss your iPod into a pocket or bag while connected. Unlike Apple’s clip, which opened vertically, iFM’s is intended for horizontal mounting, and is a bit more visible when you wear it. Functionally, however, it’s virtually identical other than its more powerful radio feature set. The only omission is a hold switch, but we really didn’t miss it.
“Bonus Feature:” Voice Recording
The big surprise of iFM is that it can also be used as a voice recorder, but don’t get too excited. Think of it as iTalk minus minus, and you might be pleasantly surprised – it’s the only feature you should not expect to fall in love with when purchasing the device. Though equipped with a tiny omnidirectional microphone, hidden in a pinhole at the unit’s top left corner, there’s no automatic gain control feature, and it’s barely useful beyond a distance of two feet from the audio source with any significant background noise. You can hear comparisons between the iFM and the latest iTalk in our August 26, 2005 Week in Review podcast, where we tested iTalk outdoors and iFM in a car.
To access the internal mic’s recording functionality, you just press the small record button on iFM’s front when the unit’s in remote mode. As with the radio recorder, a second button press will deactvate the recorder. Note that our sound sample above has been boosted in audio level by around 18 decibels to allow you to hear what’s been recorded – against the backdrop of a not especially noisy moving car, it’s not great. Indoors, it does a bit better, but don’t buy it for this “bonus” feature and expect to get an iTalk out of it.
We’ll note briefly that iFM did better at voice recording with a 3G iPod than it did with radio recording. The finished 3G recording was perfectly acceptable sounding indoors, without any of the rasp or distortion we heard in its radio recording feature, which while not the trade-off we would have preferred will give some satisfaction to owners of older iPods. Again, voice recording does not work with iPod minis.
The one thing we haven’t pointed out about iFM is its price – with an anticipated street price of around $30 at retailers such as Amazon, it’s a considerably better value and performer overall than BTI’s TuneStir, and it’s very hard to imagine that this device will be done better for current-generation iPod models. Smaller than it looks in pictures and better-sounding than we expected it would be in every way except for its unexpected “bonus” voice recording feature, iFM delivers a truly great experience when used with 4G and color iPods – one worthy of our flat A, highly recommended rating. Unless something dramatic changes in the near future, any person with a current-generation iPod who wants to add FM radio should consider this the top option.
That said, iFM isn’t as strong a performer when used with iPod minis and 3G iPods, the former as explained conspicuously by Griffin on its packaging, and the latter not. Owners of these two types of iPod may well be disappointed by the performance (or lack thereof) of the radio recording feature, and should not expect as good an experience overall when using the unit as instructed.