A review of the Apple iPod Radio Remote

So, Apple released, last month, their Apple iPod Radio Remote, a device that both acts as a remote-control and adds a radio to my iPod Nano, or your iPod Video. And it’s only £35.

I’ve already had a guaranteed laugh out of this unit: I end up doing quite a few presentations about podcasts, and I normally mention that Apple have just released “a £35 radio add-on that turns your £300 iPod into a £20 radio”. (I guess you need to be there). It may be the case that Apple have realised that radio is good for the iPod - it allows discovery of new music (to buy in iTunes), for example… and many of the competitors for the iPod already have an FM radio in them, so to be able to add an FM radio to the iPod is a good move.

In any case, I wasn’t really buying this for the radio - rather, for the remote control. But the radio is surprisingly both over-specced and under-specced at the same time.

Where it’s over-specced
Rather surprisingly, it’s got RDS on it. But not the same kind of RDS that you see on most radios - where you tune in to Heart FM and it just says on the screen “HEART”. Oh no - this is RDS RadioText, the longer, 64 character, text that most radio stations broadcast. I happen to author the radiotext for Virgin Radio, and we sling on there stuff like the current song playing now, and other information. It’s surprising that this unit doesn’t replace the frequency (104.9) with the station name (XFM), though: and I’m not sure (though I’ll go and check) that Virgin actually broadcasts the station name in the RadioText. We will very shortly, anyway.

I’d probably go so far as to say this is the only mass-market device capable of decoding the RadioText. It clearly marks those broadcasters who do nothing with RadioText (hello, Heart) apart from the people who do produce content for it (hello, BBC Radio 4).

Where it’s under-specced
It’s not got stereo on it. Let me say that again: it’s not got stereo on it. There is no stereo reception. Everything is mono. That’s: not stereo. This is possibly more surprising than the addition of RDS. Imagine, a radio that doesn’t have any stereo circuitry in it. That’s actually quite a disappointment - but, given the reception of the device, perhaps it’s actually better: mono reception requires much less signal strength than stereo reception, so perhaps this makes the most amount of sense. However, you could also argue that it’s done deliberately to make the iPod itself sound so much better than crappy FM radio. Hmm.

What else
The software, which is included in the v1.1 software updates for the iPods, has a very nice and simple interface for adding favourite stations - just tune using the clickwheel, and then hold in the middle button to set a favourite. From there on, you can flick between favourites just by hitting fast-forward and rewind, on either the remote or the iPod. You’ll have deduced from that description, if it was clear enough, that it’s impossible to tune in manually using the remote.

It adds two menus to your iPod, when the radio is plugged in: first, it has a Radio menu (which also appears under ‘Music’); and secondly, it also has an extra Settings menu for the radio which allows you to change what region you’re in. US radio only works in steps of .2 mHz, so you can listen to 105.1, 105.3, 105.5, but not 105.4, for example. Japanese radio uses a different range of frequencies altogether, which is also catered for in this unit, as well as the standard European frequencies. I’m not sure whether this setting also changes the de-emphasis, which is different in US and European broadcasts (and a reason why a UK radio will sound rather tinny in the US, and a US radio will sound rather flat in the UK). And you thought FM was a worldwide standard!

In terms of the reception quality: it’s not great. Reception is iffy, putting it mildly, in central London - though it’s rather better in the suburbs. But, let me just mention that I’ve not heard mobile FM reception of this type for quite a few years now, having a mobile DAB receiver. I don’t actually know whether this is better, or worse, than other FM receivers, simply because this is the first handheld FM receiver I’ve bought in quite some time. Certainly other reviews appear to say that the reception is sensitive and of good quality; I’d actually prefer to use the DAB.

The remote itself essentially uses the iPod Shuffle control system - quite a change from the original iPod remotes. The build quality is really quite excellent - the back of the clip is thick (and dull) metal, while the front is quite sturdy plastic - and I don’t see the Apple logo rubbing off quite so easily as was the case with the original iPod remote. It’s not going to break any time soon.

You get given a new set of headphones with the remote, which is lovely but given that the Apple headphones are fairly rubbish, and it’s hardly as if you’ll really need a new set of headphones that often, I wonder why they’ve bothered including them. Just like the rest of my iPod headphones, I’ll sell them on eBay.

Finally, the plug that goes into the iPod is a standard dock plug - the big rectangular one, not the little jack plug. This will probably suit many people, but the case for my iPod Nano doesn’t give me any access to the dock socket at all, so if I want to use this as a remote, I need to take the iPod out of the case. This may be a big drawback for some people, and may also turn out to be a drawback for me, too, I’m not sure yet.

So: initial thoughts on this unit are quite favourable, apart from the absence of stereo reception, and the awkward dock plug. The idiosyncratic RDS reception is a welcome surprise.

A view from the future: This was discontinued by Apple in September 2009. The fifth generation iPod nano contained its own built-in radio.