capsule review

Review: Apple iPod Radio Remote

At a Glance

January’s Macworld Expo brought just a single iPod-related product announcement from Apple—the unveiling of the company’s iPod Radio Remote. This $49 device adds an FM tuner (and wired iPod remote) to a fifth-generation iPod or iPod nano, giving users of newer iPods a feature many of them have long requested.

Overview

The packaging for the Radio Remote is typical of Apple’s other products—relatively compact and very professionally done. Inside the box is the Radio Remote itself, a set of in-ear earbuds with a shorter-than-usual cord, two fuzzy covers for the headphone’s earpieces, the limited warranty booklet, and a truly tiny (2.5-by-4.5-inch) instructional booklet. The instructions take only six pages, and one of those pages contains nothing more than a warning about hearing loss and an admonition against driving while wearing headphones.

At first, I found it somewhat odd that Apple decided to bundle a set of earbuds with the Radio Remote. Anyone purchasing this product will already own an iPod, or will be receiving one at the same time, and all iPods already include earbuds. So the inclusion of another pair seems to do nothing more than increase the cost for the consumer, as I couldn’t see anyone really using them. However, while looking for more info on the Radio Remote on Apple’s site, I found the iPod Radio Remote Frequently Asked Questions page; it states that the Radio Remote uses the earbuds as the antenna for the radio. So it seems the earbuds are bundled to make sure every Radio Remote ships with an antenna.

There’s one other reason you might find the included earbuds useful—for sharing your iPod with someone else. One semi-hidden feature of the Radio Remote is that it allows you to plug two pairs of headphones into one iPod. With the Radio Remote connected to a full-sized iPod or nano, the iPod’s headphone jack is still accessible. Plug one set of headphones into the iPod itself, and the other into the Radio Remote, and both sets of headphones will be active at the same time. If you buy a Radio Remote, you won’t need to buy a separate headphone splitter to share your music.

When I unpacked the Radio Remote, the first thing that struck me was just how really tiny it is. It weighs next to nothing, with the vast majority of that weight coming from the dock connector and the cable. Physically, it’s quite small, as you can see in the image here (click the image for a larger version). Part of the reason for the small size is that there is no power source in the Radio Remote; it draws all its power from the iPod. Obviously, that means there’s a hit for the iPod’s battery life when powering the Radio Remote. Apple admits as much on the above-linked FAQ page, which states, “Because the iPod Radio Remote is powered by the iPod itself—no extra batteries required—using the FM radio will reduce battery life.”

Wanting some better data, I did my own drain test using a 4GB iPod nano. Once the nano was fully charged, I connected the radio and headphones, set the volume to about half, tuned in a station, and then just sat back and waited. Almost exactly eight hours later, the nano shut itself down. Real world usage may result in somewhat lower battery life, as I didn't change stations, adjust volume, or otherwise activate the backlight very often during the day—just a few times to make sure the radio was indeed still active. Still, eight hours of radio reception on one charge from a nano is fairly impressive; the full-size iPods should produce even better times.

Using the Radio Remote

Using the Radio Remote really is a simple thing to do. Plug it into the dock connector on a compatible iPod, then choose the new Radio button from the iPod’s main menu. (You’ll need to have iPod Software 1.1 or later.) This will take you to the main radio screen, which presents a somewhat retro FM dial (hey, I remember those!), as seen here.

From there, the click wheel (or the buttons on the wired remote) are all you need to use. Click the center button to toggle the lower part of the display between the dial view and the station identifier. With the dial visible, you can manually tune a station by spinning the wheel. You can also press and hold the fast forward or rewind buttons to scan for the next or previous station. Once you have a station tuned in, press and hold the center button to mark it as a favorite. Favorites are indicated by the small triangles you see below certain frequencies in the screenshot. To unmark a favorite, first activate it, then press and hold the center button again. Press the play/pause button to put the radio in standby mode—the radio will turn itself off. Another tap on the play/pause button will wake it up again. If you don’t wake the iPod within two minutes, it will shut off.

Although it’s quite simple to mark and unmark favorites, there’s no way to create a subset of “extra favorite” stations. If you live in an area with tons of FM stations, for instance, you may want to mark many of them as favorites. But you may have only two or three that you listen to regularly. There’s no way to just mark those specific stations, so you’ll end up using the click wheel a lot to skip across the stations you don’t often listen to.

The Radio Remote also supports something known as the Radio Data System, or RDS for short. RDS allows supported radio station to broadcast small streams of digital data along with the music they play. An RDS-equipped station will typically send its station identifier along with the name of the artist and song currently being played. When tuned to an RDS-equipped station, the Radio Remote will display this information on the bottom portion of the iPod’s display. On the iPod nano, which has a rather small display, you don’t get to see as much info at once—the Radio Remote cycles through each line of the data. On a full-size iPod, the results should be much better, although I didn’t have one available to test with.

The wired remote replicates all of the iPod Click Wheel’s control functions, except for spinning the scroll wheel to tune a station. The remote also works for music stored on your iPod, with only a couple of limitations. First, the Radio Remote must be directly connected to the iPod; it won’t work when connected through a dock, for instance. Second, if you use iTunes to adjust the volume of a given track, you won’t hear those volume adjustments if you plug your headphones into the Radio Remote. Instead, you’ll have to plug the headphones into the iPod itself. This has some implications for the headphone sharing hint given above. If you use a lot of customized volume levels for your songs, then the person listening to the iPod itself will hear the music at a different level than the person using the Radio Remote’s headphone jack.

Sound quality and reception

To my untrained ears, the sound quality of the Radio Remote was fine—what you’d expect from FM radio. While clearly not up to the level of a well-encoded rip from a CD, I didn’t hear anything out of sorts with either music or voices. Both were reproduced with good clarity, and the music itself was free of distortion, at least at anything resembling a normal volume level. I listened with a variety of headphones, including the provided earbuds, a set of Bose Triports, and the Bose Quiet Comfort 2 —each one sounded just fine to me.

Perhaps more relevant, I didn’t have any reception issues with any of the headphones, so there’s apparently nothing special about the included antenna earbuds. During a walk around both the house and the immediate neighborhood, I experienced only the mildest of dropouts, and only then for brief periods of time. I even tried using the Radio Remote with the Bose Triports plugged into the iPod directly, and nothing connected to the Remote. This should theoretically have resulted in nothing but static (no antenna attached), but it didn’t. Instead, I found a usable signal on all my marked stations.

Overall, I was quite impressed with the reception, though I live in an area with relatively strong FM signals. I wasn’t able to test the Radio Remote in an urban environment, which would subject it to more multipath interference. I also expect that the headphones-direct-to-iPod trick would not work nearly as well within a city.

Durability

While it’s too early to make any judgments as to how well the Radio Remote will stand up during long-term usage, it’s held up well for me so far. I’ve used it clipped to my belt, tossed loosely in a pocket, and clipped to a shirt.

However, Macworld Editorial Director Jason Snell didn’t have similar luck with his Remote; it split into two pieces while clipped to a backpack strap. The two pieces that make up the remote are the clip and “everything else,” which you can see in the picture above (what an amazing job of miniaturization—click for a larger version). When the device separated, Jason found the clip still on the backpack strap, and the rest of the Remote just hanging in space. Luckily, the two parts snapped right back together, and the Remote continued to work just fine.

Jason’s experience led him and I to hold an interactive iChat video chat for a little CSI-type lab work. By pushing and prodding at the device, we figured out exactly how to easily remove the back panel. Before you try this, realize that if you break your Radio Remote, it’s your fault, not ours. This worked for us, but you're responsible for your own actions!

  • Place one thumb on the edge of the Remote, on the side away from the control buttons—near where the headphone and iPod cable connect.
  • Place the other thumb on the metal clip, where you would normally “push” to open the clip.
  • Use the fingers on each hand to grasp the opposite end of the Remote, and then just gently pull with your thumbs.
  • That’s all it takes; you should hear a couple gentle snaps as the press-in tabs are released, but nothing has broken on mine yet, and I’ve now done this a bunch of times. Given how well the pieces come apart and go back together again without damage, I suspect that this is a designed-in feature to prevent catastrophic damage to a Radio Remote—from a snagged headphone or iPod cable, for instance. However, the pieces almost seem to come apart a bit too easily, as Jason’s accident demonstrated.

    The Lowdown

    There are other FM tuners available for other iPods, including DLO’s mini fm (for the mini only) and Griffin Technology’s iFM (models available for all dockable iPods). The Apple product, though, is the first to directly integrate the tuner’s controls into the iPod’s interface. The end result is an FM tuner that works very well, and yet adds almost no bulk to the wonderful compactness of today’s iPods.

    At a Glance
    • FM radio and iPod remote. Read the full review

      Pros

      • Good reception and sound quality
      • Cord is long enough for useful routing options
      • Very light
      • Very small
      • Useful clothing clip for keeping remote in place

      Cons

      • No black option for black iPods
      • Comes apart perhaps too easily
      • No AM tuner
      • No fast-access method for a subset of all favorite stations
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