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iPod nano Delivers Static in Radio Interface and Features

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The iPod nano's user interface for analog FM radio tuning is atrocious. This statement has alarmed some of my colleagues, who see no problem with something that mirrors an old-fashioned radio dial, and which works precisely as expected. My strong dislike of the interface? It's unlike Apple to take a tedious and bad user experience and decide that's enough.

Radio has a hoary history, dating back in the United States almost 80 years for AM and almost 70 years for FM. Despite the growth of streaming Internet radio, downloadable podcasts, subscription and purchase music services, and on-demand custom radio "stations," broadcast terrestrial radio still has tens of millions of regular listeners.

Apple originally disdained the notion of embedding an FM radio receiver - AM requires too unwieldy an antenna - into its iPods. The iPod was about the future, in which clumsy analog transmissions were beneath Apple's dignity.

Eventually, the company came around and started supplementing third-party FM add-ons with its own branded model. The iPod nano released in September 2009 became the first iPod to include a built-in FM tuner. That makes it likely we'll see FM tuners in more Apple devices. (Some colleagues, by the way, have suggested that the FM tuner is primarily for gym users who tune in to pick up in-gym audio from TV sets mounted over exercise areas.)

But I'm confused about Apple's design choices in its first foray. Apple's Stan Ng told me in a briefing that Apple likes to bring something new to the table, and added FM tuning only when the firm had a unique take on the feature. But I don't believe the company delivered anything original, nor did it live up to its own design standards. Let me take that in two pieces: programming and storage options, and radio tuning, with a brief detour into digital radio.


Buffer Underflow -- With the nano, Apple added iTunes Tagging directly within an iPod, something that previously required a dock and a digital HD Radio receiver.

But this isn't particularly interesting or unique. iTunes Tagging is an Apple-specific method of linking an over-the-air song to a purchasable item in the iTunes Store. It's about commerce, and it's about Apple. One could argue it's also a memory aid - what was that song I was listening to? So far, only Clear Channel is using the specific format Apple requires - RT+ or RadioText Plus - although it sounds like there's now huge interest in providing this data. (RT+ isn't proprietary, but provides more metadata formatting than other options, which makes it simpler to match up songs listened to those that can be bought.)

Microsoft offers a different form of tagging for the Zune HD that's far better at dealing with both analog FM and digital FM song and artist information. What's strange is that one company, Jump2Go, provides tagging technology for stations that powers both Apple and Microsoft's efforts. Microsoft clearly chose what must be a less precise but more inclusive method of matching song information than Apple.


The Pause That Distresses -- The iPod nano also includes a pause button for radio, which can track as much as 15 minutes of audio history. This pause feature isn't as useful as that provided by Sirius in its portable satellite receiver, the $169.99 Stiletto 2. The Stiletto 2 can store up to 100 hours of programming that you can schedule it to record, plus 10 hours of individual songs, and it can rewind up to 60 minutes on a single channel you're tuned to.

True, the Stiletto 2 requires a monthly subscription to Sirius (ranging from $6.99 to $19.99, depending on programming options), but broadcast radio is simply free, and thus not dependent on any particular provider. A monthly subscription shouldn't be part of any limitation.

The Stiletto 2 is larger, roughly the size of an iPod classic. But that, too, shouldn't be an issue. With 8 or 16 GB of storage, it's hard to understand why an iPod nano can't buffer a selectable amount, up to 60 minutes or longer.

Also an odd omission is the iPod nano's inability to record programming for later. Many writers described the iPod nano pause feature as "TiVo for radio," but TiVo can timeshift: record now, play later, not just pause.

Scheduling might be tricky - yet another interface would have to be jammed into the already overflowing iTunes 9 - but it's certainly not impossible. Even something as simple as "record the next 2 hours on such-and-such preset station" could be easy enough from the iPod nano's scroll wheel.

An inability to record programs, with scheduling or not, smells very much like Apple attempting to keep record companies happy. Satellite radio had a minor battle about recording music, and various compromises were put in place; Sirius pays licensing fees, too, which certainly helped. And music can't be exported from the Stiletto 2 player.


Highly Omitted -- You might note that I don't complain that the iPod nano can't record digital FM, marketed under the name HD Radio by the sole approved U.S. format's owner, iBiquity. The Zune HD tunes in high-quality digital FM programming offered by about 15 percent of U.S. radio stations, including many public radio stations.

Digital FM broadcasters can also choose to add additional lower-fidelity channels, and many stations now do. The FCC still requires that the first HD Radio channel for an FM station is a mirror of the analog broadcast.

The reason is that the iPod nano is so tiny that's there no way to include the first-generation portable chips needed for HD Radio tuning. It's also unclear whether, beyond the digital aspect of HD Radio, there's much demand for the feature.

In Seattle and most major metropolitan areas, all major commercial and public radio stations supplement analog with digital; but that's still just a fraction of the whole.

It's possible that Apple might choose to put an HD Radio receiver in the iPhone, iPod touch, or iPod classic. Since Microsoft pulled off digital radio in a small form factor, one should expect that Apple could, too.


Dial Tone Deaf -- We get at last to the nub of my complaint with the iPod nano. Yes, tagging; yes, pause; whatever. Many folks are and will be far less annoyed by limitations there (and some of those limits could be erased with radio station upgrades and firmware changes).

But what got my goat when I fired up the radio in the iPod nano was how ridiculous it is in 2009 to use an interface that mimics an analog tuner. I don't need to see the frequencies. I don't even particularly need to care.

The FCC licenses frequencies and assigns call letters to each broadcast radio station. Most radio stations send out their call letters via the low-speed data embedded in analog signals - Radio Data System or RDS.

The iPod nano (and Zune HD) picks up this data, which can include artist and song information as well as road traffic updates, and displays it. If you tune to a station, the call letters are extracted when you create a preset and used for selection rather than the frequencies.

The experience of tuning on the iPod nano would be fine, if it were a car radio. The scroll wheel is used to move around. Hold down the center button to get a menu that lets you add the station to favorites. Press Menu to get a menu that lets you bring up the favorites menu. Press rewind or fast forward to jump to the next station; hold down either button to scan up or down the dial.

My gripe? There are discrete radio markets around the country. Apple could scan through a subset of frequencies to pick up active signals and station call letters, and then use a stored database likely of no more than 50 KB (yes, 50 kilobytes) that associated stations in all U.S. markets. (This would work in most other countries, too, for analog radio.)

With as few as one or two radio stations and call letters, the iPod nano could offer - if the stations were other than what was stored - to load the radio with the local station map. You could customize that (removing stations you don't listen to). And when you took your iPod nano to a different city, the iPod nano could recognize that and say something like, "It looks like you're in Raleigh, North Carolina. Should I load the Raleigh station list?" The station's format (country, classics, news, public radio) could be noted, too.

I could go one step further, and suggest that with the market known, other data could be loaded - schedule information for tuning, if not recording - although that would require constant updates and a lot more tweakiness on Apple's part. That information is commercially available, however, and Apple could relicense and shoot the small amount of data to an iPod nano updating it every few days during syncs.

An advanced menu option or a button held down could bring up a tuner for low-power stations or repeaters, common in rural areas. This would also work for gym workout room tuning.

This is just one approach to how this could work, and I don't claim to be as smart about interface design as the folks at Apple clearly are. But I simply ask: who cares about the cycles per second at which a station is exciting atoms in its tower? Aren't we really interested in the station name (if we know it) or the format (if we don't)?


Tune In, Tune Out -- For another company, these would be either minor cavils, or laughable complaints, far beyond the infrastructure and software capabilities of the firm. Apple, however, appears to be able to build a phone that can integrate GPS-style data from multiple sources, make it available via an API; or, in an off afternoon, embed a video camera into a pack of gum. (I don't like the iPod nano's video quality, but it's still remarkable for its size.)

For Apple to add any feature, it needs to be best in class, and a rethought-out way to carry out a process we've become so used to, we forget how much time we waste. Radio storage and tuning needs another trip to the whiteboard at Apple.

 

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Comments about iPod nano Delivers Static in Radio Interface and Features

Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-09-28 15:00
I agree with you about 92%, but it's your last line that's flawed: "For Apple to add any feature, it needs to be best in class, and a rethought-out way to carry out a process we've become so used to...". If that were the case, we'd be connecting our iPods and iPhones via FireWire. I understand your desire, but the FM radio feature is a tacked-on feature that Apple could implement cheaply.
Glenn Fleishman  2009-09-28 15:35
Doesn't it seem uncharacteristic of Apple to tack a feature on? I suppose that's what I find most baffling. Unthunk differently.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-09-28 15:44
Staff fight! :-)

I'm with Glenn on this one - I couldn't care less about radio, but if Apple's going to make a fuss about adding it, I'd like to see them put more thought in. Look at Rogue Amoeba's Radioshift - they don't give you a faux knob to tune it.

(And I say that as someone who loves knobs in the real world, with truly analog activities like adjusting the gas on a cooktop.)
Glenn Fleishman  2009-09-28 15:51
Right. Imagine Radioshift on an iPhone. I was picturing that, didn't say it. That would be remarkable.

Really, I don't see why Apple couldn't extract podcast data (even if it had to build some weird table of schedule plus podcast) and hide all the frequency stuff entirely. Make broadcast radio into Internet radio.
Mark H. Anbinder  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-09-28 16:25
Also, I think you're making assumptions based on Seattle norms about how pervasive RDS is. Around here in particular, but also on most of my road trips, I find a handful of stations whose call letters (never mind additional info like song titles) show up on radios that can grok the data.

However, an FM tuner can indeed determine where there are viable signals. The one feature I love on my Audi's stereo is that it can show all the active FM frequencies -- with the RDS data when available. That would be an easy feature for Apple to implement.
Toothpick Bandit  2009-10-27 18:19
I have to agree here. This must be a US thing. I bought a car radio once that supported this feature, turned out only ONE radio station here in NZ broadcast the appropriate data
alan jones  2009-09-28 15:11
Show the radio tuner interface to a person younger than 25 and chances are, this will be their first experience of tuning via a rotary dial. So while it's familiar to us old folks, I think it'll be either strange and foreign or new and interesting to the primary demographic.
Don Sellers  2009-09-28 15:51
Here's my question: How good is the reception? A couple of years ago I bought a Sony Walkman mp3 player for a son because it had a built in FM radio. He rejected it because updating podcasts was a nightmare. I bought him an iPod and I took over the Walkman. The radio is fine in Seattle, but here behind the hills, it is fairly awful.
Glenn Fleishman  2009-09-28 20:21
I haven't tested it in a lot of circumstances.
Bryan Pietrzak  2009-09-30 01:09
I vastly prefer seeing "92.3" vs "KXTZ" or whatever the call letters are. in fact, I've been in Omaha for 15 years now and can't tell you the call letters for ANY of the stations here. But I can name 7-8 stations by frequency.

I don't disagree with your ideas about auto-loading data for each city, but please don't assume everyone prefers, or even knows, call letters to frequencies.
Glenn Fleishman  2009-09-30 07:09
We can compromise: it could show call letters and frequencies - and formats! But just not require manual tuning in a digital age.
I'm a boomer and I like to listen to FM radio as well as my Itunes. I was excited by an Ipod with FM radio but disappointed it wasn't digital. Do you think I should wait until they get it right?
Jolin Warren  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2009-10-15 05:15
I think that digital radio is a problem for a company like Apple that wants to develop one product and sell it worldwide. The standard used in the US isn't used anywhere else, and elsewhere the market is split between countries that use DAB/DAB+ or systems based on the DMB digital television standard. It's a shame we're ending up with such a mess of incompatibility. Will be interesting to see whether the iPod/iPhone line will ever get digital radio, and what kind.
Steve Johgart  2009-10-19 19:47
I think you explained part of the reason for frequencies at the beginning of your article. You said that some people think the reason Apple added the FM to the Nano is to listen to the TV audio in gyms. That's the only thing I use the FM in my Nano for...and my Y has frequency numbers taped to the TVs. If the Nano relied on call letter tables, I'd be unable to use the FM feature for the only purpose in which I have any interest.
Glenn Fleishman  2009-10-19 21:22
You'll note that I suggested an advance mode that would allow setting frequencies should still be in place. But it seems like Apple is playing both ends: if it's mostly for gyms, why not support "scan and load" (scan through all frequencies and make presets, which would find gym channels); if it's for listening to radio, why not make it better?
Michael Kupietz  2009-10-21 10:07
I just had to add a comment, because you touched on something I've been bothered by for a long time:

"It's unlike Apple to take a tedious and bad user experience and decide that's enough."

I have been saying for years that Apple often will develop something until it's adequate for them adding a bullet point in their ads, and then leave it at that.

Compare CoverFlow to the original Cover Flow software it is based on - a stiff, engineered-feeling shadow of what I once thought was the organic, elegant future of media library UI design. iTunes is particularly rife with examples of halfbaked features, especially in mp3 tagging.

Or, why'd iPhoneOS take years to get copy/paste?

Or read Bruce Tognazzini, Apple HI Group founder, for his critiques of the Dock (asktog.com). If I comb my archives, I'm positive I could find dozens of Apple software features I've complained about on various fora over the years for being obviously left incomplete. (I could go on, but the char limit is running ou