You can look as hard as you want at the iPhone spec sheet but one thing that you won’t find built-in is a radio. Never mind that FM tuners have been a standard inclusion on most phones for many years, and forget the fact that even the humble iPod nano now comes standard with an FM radio.
But don’t despair. As Apple says, “There’s an app for that.” And so it is for radio too.
To stay relevant, most radio stations now broadcast over the internet too, and a few enterprising developers have picked up on the signal and created iPhone apps that let you tune in. All you need is an iPhone, an App and a healthy data plan.
Internet radio broadcasts, like everything else in the digital world come in many shapes and sizes. There are high-bandwidth streams, low-bandwidth streams, streams in MP3 and streams in Real or WMV. Luckily for you and your iPhone all the apps that tap into internet radio deal with these streams automatically.
I’m still hoping that Apple will one day add radio to the iPhone, but until then, check out these apps:
TuneIn Radio ($2.49)
This is the app that everyone’s talking about at the moment, and in my testing seems to be the easiest to use, provides the greatest range of stations and has some great additional features that make up for the iPhone’s lack of multitasking.
First, at the core, TuneIn Radio lets you listen to basically any radio station in the world. I couldn’t find any that I couldn’t access, and in particular TuneIn Radio has access to many Australian radio stations that other similar apps didn’t seem to find.
The app uses a service called RadioTime to provide station information, and you can either search or browse the info. TuneIn Radio is also geo-aware, so it presents you with Local Radio stations too.
Before you select the feed you want to listen to, you’ll notice a little orange badge with a number. This signifies the streaming rate, which is a proxy for quality. For example, a 48 stream is 48 kbps, or about 6 kilobytes per second.
In terms of data, if you spent 30 minutes listening to a 128 kbps stream on the way to work, you’d be consuming about 11MB of data.
Once the stream is playing you can also play and pause the stream or tap the record button to record the stream to your iPhone for later listening.
There’s also a small Options button which is where TuneIn Radio differentiates itself from the competition. First, if a QuickTime or MP3 stream is available, TuneIn Radio will offer to launch the stream in Safari for you, which means you can actually keep the stream playing in the background while you do other things on your iPhone. If a QuickTime stream doesn’t exist, Tune in Radio offers you the next best thing; an in-app web browser that means you can continue to listen to the stream while you’re surfing. (Editor’s note: TuneIn Radio has just been updated to allow you to play audio in the background on iOS 4.)
There’s also a built-in sleep timer, a schedule of what’s on, and suggestions on other stations that are similar to the one you’re listening to.
Internet Radio Box ($1.19)
Similar to TuneIn Radio, Internet Radio Box provides access to over 30,000 radio stations from the RadioBox and Shoutcast radio directory. It’s got similar features to Tune In Radio and even includes the ability to automatically block a stream from using 3G, useful if you’re on a restricted or expensive data plan.
There’s also a built-in web browser, but overall I preferred the interface and performance of Tune In Radio.
(Editor’s note: Internet Radio Box also now offers support for background audio on iOS 4.)
Radio also uses the Shoutcast radio directory to provide access to thousands of radio streams, and has some extra social features like the ability to share the information about the station you are listening to via Facebook or Twitter.
This article originally appeared in the May issue of Australian Macworld magazine.