Listen on the move with Radioplayer and iPlayer Radio

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The last week has been an interesting one for people who, like me, both love radio and go nowhere without their iPhone. Two new radio apps that provide streaming audio and catch-up facilities launched within days of one another.

Apple doesn’t include built-in radio (either FM or DAB) in its devices. How you interpret that may be clouded by your view of Apple’s approach to consumer electronics: you could choose, for example, to see the decision as not wanting to provide something that’s free & unmetered, preferring to lock users in to using internet radio (which outside Wifi areas will mean using a carrier’s data plan). Alternatively, you could think that (a) DAB doesn’t have enough of a US-based footprint to attract Apple's attention, and (b) as both FM and DAB requires a decent external aerial (with headphone cables typically being used for this purpose on portable devices), Apple has simply chosen not to include hardware that doesn’t work without headphones inserted.

Either way, you have been able to buy add-on FM/DAB receivers, subscribe to podcasts, or download third party apps such as TuneIn. But the release of the BBC’s iPlayer Radio, along with the Radioplayer app, which streams both BBC and commercial radio, within the space of three days has meant that, data connections and 3G data allowances permitting, you can listen to streaming radio stations more easily than ever before.

So, what to make of the new apps? And how do they stack up to others which were already available?

NB: I’m talking about iOS only apps here, as it’s the only type of device I have and use. Android or Windows Mobile users, if you have experience of equivalent apps, please share them in the comments.

BBC iPlayer Radio (free)

Pros: Slick, responsive interface; alarm clock; show reminders; video clips; podcasts; full radio schedule
Cons: BBC only; podcasts not downloadable; no quick “back to now” on schedule

The BBC’s new iPlayer Radio app builds on the branding of its other iPlayer app, which now concentrates purely on television content. An innovation here is the station dial, which presents the Corporation’s array of stations from around the UK, as well as the World Service, in a rotary format. Those of us who grew up with hand-tuning AM/FM radios will find a familiarity in that dial, without the need to turn it into a skeuomorphic design in the way that Apple’s Podcasts app tries to do. The dial has one space for local radio, which defaults to your nearest but can be switched to any of the BBC’s local stations.

Alternatively, tip the app into landscape mode and you view a grid-based schedule, responding easily to the touch to scroll through stations and days. There’s a noticeable lag in retrieving new shcedule info once the scrolling stops, though, and no immediately obvious way to jump straight back to what’s on now, should you have scrolled way into the past or future.

Once you get to your chosen station, sliding up the large photo of what you’re listening to can reveal a selection of popular shows, programme clips and/or bonus video content – the amount available depends on which station you’re perusing.

In general, it works very well, and coupled with a simple-but-powerful text search you can find lots of great content from right now, or the last 7 days, to listen to. You can set yourself reminders for particular shows, and even set your iPhone to wake you up with an alarm that tunes into your chosen station. Unfortunately, that’s somewhat limited by iOS restrictions – you need to leave your phone with the app running (in “night mode”), and ensure the hardware mute switch isn’t on.

Arguably no other broadcaster has made so much available on free-to-use podcasts, all of which are also available through the app, though seemingly only as streaming feeds: you can’t download for offline listening (something the TV iOS app recently added) or subscribe for new podcast episodes. For that, you’re better off with Apple’s own Podcasts app, even with all its annoyances (see below).

While it’s less than perfect – while trying it out, I somehow managed to get live audio feed of Radio 4 Extra, a Radio 2 archive feed and a podcast all playing out at once – it’s a very good version 1.0 release, and will hopefully spur other apps on to better things.

RadioPlayer (free)

Pros: Wide array of BBC and commercial stations; add favourite stations; local stations easy to find
Cons: Design feels less polished; “Trending” stations seem to pollute search results

Preceding the launch of the BBC Radio iPlayer by just a few days, the Radioplayer is a joint effort between the BBC and commercial radio stations to standardise access to radio stations over the internet. It’s the dedicated app equivalent of the ‘popout player’ that participating broadcasters now use for their radio streaming online, which enables you to switch between broadcasters relatively painlessly.

And honestly, when the Radioplayer app landed, I really thought it was a great advance. It’s location aware, so BBC and independent local radio stations are easy to find out of the huge number of supported broadcasters from around the UK, although they do tend to get mixed in with "trending" stations from further afield. Commercial broadcasters with their own dedicated apps get some built-in promotion, so if you listen to LBC you’ll see a button to install Global Radio’s branded app. Other than that, the focus is on live listening with a searchable archive of on-demand content too.

And honestly, when that arrived last Friday I thought that all was pretty nice. Sitting alongside iPlayer Radio, though, it’s amazing just how dated an app that’s barely a week old feels. Whereas the BBC-only app feels crafted, this feels like it’s been put together by a team that thought, “That works, so that’ll do.” Hopefully that will improve in further updates, as an app that gives such easy access to both BBC and commercial stations deserves to do well.

Other apps

TuneIn Radio (free) doesn’t only support the big BBC and commercial UK stations, but countless streams from around the world – including some British indies that Radioplayer doesn’t support, such as London’s Resonance FM. The same app has a paid-for version, TuneIn Radio Pro (69p) which includes a variety of additional features, including the ability to record radio streaming (copyright issues notwithstanding).

For podcasts, Apple used to force you to use iTunes on your computer to subscribe to podcasts, which would then sync up to your iPhone whenever you docked. Now, it has a dedicated Podcasts app (free) which has come in for much (warranted) criticism. After a flurry of recent updates, though, I find the current version (v1.1.1) to be much improved. You can search and subscribe to podcasts from the BBC and others, have episodes automatically download (limiting to Wifi only if you wish, to save on your 3G data allowance) and, all in all, it’s become a great little app.

Its insistence on using the analogy of a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and a bizarre “dial” for browsing podcasts by genre, do detract from its usefulness, though. I feel like I’m being held back by the tweeness of their design concept – in direct contrast to the iPlayer Radio’s dial, which feels familiar, but easy to use.

Other considerations

Audio streams are nowhere near as data intensive as video ones, but extensive listening can quickly eat into your phone plan’s data allowance if you let them. For that reason, a podcast of your favourite app downloaded over Wifi can be much more economical, even if it means you lose the immediacy of a live stream.

An alternative is, of course, to use these apps to stream radio at home, or in the office – which puts them in competition with not only web browsers, but FM and DAB sets as well. They, and portable apps, are likely to improve as the new open standard RadioDNS, which makes it easier to enhance over-the-air broadcasts with internet-delivered content, starts to become adopted. Much was made about the ability for DAB to carry additional metadata, but that has never really come off – but applications built on top of RadioDNS look far more likely to gain widespread use. RadioDNS also makes it more likely that content created for a station’s website can be reused on radio sets, and vice versa.

Whatever happens, it’s an exciting period for fans of radio and technology.

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