Getting What You Paid For
April 17, 2015 3:06 AM   Subscribe

The hidden FM radio inside your pocket -- and why you can't use it.

The app mentioned in the story to (potentially) unlock your smartphone's FM tuner for personal use can be found over here.
posted by flatluigi (105 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
I feel so sorry for the broadcast radio industry.
posted by spitbull at 3:22 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


What if you hook your phone's microphone up to an FM transmitter and broadcast on a frequency that your friend is tuned in to? You could use your phone to talk to your friend.
posted by Phssthpok at 3:25 AM on April 17, 2015 [42 favorites]


It is bloody annoying. I don't really understand why there are virtually no apps that hit the hardware - last time I looked, there was one, which was expensive and unreliable. Even things like Cyanogenmod has very poor FM radio support, and there's no carrier pressure there at all. (Well, there wassn't, once upon a time...). I C'modded my old Galaxy S2 and poom - there went the FM.

I guess there's no standard API, but as broadcast FM is surprisingly expensive and difficult to do properly in the digital domain (as a Broadcom engineer explained it to me once, decoding good quality stereo audio is extremely sensitive to a lot of things low-power DSP isn't that good at) you'd think the chip makers would want it to be used.

Also, no DAB. Which really is a shame.
posted by Devonian at 3:27 AM on April 17, 2015


I don't understand. Why do the phone manufacturers include (and presumably pay for) an FM tuner module that they do not intend to enable? What am I missing?
posted by DrLickies at 3:37 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Interesting, I didn't know that all phones had it. I've got one of my HTC m7, my only complaint about it is that it requires a corded headphone since that also functions as an antenna.
posted by Karaage at 3:41 AM on April 17, 2015


What am I missing?

You are missing the part of the article where they explain that in much of the world, it's activated and used by people.
 
posted by Herodios at 3:41 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


I downloaded and installed that linked app on my Android, which is on their list. It did not unlock the FM chip. It did offer a very polite apology, and a link to a petition, none of which is what I was led to expect.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:47 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


I definitely have demand for FM radio on my phone even though I pay for unlimited data. Why? Almost solely because of sports blackouts on online content and the emergency situations discussed in the article. Also, if it saves battery life then just for that too.

I think I'm going to insist on finding a phone that has it next time I upgrade even though I otherwise love the iPhone.
posted by Drinky Die at 3:47 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yes, I completely missed the transcript at the bottom of the article. Found the explanation. Thanks.
posted by DrLickies at 3:48 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


It says 'apple says no' for the app.

The firefox phone has radio built-in and enabled, for those times headphones are also plugged in (what a great dual use - the antenna is also what stops you annoying everyone around you).

my bluetooth headset has a radio built in, though, which I had always found a curious design decision.
posted by davemee at 3:50 AM on April 17, 2015


Why is the app available for iOS of iPhones don't support it?
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:52 AM on April 17, 2015


The first cellular phone I ever bought, a Motorola v60, came with the FM receiver enabled and an optional headset to make it go. I actually used it a lot, since "dog-walk in the park time" coincided with "Daniel Schorr time" on NPR.
 
posted by Herodios at 3:52 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Why do the phone manufacturers include (and presumably pay for) an FM tuner module that they do not intend to enable?

There's a lot of areas in the world, such as Latin America, where most customers won't buy a smartphone unless it has an FM radio built in. But it's cheaper to use a common chipset across devices/markets so manufacturers physically include it for all models in all regions.

The most ridiculous example I've seen of this was back in the feature phone era when a video call feature was standard in Europe but not in the US. Most of the time this meant adding a front camera to models shipping to Europe so that the video call feature could be supported. But in at least one case, the manufacturer included the entire working front camera in US phones as well and simply covered it up with the plastic housing.
posted by burnmp3s at 3:58 AM on April 17, 2015 [14 favorites]


My Moto G has had this feature since day one. I use it occasionally.
posted by pjern at 4:08 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


My first smartphone, a Motorola Droid X from Verizon, came standard with an FM radio app. When I upgraded to a newer Motorola phone and there was no app, I just assumed they hadn't put in an FM receiver. I'll have to try this out.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:19 AM on April 17, 2015


My htc "onetouch" came with the radio on and a built in app for it. So did the htc before it. But I guess htc doesn't provide data so it's no skin off their nose
posted by mrbigmuscles at 4:19 AM on April 17, 2015


I've owned two smart phones (androids) and both have (I assume working, I have never tested) FM radio apps installed. This is odd to me.

Of course, I am annoyed the AM band is missing. I only listen to AM.

(I do! And I don't wear face-hair-wax, it's just that where I live FM is all pop music, no-repeat workdays and breakfast crews)
posted by Mezentian at 4:33 AM on April 17, 2015


I had this on my first gen Samsung Galaxy and it was great. But my wife's did not. Also missing from all subsequent models. Ialways wondered why but not enough to actually research it.
posted by joz at 4:37 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Pretty interesting. I bought a surprisingly satisfactory $39 Android tablet at Best Buy last Black Friday that had an FM tuner w/app built in. Turns out to work pretty well, and I occasionally use it. Did make me curious why this rock bottom tablet would have a built in FM tuner while every other classier and much more expensive smart phone and table I've come across lacked this feature.

I wonder how this gets blamed on obummer's commie net neutrality scheme. You know it's coming.
posted by 2N2222 at 4:39 AM on April 17, 2015


burnmp3s: "There's a lot of areas in the world, such as Latin America, where most customers won't buy a smartphone unless it has an FM radio built in."

That's not actually true.
posted by signal at 4:48 AM on April 17, 2015


Of course, I am annoyed the AM band is missing.

Can't fit a decent AM antenna inside a smartphone. They're about the size of a tube of chapstick, or a mini-lighter.
posted by ryanrs at 4:50 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah I was very annoyed when I switched from my dying EVO-3D which had FM radio, to my Note 2. I knew from reading the specs that the hardware was in there, but sadly turned off. Streaming is fine most of the time, but FM radio during tornado warnings are sure nice.
posted by MrBobaFett at 4:56 AM on April 17, 2015


This seems worthy of an anti-trust investigation, since it could easily be collusion to benefit the manufacturers like Apple and Google that offer music for pay (ITunes, Google Play) and the alternative is streaming, which benefits the carriers (ATT, Sprint, etc.).

The only people who would benefit from having it enabled are the consumers.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 4:57 AM on April 17, 2015 [22 favorites]


I know why the AM is missing, but damnit.... I just have no use for AM.
I would also buy a clip-on AM antenna just to hear the ABC or BBC when I am in shopping centre hell.
posted by Mezentian at 4:58 AM on April 17, 2015


That's not actually true.

I was painting with a broad brush with that explanation, but the entire reason that the Moto G mentioned in the thread above has an FM app as one of the core features is that it was originally designed to be sold in Brazil.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:00 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think part of this is also Software Defined Receiver Paranoia. When wideband receivers are outlawed, only outlaws will have wideband receivers!
posted by mikelieman at 5:09 AM on April 17, 2015


Some years ago I bought a little battery-powered dongle that plugs into a headphone socket and broadcasts at low power on the FM band, letting me listen to my old MP3 player over my car radio. It's kind of a nuisance because the batteries go flat and the battery socket is crappy, so it clicks and blurts on every bump.

I have never understood why smart phones, which are presumably built around software-defined radios in order to do all the clever things they do, can't do that job too.
posted by flabdablet at 5:10 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


This seems worthy of an anti-trust investigation, since it could easily be collusion to benefit the manufacturers like Apple and Google that offer music for pay (ITunes, Google Play) and the alternative is streaming, which benefits the carriers (ATT, Sprint, etc.).

Nope. They're not required to sell you FM radios. There are plenty of FM radios on the market. What you are asserting is that they should be *required* to offer FM radios, even if that competes with their offerings.
posted by eriko at 5:23 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Among many devices in my sock drawer, my beloved Nokia N800 tablet and a Nokia E series both had excellent FM radios and radio controlling software.

That N800 still runs like a top. So overdsigned for its time. Video camera, dual SD cards, but no cell data.
posted by spitbull at 5:23 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


Seriously?? Seriously. Y'all can't use your phones' FM tuners in the States?? (Yes, I read the FPP, just in disbelief at this because whoa wtf.)

I've been listening to FM radio on my phones for so long I can't even remember when it first came out...

My current phone (an Archos running on Android) came with an "FM Radio" app and it's basically the best thing ever. Excellent quality, can save stations digitally (obviously), and hardly uses any battery.
posted by fraula at 5:25 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


I have a Samsung Galaxy Player 5 (it's basically the Android equivalent of an iPod Touch) and its FM chip is marvelous for going to the drive-in. Tune it to 93.1, pop in the earbuds or plug in a pair of speakers, and enjoy audio quality that surpasses those tinny little things the theater offers.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:25 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


And darn you crazy kids, you just inspired me to go down the rabbit hole and discover that there's a hack to run Android on my N800.... Awesome!
posted by spitbull at 5:29 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


Note that in most of these cases, when they say there's an FM radio on the chip, they mean there's most of an FM radio. You need some external components, including an antenna, and usually a few inductors, caps, and diodes to make the VCO tank, antenna matching setup, and so forth.

Those components cost money and take space. In many cases, the space is the big factor, because there's just not much room in modern smartphones.

So, if the market doesn't deem FM radio a feature, it's not going to be present in a lot of devices. In cheap devices, those extra components cost money. In expensive ones, they cost space.
posted by eriko at 5:29 AM on April 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


Nokia 105, $20, has FM radio. Doesn't work in America.
posted by you must supply a verb at 5:39 AM on April 17, 2015


There's so little of worth on FM radio, so many ads, so few good choices (and I live in NYC!), and streaming/downloading a massive variety of audio is so cheap, I can't see people's outrage filters getting filled enough to make something happen with this. I agree an FM radio might be handy to have in case of apocalypse, but at that point I'll be dead anyway.
posted by fungible at 5:59 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


I like when it told me my phone was supported, so I downloaded the app to find it wasn't supported.
posted by codacorolla at 5:59 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


and its FM chip is marvelous for going to the drive-in

Wait.... you still have drive-ins?
posted by Mezentian at 6:07 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


I haven't tried seeing if I could access FM directly - but the very first thing I did after getting unlimited data was to download an app which streamed my local FM radio station. (CBC radio one). It's great for when I have early mornings and want radio to keep me entertained while getting ready & walking to work, but also need a reminder of the time.
posted by jb at 6:11 AM on April 17, 2015


I'd forgotten that my Galaxy S3 has an FM tuner built in and a functional app pre-installed. My iPod Classic is currently broken (again) so random German radio is filling in pretty well, stopping me being totally bored at least. Thanks for reminding me.
posted by shelleycat at 6:12 AM on April 17, 2015


Very cool, just in time for baseball season.
posted by davros42 at 6:15 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


I just tried my smartphone.
Wow. Such clarity.
And I had to plug my headphones into make it work, which is an awesome thing that all smartphones should have... said the public transport user.

Sadly, some man, with the funk, was tellin' me, oh no, he can't get the booty.

Which may be why I listen to the AM.... even if there are racist, climate-change denying shock jocks.
posted by Mezentian at 6:16 AM on April 17, 2015


"...the Moto G mentioned in the thread above has an FM app as one of the core features is that it was originally designed to be sold in Brazil."

Notably, the Moto G sold in Brazil also came with a TV tuner. Which I, for one, would use the crap out of.
posted by god hates math at 6:28 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


And I had to plug my headphones into make it work

The headphone cord acts as the antenna.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:31 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've been hearing a lot about this lately, but it misses that the entire reason that I started buying Apple products in the first place was because I was promised that I would never have to listen to FM radio again.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 6:35 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm still pissed off they removed the telegraph key. Used to be you could run a wire between your cellphone and someone else's and tap out messages like this to each other:

- .... .- - .----. ...   .-   ...- . .-. -.--   ... - -.-- .-.. .. ... ....   --- -. .. --- -.   -.-- --- ..- .----. .-. .   .-- . .- .-. .. -. --.   --- -.   -.-- --- ..- .-.   -... . .-.. -  

posted by George_Spiggott at 6:54 AM on April 17, 2015 [9 favorites]


Bummer, my Moto X doesn't seem to be supported. I listen to public FM radio a lot, mostly in the car. Our local listener supported music station is pretty good and while I can listen over the internets, it would be nice to just be able to listen over the air.
posted by octothorpe at 6:58 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


I would use the radio if it were available, but apparently (from my rudimentary searching) the Nexus 5 doesn't even have the hardware. I guess that's part of the "pure Android experience."
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:00 AM on April 17, 2015


What Americans really want is the ability to stream, download and customize music playlists to meet their personal preferences," Carpenter said, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "and that's not what the traditional FM radio offers."

Actually, I've been really annoyed that I can only play my "customized playlists" on my nice stereo in the house but not radio. We got the speakers and turntable as a gift, and didn't need to buy an MP3 or CD player since we have phones, but I was actually considering buying a radio tuner because I like NPR and some local stations. Mostly for the randomness factor; after all I already know what's on my playlists. It gets boring.

AND, while I enjoy my Sirius subscription in many ways, getting one of the attachment thingies that lets you listen to it outside of the car involves buying a whole separate pricey subscription, which fuck you no I'm not doing.
posted by emjaybee at 7:02 AM on April 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


For a long, long, long time, the US has been the dumping ground of middle brow products, dumbed down and hobbled for no good reason. I became uncomfortably aware of this when reading British consumer electronics magazines in the '90s (T3, especially) - there were these amazingly advanced or amazingly cheap products, and none of them would ever hit US shores, or if they did, were missing half the cool features.

It continues to this day. Outside the Big Two (Samsung and Apple), the best phones hit China, Europe, India and then, maybe, the US, with half the features missing at twice the cost. Even Samsung and Apple hobble their products somewhat. (Jail break your iPhone, kids. Keep safe, but explore what the platform could be if Apple let loose.)

It's kind of a shame we don't manufacture anything in the US anymore, as we could probably float a pretty bad-ass Galapagos-syndrome tech ecosystem with our population and GDP.

Actually, come to think of it, we already do, with firearms and ammunition - serving the unique US market are dozens of small manufacturers and dedicated product lines from major ones making cool, performant and inexpensive... death machines. We can buy the finest assault rifles ever made, but we have to try to grey-market import a decent phone or tablet when it comes out or wait a year for it be obsolete and available at US retailers. And now I am even more depressed.

Can we put the social networking software engineers and firearms metallurgists and mechanical engineers to work building flying cars? Because we need flying cars. Guns and ways to be crappy to other people in exchange for allowing advertisers to spy on you not so much.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:02 AM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


We can buy the finest assault rifles ever made

With or without FM?
posted by flabdablet at 7:19 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


We can buy the finest assault rifles ever made

With or without FM?


I am guessing those are strictly AM.
posted by briank at 7:30 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have no idea what you're talking about George, I have no onion.

I also actually have Morse-It on my iphone.
posted by nat at 7:43 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


RE: George Spiggot's Morose Code message, it's interesting that after all these years, although I can still transcribe code at 25 WPM, printed out as 'dots and dashes' I am like reduced to 'sounding it out' like a first grader. I really need to hear it for fluency. For example the letter [L] in morse plays the melody "the 'ell you will!" (.-..). You don't forget stuff like that.



As you were.
posted by Herodios at 8:08 AM on April 17, 2015 [10 favorites]


I have never understood why smart phones, which are presumably built around software-defined radios in order to do all the clever things they do, can't [act as low-power FM transmitters] too.

My suspicion is that they don't do that because it would complicate FCC (and similar regulatory bodies in other countries) approvals quite a bit. I think there are a very small number of ex-US phones sold that have it as a feature—there's an app for Android that purports to enable it on one of those rare phones that have the circuitry.

we could probably float a pretty bad-ass Galapagos-syndrome tech ecosystem with our population and GDP.

Absolutely agreed. I think it's a tie between bureaucratic approval processes (FCC, etc.), patent/IP issues, and anticompetitive lobbying for why we can't have nice things. Though there also seems to be an assumption that US users are idiots who must be protected from their own stupidity in ways that people in other parts of the world aren't, particularly in the Asian market. It's irritating.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:13 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've had a few phones with this feature, and it's always been garbage - hard to tune, awful software, bad reception, and various other faults owing to the fact that it's not even an afterthought. It's just a thing that is in the chipset for the other radios and transmitters inside your pocket - and because of that, the reception is swimming in interference.

Or, y'know, if you wanted to listen to radio, you could spend a little bit of money and buy a personal radio. By this point, a pocket radio is an incredibly stable piece of tech that could last a decade or more.
posted by The River Ivel at 8:15 AM on April 17, 2015


Do you have a recommendation for a model? I tried to find one to bring to NFL games but the models I tried were either too bulky for comfortable pocket use, had terrible battery life, or were too low power for me to hear anything even when the crowd was quiet.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:21 AM on April 17, 2015


I have aan mp3 player with radio support, but the battery keeps going out, so if I want to listen to KEXP on my commute i stream it via my phone....which feels so convoluted since the station is in Seattle. Thankfully I still have Verizon's unlimited data plan, something that's impractically expensive to hang onto but I do so regardless.

Something something free market. Blah blah competition.
posted by hellojed at 8:26 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


My Moto G has had this feature since day one. I use it occasionally.

My Moto G came with two FM radio apps pre-installed. Hell even my old Java running LG "feature phone" had FM radio. Disabling the FM feature just them saying "Fuck you just because."
posted by MikeMc at 8:30 AM on April 17, 2015


This story needs a THIS PERSON HAS NO IDEA HOW RF WORKS cartoon.

It's not disabled. It's on the Wi-Fi chipset because it's laid down with the silicon. It takes very little die area and the cost to make two different lines isn't even worth it. That doesn't mean the phone maker has done the work to put an antenna that can tune FM or an LNA on the front end so it doesn't sound like static shit.
posted by Talez at 8:40 AM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


The thing about streaming radio as opposed to broadcast is all the redundant data on the network: every listener has their own complete end-to-end copy of the stream, which makes sense for custom playlists, but not for internet radio where every listener is getting the simultaneous listening experience. This means that broadcasters who want to go digital need quite a lot more provisioning than the data actually calls for, and of course when you extend that to cellular data, a shitload of completely redundant spectrum usage.

(As an aside, in the UK they actually have national muliticast working, which means you only "trunk" one copy of the stream between providers. I doubt we'll ever bother to coordinate something like it in the US. That doesn't help with the last mile, particularly when it's wireless, but it could certainly save the originator some money.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:49 AM on April 17, 2015


Drinkie Die: Do you have a recommendation for a model?

Google "Grundig".
 
posted by Herodios at 9:04 AM on April 17, 2015


I've got an iPod Classic (because it was the only music player with a decent amount of space) and there used to be FM radio on it. Apple decided that they'd remove that because they're fuckers absolute fuckers each and every one of them.
You have a car, or you have a radio in your house. The manufacturer says, you know, we don't think people use this, so we're going to enter your car or house and remove the radio without your permission. This thing that you've paid for - that is now your property - is changed without your consent.
So. Apple and specifically the people who thought it would be a good idea to fuck with things. I hope that you don't get hit really hard by a truck when you're crossing the street and that you don't die from a sucking chest wound. Because that would be sad. So sad.
posted by Zack_Replica at 9:05 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


DrLickies: "I don't understand. Why do the phone manufacturers include (and presumably pay for) an FM tuner module that they do not intend to enable? What am I missing?"

I'm guessing its because the chip manufacturers (I would have guessed the cellular radio chip, but Talez suggests wifi chips) have hundreds of customers, and they don't want separate production runs for every one of those customers. It's literally cheaper to give everyone FM than to design two chips, and since you'll sell more chips with FM than without, in FM goes.
posted by pwnguin at 9:08 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Samsung, Apple and LG are among those who have not switched on the chip,

My LG had it activated, and (just checked) now my Samsung does too. Rarely use it however, due to the headphones requirement. I listen to a lot of radio, but only wear headphones on the treadmill. I guess the reason it works on my phones is they're hand-me-downs, originally from China (although I thought my Samsung was obtained domestically). Absurd, even sinister that this feature isn't on by default.
posted by Rash at 9:11 AM on April 17, 2015


I've got an iPod Classic (because it was the only music player with a decent amount of space) and there used to be FM radio on it. Apple decided that they'd remove that because they're fuckers absolute fuckers each and every one of them.

The iPod Classic has an FM tuner but no antenna. The iPod Radio Remote is required as it uses the cord as an antenna and enables the radio functions.
posted by Talez at 9:13 AM on April 17, 2015


I've got an iPod Classic (because it was the only music player with a decent amount of space) and there used to be FM radio on it. Apple decided that they'd remove that because they're fuckers absolute fuckers each and every one of them.

It's been present on the past three generations of iPod nano, which makes its absence on pretty much everything else harder to understand.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:17 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


The FM tuner functionality is built into the chipset, and needs no extra components except an antenna connection, at least these days.

Phones don't have AM not just because the antenna is big (you can get past that) but... well, put your smartphone next to an AM radio and do stuff.

You can have AM (and shortwave! And weird VHF/UHF!) radio on your phone if you download a WebSDR app, connect it over the Internet to a WebSDR receiver (or use the WebSDR receiver's own server via your browser, but not all have usable mobile interfaces), of which there are hundreds worldwide. There are a couple of downsides: they're technical and difficult to use if you don't understand things like USB, filter settings and the like, and you'll only hear what the remote radio picks up - so probably not your local stations. And it's a streaming system, so you'll use up data allowance if that's what you've got.


But you can do such fun stuff like listen to the International Space Station's astronauts using ham radio, on your phone.
posted by Devonian at 9:24 AM on April 17, 2015


For example the letter [L] in morse plays the melody "the 'ell you will!" (.-..). You don't forget stuff like that.

By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody?
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:28 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm pretty sure that most of the people commenting about how "you can do this radio thing on your phone" realize that what you're actually doing is accessing an internet stream that is connected to a radio receiver someplace completely not part of your phone. So you're not really doing a radio thing on your phone at all. You're doing an internet thing.

I've known about this FM chip for a while, and have never understood why it isn't turned on for all devices. What does it cost a phone maker to turn it on? Nothing. Who cares if a phone has a feature that is only used by a minority of the population when that feature is baked in from the beginning? Nobody should.

In the area in which I live, we have three separate NPR stations (One news and music and special programming, one public radio news and talk, one Public Radio Remix) plus two alternative local stations that do public radio type programming of their own with much more focus on local and niche groups. I can (and do) occasionally listen to any of them over streams on my desktop when I'm in my house (because the FM reception on my wonderful tuner is crap until I hook up an antenna to that). But in my car, one of those is pretty much all I ever listen to.
posted by hippybear at 9:53 AM on April 17, 2015


I've known about this FM chip for a while, and have never understood why it isn't turned on for all devices. What does it cost a phone maker to turn it on? Nothing. Who cares if a phone has a feature that is only used by a minority of the population when that feature is baked in from the beginning? Nobody should.

It's not nothing. It's not just a matter of "turning it on". People don't understand how complicated RF engineering actually is. Then the software engineering side of things all of which need QA and validation and further support. Plus then you open up to other things you never even thought of like malware using your FM RDS decoder as an attack vector all of which need to be considered.

It's a giant fucking hassle for something that's barely used.
posted by Talez at 10:03 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody?

Well no, not really.

Anyway: Since you brought up pocket calculators, here's another related-ish story.

     (    (    (    (    (
      )    )    )    )    )
     (    (    (    (    (
      )    )    )    )    )

In the early 1970s Hewlett-Packard released the first line of scientific pocket calcs, starting with the HP35 and topping out with the programmable HP65 (at $800 1974 USD, it included an integrated cable lock).

One day I encountered a classmate doing micro-surgery on his calc. It turns out that for a while the only technological difference between two models of HP calcs that varied in price by hundreds of dollars (here is where memory [mine] fails -- which two models?) -- was how the buttons were wired. (A shift - key perhaps?). Same chip inside, very different set of functions available outside. And for the same reason as the 'hidden' FM functionality in your cellular phone.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:28 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


- .... .- - .----. ... .- ...- . .-. -.-- ... - -.-- .-.. .. ... .... --- -. .. --- -. -.-- --- ..- .----. .-. . .-- . .- .-. .. -. --. --- -. -.-- --- ..- .-. -... . .-.. -
.-- .... -.-- - .... .- -. -.- -.-- --- ..- --..-- ... .. .-. .-.-.-

.--. .-.. . .- ... . ... .... .- .-. . - .... .. ... .--. .-.. .- - . --- ..-. -... . .- -. ... .-- .. - .... -- . .-.-.-
posted by gern at 11:26 AM on April 17, 2015


It's not just a matter of "turning it on". People don't understand how complicated RF engineering actually is. Then the software engineering side of things all of which need QA and validation and further support.

Hasn't all the engineering and software already been done for use in other countries, where the exact same phone models don't have the FM turned off?
posted by hippybear at 11:43 AM on April 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


Or for that matter, in the iPod models that have FM included, when it comes to Apple products?
posted by hippybear at 11:44 AM on April 17, 2015


Tried this last night on my Galaxy Note 4 on the sprint network using the suggested app. Plugged in a dummy patch cable to the headphones jack and got decent sound. Now if they could get the app to also play on bluetooth headsets (instead of headphones and device speaker) I'd be over the moon. As currently, not as much.
posted by Hasteur at 12:00 PM on April 17, 2015


People don't understand how complicated RF engineering actually is. Then the software engineering side of things all of which need QA and validation and further support.

There's no doubt that a FM receiver complicates design. But the thing is that the hard work seems to have already been done for the most part. The additional cost would seem to be not very significant, considering how common the feature is outside the US, and that an FM tuner is available on one of the cheapest Android tablets right now in actual brick and mortar stores, not a gray market device.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:17 PM on April 17, 2015


Hasn't all the engineering and software already been done for use in other countries, where the exact same phone models don't have the FM turned off?

Doubtful since the US is one of the few countries still using CDMA. But I think people on the whole are confusing a wifi chipset or LTE modem that has FM tuning in the circuitry and the ancillary components necessary to make an actual working digital FM radio.

It would be interesting to see which models have FM outside the US but FM explicitly disabled. I'd stake that list is pretty small.
posted by Talez at 12:32 PM on April 17, 2015


So you have the Verizon HTC One M8 which doesn't come with a preinstalled FM app but the FM radio is still available with third party apps which is a minor annoyance at best. Compared to Apple which just doesn't have an FM LNA or antenna at all.
posted by Talez at 12:37 PM on April 17, 2015


That doesn't mean the phone maker has done the work to put an antenna that can tune FM

Every model I've ever seen uses the headphone cable as an antenna. I guess some of the models that have metal cases/backs could also use that, but it doesn't seem to ever be done.

It's a bit of an unfortunate requirement, because it means you can't just tell your phone to record 88.5FM on Sundays from 8-10AM or something, and have it cough up an MP3 file for later listening. I mean, you could write an app to do that pretty easily, but without a headphone inserted it would just record static.

Years ago there was a USB peripheral called a "RadioShark" that would basically allow you to time-shift/PVR FM radio. It came and went before the iPod caught on (or at least, when they were really expensive toys), though, and as a result was sort of a flop, but I always thought it was clever. It's unfortunate that nobody seems to make an inexpensive phone peripheral that does something like that. I feel like that would make terrestrial radio much more compelling for a lot of people, in the same way that PVRing made cable TV relevant for everyone who can't be bothered to live by a TV schedule.

(Hell with cellphones, why don't car stereos do that? That's a feature I'd actually pay for.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:52 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't understand. Why do the phone manufacturers include (and presumably pay for) an FM tuner module that they do not intend to enable? What am I missing?

Because you're looking at the situation backwards. The manufacturer is not paying for the module.

Chipmakers build a lot of chips by literally dragging-and-dropping blocks of precooked functions into the chip. ARM has become a juggernaut in this manner: they don't build the chips, they design processor cores and then license the designs out to chipmakers that wrap it with their own stuff. The royalty stream is pure cash with no capital risk of building the chip fabs themselves.

Many chips have loads of extra functionality in them, but if those areas are enabled then the chipmaker owes a licensing royalty to the design house. If the chipmaker disables those areas, they can sell the chip for cheaper.

If you look at families of smartphone processors, you'll notice that the lower-end/cheaper chips usually have some functions taken away. The video decoder or graphics accelerator might be missing. They're not missing from the chip, they're simply disconnected. Long time back Intel got caught doing something similar with the 487SX. At least THAT one could be hacked.

So if the FM tuner is offline on a chip, it could also because the phone manufacturer wanted a cheaper part and told the chipmaker to kill the tuner IP core. It's a cooperation of both parties.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:05 PM on April 17, 2015


(Hell with cellphones, why don't car stereos do that? That's a feature I'd actually pay for.)

Podcasting is basically that. NPR's platform allows you to slice up podcasts however you like. And your local station reschedule or your move, you don't have to bother with anything.
posted by pwnguin at 1:38 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Actually, you're also looking at the situation backwards.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and Sprint worked out a deal, and as a result, Sprint smartphones have their FM radio enabled where available. Verizon, holding out for payoff from NAB, disables the FM radio. The NextRadio App (not to be confused with "Next Radio") comes with Sprint phones, but not on Verizon phones. Depending on the Verizon phone (HTC M8 at least) you can just install that app and gain access to the FM radio.

The Samsung Galaxy S5 and the new Galaxy S6 similarly have the FM radio enabled on Sprint but disabled elsewhere.

Verizon is particularly to shame for this, since both Sprint and Verizon both run CDMA networks, so we know the engineering work has been done for the FM radio in the US, but Verizon, hoping for a payout from NAB or perhaps their customers, disable the FM radio in a move of corporate posturing that ends up hurting consumers.

The NAB isn't blameless, however. Their position (remember, the 'B' in NAB stands for broadcasters) is that *all* phones should be required to have an FM radio, and the carriers are refusing, citing cost. The only problem is that most of them already *have* an FM radio built in.
posted by fragmede at 1:44 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Y'all can't use your phones' FM tuners in the States?

Even if I could, why would I want to? I bought a fancy expensive stereo for my 20+ year old car specifically so I wouldn't have to put up with FM radio anymore. Life has too many ads and too much low-content jabbering as it is.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:11 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Huh, I was just trying to make this happen on my phone a couple weeks ago, when I'd been listening to a pretty great story on NPR in my car and wanted to continue on my phone. I already had their app installed but had never used it, so I fired it up … and got an unskippable two-minute intro on how to stream radio through their dumb app, making me miss the end of the story that I wanted to hear. I futzed around a bit looking for fm radio apps (since I just assumed that phones had the capability) but all the ones that I saw had kinda crummy reviews so I figured I'd put it off and figure it out later.

But then, I'm an old, since I doubt kids these days have any concept of FM as a thing.
posted by klangklangston at 2:13 PM on April 17, 2015


You know the other thing that drives me nuts about streaming online local stations? The delay compared to the FM broadcast causes me to never have a chance of being caller #5.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:18 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


One glorious thing about actual FM radio reception is you can turn on every radio in the house to the same station and walk from one environment to another and it is always in sync. You cannot do this with streaming.
posted by hippybear at 2:20 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


Oh, and in an unrelated matter one time I was in my (parked) car listening to the FM broadcast and I'm pretty sure I WAS number 5 but when the bluetooth kicked in for the call that fucking U2 album I never wanted started automatically playing over the call for no god damn reason, as it did every time I plugged the phone in when I was in the car because it was the only loaded album. Fuck you too, U2.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:21 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Samsung Galaxy S5 and the new Galaxy S6 similarly have the FM radio enabled on Sprint but disabled elsewhere.

Verizon is particularly to shame for this, since both Sprint and Verizon both run CDMA networks, so we know the engineering work has been done for the FM radio in the US, but Verizon, hoping for a payout from NAB or perhaps their customers, disable the FM radio in a move of corporate posturing that ends up hurting consumers.


Samsung haven't had FM radio on most of its flagship models since the Galaxy S4. In fact there was a small shitfight on the S4's release about it.

It looks like Sprint had the custom model commissioned as there's no FM radio on most of the international models of the S5 as well.
posted by Talez at 2:31 PM on April 17, 2015


Either way, I'm glad I'm with Sprint already because I really like their service in general. Would not want to switch to another carrier if I was hunting down this feature.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:35 PM on April 17, 2015


This is one of the reasons I've still got my Sonim.

That, and I'm not spending $400 on a phone that any 2-year-old can break by throwing it after successfully being contract-free with my wireless carrier for nearly six years.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:38 PM on April 17, 2015


Years ago there was a USB peripheral called a "RadioShark" that would basically allow you to time-shift/PVR FM radio.

If your favorite station has a stream this is trivially easy to do without a dongle. Some of my favorite "albums" are simply recorded segments of really good and now long-vanished radio shows that I captured and automatically sliced up with a streamripper script that I used to leave running in the background all the time. The amount of CPU, bandwidth and disk space this consumes is laughably tiny by modern standards.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:16 PM on April 17, 2015


so I wouldn't have to put up with FM radio anymore. Life has too many ads and too much low-content jabbering as it is.

Public radio has no ads and lots of content.

posted by jb at 4:23 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


I would use the radio if it were available, but apparently (from my rudimentary searching) the Nexus 5 doesn't even have the hardware. I guess that's part of the "pure Android experience."

I must be going crazy as I'm pretty sure my Nexus 5 had a default radio tuner when I first got it before 'uprgraded' versions of Android apparently took it away. Along with the ability to send SMS messages to multiple recipients apparently. But yes, it seems that the 'pure Android experience' often equates to 'we have no real idea how people actually want to use their phones so we made the calender app prettier but harder to use. No wait, we've just changed it again for some reason.'
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 5:38 PM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, that's the Google experience.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:40 PM on April 17, 2015


I've been hearing a lot about this lately, but it misses that the entire reason that I started buying Apple products in the first place was because I was promised that I would never have to listen to FM radio again.

Yeah, you guys are vastly over estimating the overlap of "people with smartphones" and "people who ever, ever, ever listen to terrestrial radio in any format".

Good point about the useless iPhone app. We're supposed to not let that kind of thing in the store, especially "stunt" apps who's sole purpose is to point out how non-functional they are.
posted by sideshow at 6:09 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


never mind, looks like they just have a petition form on their "get yer iPhone version right here" page.
posted by sideshow at 6:23 PM on April 17, 2015


I agree that most FM is pretty bad, but in my area I have 2 NPR stations, 1 Pacifica station, and three college radio stations. None of them have ads and all of them produce some original content, and are free.
posted by cell divide at 6:23 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Public radio has no ads and lots of content.

You must be kidding every time I turn it on it's all ads for Ketchup and Powder Milk Biscuits
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:52 PM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


I was the one and only person in the world who owned a 120GB zune (oh zune, I miss you every day) and it had an FM tuner which was like one of the million perks about that amazing machine.

My contract HTC One crapped out 4 days out of warranty and I replaced it with a cheap chinese smart phone that can work on the canadian bands with my SIM (An ELEPHONE!) and it has an unlocked radio FM tuner that can also record itself! pretty sweet. It's actually like, way better than any phone I've had from canadian providers and was like $120 with shipping.
posted by euphoria066 at 10:02 PM on April 17, 2015


Yeah, you guys are vastly over estimating the overlap of "people with smartphones" and "people who ever, ever, ever listen to terrestrial radio in any format".

I doubt it. Most Americans with a car will use the radio from time to time, even if they use the phone for entertainment in the car most of the time. It's just more convenient to control than most phone/car interfaces have managed so far. There is no easy way in my car to flip stations without dangerously picking up the phone, for example.

And then, once they are out of the car they may listen to the same stations but via the phone. Why not save on data and battery life and go over the air if that is an option?

My plan and phone with Sprint ended up cheaper than other comparable plans when I was shopping around, so this clearly isn't going to like drive the mobile companies out of business if they include it. It should be available for people who want it.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:55 AM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Drinky Die: "Most Americans with a car will use the radio from time to time, even if they use the phone for entertainment in the car most of the time."

It's true, I too flip on the radio when my podcast queue runs dry.
posted by pwnguin at 8:07 AM on April 18, 2015


Most Americans with a car will use the radio from time to time, even if they use the phone for entertainment in the car most of the time.

This is true, but then the whole point of using the radio is to avoid futzing with the phone, which brings us back around to a very tidy answer about why smartphones don't need to bother with FM tuners: there's already a better option available in every conceivable situation where I might want one, i.e. I'm in the car driving and can't mess with a phone.

And yes, for people who don't mind talking in their radio, I understand that public radio can be a good option, but what I want is non stop music with a big thumpy beat. Too much singing is "meh", DJs talking is "bleh", and advertisements are OH FUCK GET IT AWAY FROM ME NOW NOW NOW. So I'm really SOL when it comes to radio.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:46 AM on April 18, 2015


Alas, for FM.
Norway Will Switch Off FM Radio In 2017


I might be a luddite, but I still miss analogue TV, and I love analogue radio.
posted by Mezentian at 4:42 PM on April 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


I feel like that would make terrestrial radio much more compelling for a lot of people, i

Podcasting solved this.
posted by spitbull at 4:14 AM on April 19, 2015


Yeah that's a pretty good point Mars Saxman. However, I would say that for me at least the benefit of the smart phone is how much of a digital swiss army knife it is. I don't really care if it isn't the ideal answer for all functions, I care that it has as many tools as possible because someday I might need them. And this is a tool that is obviously possible. For someone like me who listens to lots of sports and local radio there are a lot of conceivable situations when I want to use it because it would be the superior option. I could probably immediately pay a lot less on my bill by giving up the unlimited data plan for one thing. Heavy radio use is the main reason I have it.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:14 AM on April 19, 2015


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