/ Technology

Should all smartphones come with radio built-in?

Woman using smartphone and headphones

Radio’s been around since the 19th century. It’s a relatively simple technology and yet FM tuners aren’t built into all smartphones. Yes, there are radio apps, but with data caps, should all phones have built-in radio?

One of the joys of a smartphone is that you get lots of functions in one device, but the lack of a built-in FM tuner on many high profile smartphones has been something of a recent revelation to me. I’d taken radio as a given.

I listen to quite a lot of radio. I’d listen daily on my phone’s FM tuner if my commute wasn’t mostly underground. That being the case, I don’t use it often, but it’s handy to have when I want it.

FM on smartphones

My phone’s old by current standards (and something of an embarrassment given what I do for a living), so I felt a certain smugness when my iPhone-toting companions had to rely on my phone’s FM tuner for radio commentary as we took in the action at last week’s Superbikes. It’s times like that I wouldn’t want to be without it.

iPhones and flagship Samsung handsets like the S4 and S5, to name a few, don’t have FM radio built-in. You can download radio apps, but streaming from an app will chip away at your 3G or 4G data allowance and, as my iPhone-owning friend found, they don’t always work.

I’ll admit that built-in FM doesn’t make my phone the complete package. As the 2012 Olympics and Wimbledon proved, sports coverage out and about is also on my wish list. The headphones act as an aerial for FM, but it isn’t long enough to make AM reception a possibility for a phone, so no Radio 5 Live without heading down the internet radio/app route.

What about DAB on smartphones?

The BBC estimates that a 60-minute iPlayer radio stream could use up to 60MB of data. By that estimation, you’d only get around four hours of listening before reaching a monthly 250MB data limit.

But, as I discovered while trying to keep up with Andy Murray’s progress last year, app listening isn’t always a seamless experience. A flakey connection can leave you without audio mid-game and taking minutes to reconnect, which can be more than a little frustrating.

An alternative would be for DAB chips to make an appearance in phones. Some would argue that DAB has reception issues of its own in some areas, but coverage has been fairly good in my experience. The chips aren’t that expensive and they might allow us to listen to all of Andy Murray’s route to Wimbledon victory without maxing out data allowances before he even reaches the third round.

Still, I do wonder whether there’s really a wide call for radio in phones. I don’t use mine often, but it’s definitely something I’ll take into consideration when choosing my next phone. I resent having to carry yet another device just to get coverage. What about you?

Should all smartphones come with radio?

Yes - both FM and DAB radio (34%, 351 Votes)

No - I don't listen to radio on my phone (30%, 318 Votes)

Yes - FM radio (17%, 180 Votes)

Yes - DAB radio (13%, 138 Votes)

No - radio apps are fine for me (6%, 60 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,047

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Peter M says:
22 July 2014

The best two phones I’ve had with FM radio were from Nokia. The first, the 8300, is now about 15 years old (and while I used to have 3 or 4, I “lost” them (thrown out by my sister, I suspect) when I moved. Second was the Nokia Xpress Radio (which needed no headphones to work).

As for modern mobiles, I ALWAYS use an Android App called TuneIn Pro (cheap, and they offer a free version for people to try them out).

Unlimited data on Three means I can stream audio all day with no worries. Unlimited tethering allows laptops and other things to connect to the net via my phone.

As for FM/DAB radio, one problem would be the power consumption for DAB, because it’s a digitial stream that needs decoding with extra processing compared to FM, and on portables, was reputed to chew up batteries, at least the earliest models.

I’m not in favour of the “switchover” to digital from FM, but if it goes ahead, all the major stations would be moved off FM, leaving it (for a while) for “community” stations, so the need for FM might eventually disappear for listening to BBC R1, 2, 3, 4.

Rather than having FM broadcasts, or even DAB, it would really make sense for the most popular 10-15 stations to be broadcast as a signal by all the cell towers, which your mobile already spends its time “listening to” (waiting for a call, text, or checking if your phone needs to switch to another cell mast as you move from area to area). This would just be a broadcast, with no silly “data charges” or using this from your monthly allowance (and the cell masts are transmitting nearly all the time anyway, whether to people on calls, or just checking any registered users are still in their coverage area.

If the cell towers were broadcasting in “multicast” mode, any phone could receive the signals and decode to give you the main national services (including BBC R 5 for sport/news) and the phones would not need to transmit for this to work – it would be like the FM signal, 1 transmit and as many listeners as possible. Clearly there’d be some need to debate which stations could be included, and people wanting others would need radio apps unless their phone could handle FM / DAB.

FM RADIO a must to have feature . A recording scheduler a bonus. Cjd

When my last phone died, having an excellent FM radio, I spent a lot of time looking for a replacement. Like other commentators, my main use of my phone is listening to the radio. Many phones were advertised as having FM. Nokia was awful, I tried 3 models, as were others I cannot remember. I ended up with an xperia u, a temperamental phone but excellent FM.in don’t know what I’ll do when this one dies.

FM radio says:
2 October 2014

I use an old Sony Erricsson with excellent FM radio.
Nokia C5 really disappointed with the FM radio.
New Blackberry 9720, FANTASTIC FM radio.

Insomniac says:
21 October 2014

Useful stuff thanks. Now it is time to change from my Galaxy Ace (not a favourite) I have realised my main use of the phone is the fm radio both in UK and when (often) away on the continent. As I use the phone a lot at night, for music or local language, obviously I don’t want to pay for data to listen for hours. I would love to know how to get the BBC World Service abroad as well. I thought it was meant to be a ‘World Service but can’t get it even on my old hardly portable ‘steam radio ‘. Any advice?

If you have wifi on your phone and can find a hotspot you can pick up virtually all the world’s radio stations (including BBC World) on digital using an app like TuneIn.

neverlate says:
22 October 2014

Yup I can see Tunein would be great but most places I stay have no, or still very expensive, or poor wifi, and at home mine doesn’t reach down the garden.

Steve Summerhead says:
29 December 2014

It is a pity that there is still no mobile phone available having a DAB+ chip. Would be something for a manufacturer to stand-out.

There is one way to get FM on an iphone. iFM by Allputer

see: http://allputer.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=2086

Keith says:
22 April 2015

The assumption is that smartphones lack an FM radio chip.

Android smartphones have an FM radio chip. The problem is, the chip is disabled.

What we need is an Android app that enables the chip.

I have looked at Google Play, but what are claimed to be FM tuners are not, they are apps that stream over the net FM stations.

What I need is a an FM tuner app, that does what it says, tunes across the FM radio spectrum.

Any suggestions?

JamesSmith says:
8 June 2015

The chip is not disabled in all Android phones but some manufacturers choose not to enable it (allegedly under pressure from the networks). Samsung are guilty of this in their more recent high end models and have not enabled it, hence why I haven’t bought a high end Samsung. You can root some phones and enable the chip but that’s not a user friendly thing to do and will doubtless void your warranty. Either we stop buying phones that don’t have the chip enabled (unlikely in the case of the iPhone) and persuade manufacturers through our wallets. Or persuade manufacturers by campaigning/law change – Which have you considered a campaign? to include one.
See also http://freeradioonmyphone.org/

Thanks for your comment James. We haven’t considered a campaign about this matter, however, I’ll certainly pass the feedback on. 🙂

mike edwards says:
27 May 2015

I cant ubderstand them scrapping fm. Internet conection radio is rarely smooth and regularly cutting out. The big manufacturers are loosing a lot of customers because of this. On a possitive note the latest nokia lumia 930 has fm radio

JamesSmith says:
8 June 2015

The inclusion of DAB on a smartphone would require the use of more battery power and you’d need a far bigger battery to get the same amount of use out of your phone. Very simply DAB is broadcast in Multiplexes and all the radio stations on the multiplex are sent out as one channel. Your DAB radio has to receive and decode the entire multiplex before finding the channel you want to listen to. FM radio is much simpler and there is one station per channel which in turn uses less power to listen to.

Everything that DAB can do except the inclusion of extra (niche) stations can be done with an FM radio, especially on a smart phone. For example current track, show, station information can all be done by RDS. Recording and playback will depend on the software on your phone but is again possible. DAB is also useless if traveling with your phone/radio in the USA as they don’t use DAB and have another system.

Bill Rose says:
3 September 2016

Certainly FM & DAB radio should be standard, along with retention of the standard 3.5mm headphone socket. I’d also like a return to batteries you can replace as opposed to the hard wired types and wouldn’t mind a new phone being slightly thicker to accomodate those with a little more power.

As of 2021, some manufacturers still have VHF/FM Radio activated, Motorola G6 and G30 series and Xiaomi Redmi Note 10.
Xiaomi tell me not all their phones have a real FM Radio.

I suspect it depends on the chip – some chips may not have FM Radio imbedded.

In the Redmi Note 10S manual it states that it only has an Internet Radio, but I bought one last week and it has a real FM Radio. You can use earphones for the aerial, but better reception with a 3.5mm jack plug and a half metre of wire attached to the ground (earth) pole. A 4-pole plug works ok but some of the radio features, like scanning, don’t work. Very strangely to get all the features you need a 3 pole plug, (or a 4 pole with the mic pole grounded).

A proper VHF/FM Radio is better than an Internet Radio, especially in an area of poor cellular coverage, and doesn’t use any data.
There is an app called NextRadio which claims to unlock the FM chip, but I have not been able to get it working on several phones.

As for DAB, I do not believe any smartphones have this facility. Anyway I have found DAB disappointing and in fringe areas not as good as VHF FM.