Play via Radio - a great name change... and a feature sorely missed elsewhere

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You know, I'd got heartily fed up of explaining to all and sundry why the 'FM transmitter' in my Nokia smartphone was so insanely great. Not because my enthusiasm for the feature was waning - far from it. But because just about everyone heard the 'FM' bit and switched their brain off - surely it had to be a radio receiver, as featured in just about every phone since 2004? "No, no, no!" I would exclaim - "it's the exact opposite!" If you, too, are still confused then you might like to read on - it seems that Nokia has finally put an end to the confusion by renaming the feature. Thankfully!

Yes, for Symbian Anna, the 'FM transmitter' in the N8, C7 has been officially renamed - it's now 'Play via Radio'. Which is a lot less geeky, in that it doesn't say how it's going to play via the radio, but at least the term shouldn't confuse anyone now.

In case you've been living under a stone for the last 4 years (this technology only became 'legal' in many countries at the start of 2007), an FM transmitter (Wikipedia info) is, as it sounds, a way of sending a phone's audio stream (usually music or podcasts) via a genuine FM frequency of your choice to your car (or home, or caravan) FM radio. The power output is very low and is restricted by law to just 50 nanowatts - which is good for your phone's battery consumption and yet still more than enough to reach your car aerial, typically less than a metre away. 

Car radio aerial

(In the absence of obstructions - like a car roof - in theory, a 50nW transmitter might reach as far as 30 metres, it's suggested. Leading to kids in the back of the car suggesting that we broadcast their favourite pop stars out to the cars around us in a traffic jam. While possible, this isn't really practical, since the signal would be significantly blocked and you'd also have to get the word out to each car to tune to the specific frequency you've elected. Besides, the other cars might then be tempted to drive closer 'for better reception' and that just sounds dangerous!)

Alternative approaches to getting your phone's stored music collection onto your much bigger car speakers include using Bluetooth to a wireless car kit, or to plug in via a 3.5mm to 3.5mm jack lead, into an Aux port on the back of the car stereo. Both very valid and capable of higher quality, but most cars don't have fitted Bluetooth car kits and many car stereos don't have accessible Aux ports. And it may not be practical, cosmetically or mechanically, to rip out the existing stereo and replace it with a Bluetooth (or Aux)-enabled version. Making the humble FM Transmitter a great ad-hoc way of getting music transferred through a real 'lowest common denominator'/'low-tech' mechanism - after all, FM radios are built into just about everything around you and have been for decades.

FM TransmitterIn practice, I use the FM transmitters in my N8 and N86 almost every time I'm in the car - if I've been listening to a podcast in the house while getting ready to go out, I can hit 'Play via Radio' (again, note the new name) under 'Options' in any audio playback app on the phone and tap it 'on'. And the podcast carries on seamlessly via my fairly meaty (8 cones in all) car speakers with impeccable quality. Or, if I'm not on my own, I choose music from my mass memory or memory card that's family friendly and treat everyone to an album from Adele or Take That or similar. No messing with wires or Bluetooth pairing - it just works.

Well... it works most of the time. By its very nature, your phone is broadcasting a specific FM frequency at very low power. If you're unlucky and you've picked a frequency that's used by a local FM radio station then it's easy to get distortion and the two signals effectively interfering with each other. Even if, like me, you pick a frequency which works well in your area (I use 96.0MHz in Berkshire, UK), you'll find that as you travel across your country, local stations pumping out full power occasionally intrude and you might have to pause playback and mute the radio playback for a few miles.

Finding the perfect frequency for your area is purely a matter of trial and error. Literally. Pick a number (the range is usually from about 88MHz to about 107MHz, depending on the country) and try it. If you get interference, shift the number by 0.2MHz up or down and try again, rinse and repeat. it's a slight pain, but once you find a frequency that works well for you, set that on a preset on the car radio and you're off and rocking.

Assuming that operating a <50nW FM transmitter is legal in the country you live in, it's at this point that you may well say that this is all very well, but your phone doesn't have an FM transmitter (a.k.a. 'Play via Radio', remember!)... Actually, the chances are that, as an AAS reader, you're far more likely to have this feature than a phone user from the wider smartphone world, since FM transmitters are almost exclusively a Nokia/Symbian-only feature. Starting with the Nokia N78 (shown on the right), immediately after the technology became legal, we've seen a succession of Nokia Symbian-powered smartphones with FM transmitters.

Here's the full list:

  • Nokia N78
  • Nokia N79
  • Nokia N85
  • Nokia N97
  • Nokia N86
  • Nokia C7
  • Nokia N8
  • Nokia 600
  • Nokia 701

Plus the Samsung i7110 (running S60 3rd Edition FP2) the Maemo-powered Nokia N900.

It's a relatively short list compared to the many dozens of smartphones that Nokia has produced in the 4 years, mind you. But it's almost infinitely longer than the number of models from other manufacturers and on other mobile platforms, for which an 'FM Transmitter' is one of 'those wierd Nokia things' and something that's definitely under-appreciated.

Is the absence of a FM transmitter a show-stopper when weighing up the pros and cons of a smartphone for purchase? Probably not, but it's still a very important bullet point, at least for me. It's one of the reasons I still rate the Nokia N86 so highly, it's yet another feather in the all-conquering N8's cap and it's one of the reasons I'm looking forward to trying out the new Nokia 701 - the only Symbian Belle handset so far announced to feature the technology.

Nokia 701

The very fact that Nokia has bothered to rename this technology for user eyes as 'Play via Radio' in Symbian Anna and Symbian Belle implies that the company is serious about including it in its device portfolio for the future - thank goodness. And it remains a mystery why other manufacturers haven't picked up the idea and also run with it - I can name other phones which have a FM transmitter on the fingers of one hand - and most of those are feature phones.

Finally, if you have a smartphone from the list above and have never tried out its FM transmitter then I urge you to get in your car, tune in the radio and take it for a spin. Your smartphone will never sound the same again!

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 13 Sept 2011