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My iPad is an internet radio

Listening to KFJC on the TuneIn app.

Listening to KFJC on the TuneIn app.

When the iPad was first announced three years ago, I have to admit that I was initially skeptical. At first blush it seemed like an e-reader on steroids, something that would be great for reading and games, but not a serious tool. I was wrong.

I’ve had my iPad for two years now, and it’s been a great all around device for reading and writing, as well as creating and editing photos, music and videos. Lately, I’ve also loved using it as an internet radio.

Back in 2011 Matthew wrote a piece called “My Kindle Fire is an internet radio,” discussing his experience with that tablet. With this post I’m shamelessly following in his footsteps.

So many sound connections

What pushed me into using the radio features of the iPad more was becoming more well acquainted with the myriad ways I can get sound out of the device.

Quite against my audiophile tendencies, I’ve been using the iPad’s built in speaker much more than I used to. This speaker is not suited for high-fidelity listening. But when I’m out on my back deck enjoying the outdoors I don’t necessarily want to drag around an extra speaker or be tethered to headphones. In this environment the iPad speaker compares rather well to small pocket radio of the sort I’ve used outdoors in the past.

Indoors I often plug the iPad into a couple of different home stereos using either a 1/8″ headphone cable or using a 30-pin dock cable. In this setup the sound improves proportionally to the quality of the stereo you’re plugged into. I think the dock cable sounds best by a small margin, though with this connection you only control volume with the stereo, not with the iPad

The big leap forward came when I installed an AirPort Express in my living room and connected its audio ouput to my home theater. Using Apple’s AirPlay I can simply select my Aiport as the audio output and wireless send sound from my iPad directly to my home stereo. The quality is typically as good as a wired headphone connection, but is much more convenient. The iPad doesn’t even have to be in the same room, just on the same wi-fi network.

Using a Bluetooth speaker would provide the same convenience, though I think the sound quality is a little rougher. Outside, in a noisier environment, or as background music, a Bluetooth speaker is adequate for me, and can be louder and clearer than the iPad’s built-in speaker. But if I’m in the living room, I prefer a wired or AirPlay connection.

Radio apps and portals galore

But what use is a high quality audio connection if there is no good content? Here is where apps like Stitcher, Slacker, TuneIn and web based portals like UberStations really shine. One of the reasons why I use internet radio is to expand my range of possibilities beyond what is on a local station right now. Sometimes I want international news from the BBC when my local public outlet has on Fresh Air, or I want to hear some jazz when there’s none to be found on the FM dial.

Stitcher is nice when I know I want to listen to, say, US news, but I don’t want to have to select a specific station, network or show. As its name implies, the app stitches together podcasts and other on demand content into a program stream. You can start by selecting a program from the Stitcher catalog, like the NPR Hourly News Summary, and then Stitcher will queue up a playlist of similar shows.

Of course, Stitcher is really designed to let you set up your own stations of content made up of just about any audio or podcast available on the internet and share them with others. I will often use it to queue up podcasts to listen to while doing the dishes or performing bicycle maintenance.

I’ve started listening to Slacker more often, too. The news and information programming options are more limited, featuring just ABC News, ESPN, American Public Media’s Marketplace, and the Weather Channel. But I’m really enjoying some of Slacker’s own genre station when I’m in the mood for some good background music without having to think too hard about what exactly I want to hear. It’s not unlike Pandora–and Slacker offers artist-based stations as well–but with more curated content that you can still skip through (a limited number of times) if you hit a track you don’t like.

If I’m interested in listening to a specific station or program stream, then either TuneIn or UberStations is my choice. On TuneIn I like to check in on stations in Buenos Aires where I visited a couple of years ago. Sometimes I just enjoy browsing through stations of different formats or listening in to distant cities that I never before would have the chance to hear in my own living room.

Obviously, there are many more radio apps and websites that I haven’t covered here. Plenty of stations and networks have their own apps that are great if you listen to that specific source frequently.

I was going to include the Public Radio Player, but it’s not optimized for the iPad, and I’ve had difficulty listening for more than 15 minutes without it crashing. This is an app I really wish were updated to take advantage of iPad’s bigger screen.

Also worth mentioning is the SiriusXM internet radio app. If you are a fan of this service or exclusive channels like Howard Stern’s, the SiriusXM app works quite well, giving you both live and on demand access to stations and individual programs. I find that the sound quality is similar to what you hear on satellite, which means that it’s not quite on par with many other internet stations or music services. But on the iPad’s built-in speaker, over Bluetooth or as background music the difference isn’t distracting.

You can certainly listen to all of this radio on an iPhone, Android phone or tablet. I prefer a tablet because the larger screen and better speaker provide a much nicer browsing and listening experience than on a smartphone. The longer battery life of tablet means more listening between charges.

Do you listen to internet radio on a tablet? What’s your favorite app, portal or station? Let us know in the comments.

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