Automotive App of the Week: HD Radio

Automotive App of the Week: HD Radio

With all the latest entertainment options available in the car — satellite radio, hard drives, iPods, Bluetooth audio — music lovers have more reason than ever to tune out commercial-clogged AM and FM. HD Radio is supposed to ride to the rescue of terrestrial broadcasting by offering better sound quality, extra programming options and new features like iTunes Tagging. But the driving public doesn't seem to care about — or even aware of — the technology, even though more automakers offer HD Radio as a standard or optional feature, and it can added to existing car stereos via an aftermarket tuner.

If you want HD Radio in your ride or just want to try it out — and don't want to buy a new or used car with it or spend between $100 and $500 for an aftermarket alternative — there's a HD Radio app for iPhone. While the app is free and so is HD Radio, you'll need a receiver like the $70 RadioShack Gigaware In-Line Control with HD Radio for iPhone that I tested for earlier this year.

The full test will give you the full lowdown on the HD Radio iPhone app and the Gigaware receiver, but the Cliff Notes version is the combo isn't well designed for behind the wheel, on the fly operation. The controls on both the app and receiver are small and klugdy, and downright dangerous to operate while driving.

I also found that reception could be spotty. The Gigaware receiver uses an attached auxiliary cable as an antenna, and it simply can't compete with a car's fixed antenna. While testing the app, I was coincidentally driving nearly identical BMWs with HD Radio built in, and in two separate cities: Edmunds' former long-term 2009 750i in Los Angeles, and a 2010 750i xDrive in Portland, Oregon. The Gigaware receiver's signal would often fade, whereas the BMWs' never waived. I also tested the app in a 2010 Camaro SS without HD Radio and experienced the same reception issues.

Sound quality between the app and the BMWs' built-in tuner was mostly a wash; while HD Radio in the two BMWs sounded better, the difference was so slight it would probably be masked by road noise. And switching between the 750i's built-in tuner and the Gigaware receiver plugged into car's aux-in jack was seamless, as show in this video.

As more automakers jump on the HD Radio bandwagon — and broadcast behemoths like Clear Channel pour cash into promoting the technology — the feature could become as common as cruise control in all but budget-priced cars. But if you can't wait till then, there's an app for that.

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