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Can radios become viable computers? (Part 1: Let’s think this through!)

Hello again fellow fixers and readers! We hope you are all continuing to stay safe & well as lockdown restrictions have gradually been eased and things are starting to return to some degree of normalcy. We are especially glad to be back at Abbeyfield Park House helping fix computers again for the local community, after nearly six months in hiatus.

Anyway, we are interested in doing something different with something so ubiquitous, something through which many of us enjoy listening to music, catching up with the latest news, and even hearing fiery debates about important issues on phone-in talk shows; and that something, is called radios.

Radios are most familiar to people as “broadcast receivers”, which are designed to receive audio signals transmitted from local radio stations, and then convert that signal into sounds that a user can hear from a speaker or a set of headphones or earphones connected to a jack on the radio. They come in various form factors, ranging from small portable units that are designed to allow users to listen to radio stations while out and about, to large boombox-style items that can also play music from physical media such as cassette tapes and compact discs.

But can these radios be repurposed into computers that can be used for various activities besides listening to radio broadcasts? Why spend time, money and effort on trying to make a radio into a general-purpose computer, when you can just buy (or build) a proper computer that would be much better suited for everything you can throw at it? Well, repurposing a radio for something else helps cut down on e-waste, since if one of its internal components becomes faulty and can’t be repaired somehow, then the other functional parts can still be usable in some way. The process of making a unique item that no-one else will have gives great satisfaction to many people. And also, by taking a radio apart, you can get a good understanding of all the internal parts used in the device, so you can figure out how to repair a radio for next time.

Before we dive straight in to the radio-computer conversion project, though, there are a number of things that we need to consider first. Giving oneself time to think everything through can mean the difference between a project that is well planned out and executed, and one that turns out to be a complete disaster. Here are some of the most obvious considerations:

  • What do we actually want to use a radio-computer for? There are many different uses for computers, ranging from gaming, web browsing and media creation, to robotics, artificial intelligence and weather forecasting. Without having a clear idea on what a radio will be repurposed to do, you can more likely or not end up turning it into a “jack of all trades and master of none” device; by cramming all kinds of functionality into a radio, it could do pretty much everything you would want to do with it, but it wouldn’t carry out those tasks as well as a more purpose-focused device. For the purposes of our project, we will focus more on the entertainment-related activities, chiefly streaming music and videos, playing media stored on internal storage, and playing games.
  • Will we use it whilst out and about? Many radios are portable devices that are powered by batteries, which allow users to listen to radio broadcasts while away from a power source. When adapting a radio so that it can be used as essentially a pocket-able computer that can also receive radio, it’s worth taking the amount of space inside the radio into consideration for installing batteries, especially if it was not originally designed to be portable. Using lithium batteries may be a way to increase the power available, as these are more ‘power dense’ than older types.
  • Will we add additional functionality to the device? For example, a touchscreen for selecting media, applications and options; a compatible TV tuner for enabling the radio to receive broadcast television; or a hard drive/SSD for storing music, videos and photos. As with batteries, internal space will need to be taken into account when installing additional components, and modifications to the casing may be required if a touchscreen, HDD/SSD or other parts are desired.

Next time, we will go on the hunt for a radio that will most closely suit what we will set out for our project. Our main priority will be looking for radios that we can salvage from our pile of spare parts and equipment, or that are sold on online stores as for parts only if we don’t have any suitable ones at hand. We believe that these would serve as a good starting point for re-purposing them into a media-focused computer. They are also often cheaper than fully working units! We’ll also be looking for a radio that looks interesting, and that we want to invest time in upcycling.

So until next time, stay safe and keep on fixing!