Wind-up radios may conjure images of caftan-wrapped figures in the Afghan desert, straining to hear a broadcast against the onslaught of a sand storm, but these radios have universal appeal. Far from the deserts of the Middle East or the Bedouin enclaves of Mozambique, wind-up radios find their home on the windowsills of Wiltshire farmers and the patios of hedge-fund managers in Chelsea. The wind-up has transcended its humanitarian roots and emerged as an energy-saving device we can all benefit from.
What surprised us most about this ingenious little gadget is that 60 seconds of winding the radio gives a full hour of FM listening. It's the kind of return on investment only a fool could ignore: rotate this handle for a minute and in exchange you might hear the world news, a play or music. It's everything that snake in the Garden of Eden promised and more.
The Devo is utilitarian in looks, its one attempt at beauty being a faux-carbon-fibre fascia that adorns the front of the unit. This is slapped on the otherwise silver chassis like Chanel No5 on a drag queen -- it might hint at a classy exterior, but there's no getting away from the military-industrial feel to this radio. The chassis feels rugged, though it's not got anything on the we recently reviewed. Where the Oasis was reinforced with aluminium, the Devo relies on a thick plastic case.
The FM and DAB tuning controls take the form of two concentric rotary controls. The outer part of the control dial changes FM frequency, while the inner control switches between DAB presets. This is particularly useful for those who flick between FM and DAB broadcasts, because there's no need to keep retuning the radio when changing between technologies. The radio will remember its DAB and FM tuning positions as long as you don't jog the dial you're not currently using.
FM frequency is illustrated by a conventional tuning needle and printed scale. This goes some way to explaining why the FM radio will reward 60 seconds of winding with an hour of radio, while the DAB tuner, with its power-guzzling LCD and digital-analogue conversion circuitry, will only give a paltry 3-5 minutes of play for the same wind.
Around the DAB and FM tuning dial, there are five preset buttons in orbit, as well as Menu and Scan buttons. As for the speaker on the Devo, it's a 100mm driver protected by a reasonably thick metal gauze that seems to defend well against moderate impact, but could be dented by severe abuse. A standard headphone socket in the side lets you listen to broadcasts without annoying neighbours.
The rear of the radio is blank apart from left and right phono connectors and the massive wind-up handle. This is an extremely solid fold-out handle that rotates in either direction to supply power to the internal dynamo. The grip on this has a rubberised plastic coating that makes it fairly comfortable to hold when winding the radio. Charging for extended DAB radio use is an experience we wouldn't wish on anyone, but for FM radio, the handle is perfectly adequate and won't strain your hand.
Setting up the Freeplay Devo was straightforward -- all the more so because it doesn't rely on removable batteries or, necessarily, an external power source. As soon as the Devo is charged and switched on, the DAB part of the radio auto-tunes itself to all available digital radio stations and displays their names on the built-in LCD. The FM part of the radio is equally simple to operate, with the added benefit that it uses far less power.
The Devo receives all Band III broadcasts -- this covers every DAB station in the UK. The autotuner on the radio is acceptably swift at homing in on all available channels in your area. If you move the radio at some point in the future, these preset frequencies may change slightly and you'll have to retune the Devo by pressing the Scan button on the front. As you'd expect for a small radio of this kind, there are no recording features.
It doesn't take long to charge the radio for initial use using the built-in handle, but if you're near a normal power source you can plug in the bundled adaptor and listen to the radio using mains electricity -- this also charges the internal battery.
Sound quality on the Devo is average for a DAB, although the tone is slightly brighter than others we've reviewed. Although far from grating, there is an unmistakable transistor-radio tone to the Devo that means it never rises above its rank. Demanding listeners may ask a little more from this radio despite its tiny size, but for general listening we were very pleased with the fidelity. If you're looking for a more luxurious-sounding radio, you're probably not in the wind-up market anyway.
Listening to a pirate FM radio station revealed the Devo's good handling of a wavering signal, and the DJ's muffled cries of "Good evening London taaahhnn!" were decipherable even through his drug-addled slur.
The Devo's most impressive feature is its wind-up mechanism. This is surprisingly effective at transforming a small amount of winding into several hours of radio listening. Not only is this method of charging a welcome alternative to the fossil-fuel gobbling radios that occupy our homes and offices, but it feels good to be working for your music. Freeplay has put the environment first, as it does with all its products, and the Devo has turned out a welcome surprise. While extended DAB listening without external mains charging will wear your wrist out fairly easily, there's plenty to recommend here for FM listeners.
Edited by Michael Parsons
Additional editing by Nick Hide