I finally added a third generation 15 GB iPod to my gadget collection last year. I don't have a long commute but since my wife and I often drive more than two hours to visit friends around Boston or New York, I wanted to get an FM transmitter to use the iPod on road trips. But, I kept procrastinating and eventually my wife solved the problem with a holiday gift.
Being observant, she knew what would be important to me in terms of features: it had to be able to work for hours at a time; had to sit idle in the car for weeks in the winter cold and the summer heat (i.e., no batteries); had to connect to the iPod while in its case (a Marware SportSuit Convertible); and had to be a single item, not several accessories. She found the perfect match, the Monster iCarPlay Wireless.
Design -- Perhaps because it is made by Monster Cable, the iCarPlay looks like an adapter cable and is very simple. One end is a plug for a car power adapter, and the other end is an iPod dock connector. In the middle is an oval-shaped controller and transmitter with a single button. When plugged in, it turns on automatically and transmits on one of eight FM frequencies from 88.1 to 89.5. The current frequency is indicated with a red light; clicking the button switches through the channels in order.
In practice this simple design works well. The dock connector plugs into the iPod through a hole in the bottom of my Marware case, avoiding the need to unplug the remote and headphones. While in use, the iCarPlay charges the iPod's battery. If I get radio interference and need to change the frequency, I can hit the button and then tune the car radio one station higher without having to take my eyes off the road. I can also tuck the iPod away and use the iPod remote to pause and change tracks by touch.
When not in use, the iCarPlay can be rolled up and stuffed into the glove compartment or some other spot in the car.
The power plug on the iCarPlay has a large cap on it with a glowing red Monster logo. In my car this is not a problem, but the plug can be a tight fit in some cars with recessed power outlets. It would have been better if Monster had made it longer and narrower. Likewise, the dock connector on the iCarPlay is thicker than Apple's cables, so it can be a snug fit when using it with an iPod case.
The iCarPlay is done in Monster's signature black/silver/red colors so if you like all your iPod accessories in matching white plastic this might be annoying.
Performance -- This product seems to avoid the some of the inconsistent performance that Travis Butler describes in his TidBITS reviews of other FM transmitters (see "Getting Better AirPlay" in TidBITS-771 and "Taking an iTrip: Three FM Transmitters" in TidBITS-681). The signal is steady once you select an open frequency. The location in the car doesn't seem to matter much; some transmitters exhibit poor performance if the radio antenna is at the rear of the car, for example. The volume level is fixed since it uses the dock connector, but the level that is broadcast is a bit soft and I have to turn up the volume on the radio higher than I do with a normal radio station. A truck next to me in traffic with an FM transmitter on the same channel stepped on the signal once, and my Depeche Mode was replaced with country and western music until the light changed.
Like other transmitters that have a fixed number of frequencies, the iCarPlay might not be able to find a clear frequency in a major city, but this has not been a problem for me so far in the heart of Boston. Having eight channels to choose from may help, as compared to products like Belkin's TuneCast which feature only four. But if you are worried about this limitation, Monster now also sells the iCarPlay Wireless Plus, which tunes digitally to almost any frequency and has three preset buttons.
Pros and Cons -- The radio stations where I live are all terrible, so I have started using the iCarPlay even on short trips. It works well in the semi-rural area we live in, as well as in built-up urban areas in which we travel. I especially like the fact that I can drive for several hours while using it, and then get out of the car - at the airport, perhaps - with a fully charged iPod.
That convenience comes at a price: the iCarPlay Wireless has a recommended price of $70 and the iCarPlay Wireless Plus is $10 more. This is double or even triple the cost of many competing products, but if you consider the cost of a transmitter and an iPod power adapter for your car, the price starts to look a little more reasonable. I consider the all-in-one design worth the additional cost.
The iCarPlay is purposely built for use in a car; if you want to use an FM transmitter in other places, this is not the right product to buy. It also requires a newer third or fourth generation iPod or iPod Mini with a dock connector. If you have an older iPod or another MP3 player, you can buy the RadioPlay version of this product and plug it into the headphone jack of any device.
The iCarPlay is simple and just works... like the iPod. The price could be more competitive, but I was certainly happy to receive it as a gift.
[Geoff Bronner is webmaster for the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He listens to a lot of 80s music and The Hour of Slack on his iPod.]