When it comes to listening to an iPod, I find I'm interested in doing so only in very specific situations. There's an iPod in the bedroom, which helps Tonya and me go to sleep at night and wakes us up in the morning, and I've become quite fond of listening to the iPod's earbuds inside protective earphones while mowing the lawn. But even though living in Ithaca enables us to spend relatively little time in the car, that's where I appreciate the iPod the most.
I've considered some of the more permanent methods of installing an iPod in the car, and as much as they're attractive from an interface and elegance standpoint, I'm uncomfortable with many of them for three reasons. First, they tend to be a bit expensive, with prices above $150, and that's before paying for professional installation. Second, I have trouble committing to the entire situation, since I strongly suspect that some solutions might not be physically compatible with even near-future iPods, and I don't know how long we'll keep our Honda Civic (I hold out hope that the automakers or conversion companies might come out with a plug-in hybrid that could run almost entirely on electricity for the around-town trips that dominate our driving). Third, we have an older Subaru Legacy Outback that we use primarily for winter driving, and since we almost never drive both cars at the same time, it feels wasteful to install something that would be usable only in one car.
With all that in mind, I've been testing a number of entries in the current crop of car iPod adapters from Griffin Technology, Belkin, and Small Dog. No doubt there are others, but these are the ones made available to me for review, and I've had some time to evaluate them on more than a cursory level.
Functionality & Design -- The solution I wanted to find has three basic functions:
It should send sound to the car's stereo system through an FM transmitter or via a cable connected either to a cassette adapter or input jack.
It should provide power to the iPod via the car's electrical outlet.
It should hold the iPod in a way that makes it possible for the driver to view and control the iPod without driving unsafely.
It's not essential that any given car iPod adapter perform all three of these functions, but if not, it shouldn't prevent some other device from adding the missing functionality.
Along with these technical requirements, industrial design turns out to be paramount. A hinged arm that wobbles is maddening, for instance. Plus, iPods come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes even now, forcing the manufacturers to come up with a variety of ways of accommodating the different form factors. Lastly, although color would seem to be merely a matter of taste, with an iPod and car adapter, I prefer black, since the dashboards of most cars are more likely to be dark colored and the adapter/iPod combination will be less likely to stand out visually to a larcenous passerby.
Small Dog Car Tune -- The first iPod car adapter I tried was the simplest and least expensive, the $33 Car Tune from Mac retailer (and TidBITS sponsor) Small Dog Electronics. It combines a car charger with an FM transmitter, but doesn't hold an iPod at all. The unit consists of a plug that fits into the car outlet, and an articulated oval head that provides an LCD display, two tuning buttons, and a power button. Although I was worried initially that I wouldn't be able to see the Car Tune's LCD display or reach its controls easily, it turned out to adjust well. It connects to the iPod via a dock connector on a thin, springy cable, and although I prefer being able to see the iPod screen while I drive, the cable allowed me to set the iPod in an open slot in the car's dashboard. Even still, some other holder like Griffin Technology's $10 iSqueez would have been welcome.
As an FM transmitter, I was a bit disappointed in the Car Tune. Although it was easy to tune different stations, and the Car Tune remembers the last one, its audio output level was quite low, lower than all the other devices I tried, which forced me to turn up the radio volume, increasing the amount of background static noise and exposing me to loud static whenever the Car Tune wasn't transmitting. And since it takes about 8 seconds for the Car Tune to start transmitting after receiving power, I was continually diving to turn down the volume when I started the car.
From a usability standpoint, the Car Tune was extremely manual. It doesn't pause playback automatically when the car turns off, and although it does automatically come back on, that 8 seconds of static ensured that I not only had to press Play on the iPod, I had to manage the volume on the stereo.
Griffin Technology iTrip Auto -- Similar to the Small Dog Car Tune is Griffin Technology's $70 iTrip Auto. It too provides a car charger and FM transmitter, but no method of physically holding the iPod. Instead of mounting the interface on the power plug directly, the iTrip Auto places the chewing gum packet-sized control module in the middle of the cord, between the dock connector and the power plug. Unfortunately this design proves rather awkward, since I had to root around for the control module whenever I wanted to change stations. Plus, since changing stations requires pressing flush-mounted buttons, seeing the change on an LCD, and then pressing a Select button, it proved more difficult to operate than the Car Tune, with its raised buttons and no need for a Select button.
For the extra money, the iTrip Auto provides significantly greater audio output levels, eliminating the need to crank the radio volume just to hear the music. Even better, the iTrip Auto automatically pauses music when the car turns off, and while it doesn't automatically resume when the car turns back on, it starts transmitting silence instantly so there's no burst of static. The iTrip Auto provides two modes - DX and LX - that supposedly provide different quality levels, though I couldn't tell much difference between them.
Griffin Technology RoadTrip -- Moving from the two previous devices, which had wires snaking around my dashboard and required that I leave the iPod loose in a dashboard slot, I next tried Griffin Technology's $90 RoadTrip, whose charger plug leads - via several articulated arms - to a dock that holds the iPod. Plastic inserts enabled compatibility with a wide variety of iPod sizes. The dock is also home to an LCD display with two tuning buttons and power button, the latter of which also gives access to four preset stations.
I'm always amazed when I can get one of these devices with articulated arms, complete with rotating joints and locking screws, to work. The first iPod car adapter I tried, a DLO TransPod, used the articulated arm design and was miserable. And indeed, with the extender arm that I was sure was necessary, I couldn't get the RoadTrip into a decent position. However, when I removed the extender arm and played with the possible articulations, I was able to find a sweet spot that was in fact the best of any of the devices, blocking nothing but one of two cup holders in front of the center-mounted gearshift lever. Your happiness with the articulated arm approach will depend completely on the dashboard layout of your particular car.
Despite the unexpectedly good positioning made possible by the RoadTrip, it suffered from some usability annoyances. Although it helpfully paused playback when the car turned off, it not only didn't resume playback when power returned, it required me to push the power button. As a result, the typical process for starting the car went like this: Turn the car on, swear at the static on the radio, push the RoadTrip's power button, and then push Play on the iPod. The swearing and powering up of the car adapter are entirely unnecessary, and soured me on the RoadTrip.
Audio output volume was good, better than the Car Tune, but perhaps not quite up to the iTrip Auto or the next product I tried, the Belkin TuneBase FM.
Belkin TuneBase FM -- The $80 Belkin TuneBase FM promised to meet all of my technical needs, and since it's available only in black and works with most modern iPods (not including the iPod shuffle, the iPod 3G, or anything earlier), it seemed like it might be the ultimate solution. Physically, it provides a short, sturdy gooseneck that can be manipulated into different positions. Unfortunately, I could never quite get it into the position I wanted due to the stiffness of the gooseneck. The iPod slots into a holder at the end of the gooseneck; Belkin provides eight plastic adapters to hold all the supported iPod models and it worked fine with my iPod photo and iPod nano. Belkin also makes the TuneBase FM for iPod nano, which has a longer, more flexible neck and which likely addresses my minor complaints about the positioning, though of course at the expense of compatibility with larger iPod models.
As an FM transmitter, the Belkin TuneBase FM worked well. It ties into software Apple put into the iPod for radio tuning (recent firmware updates are necessary), so the tuning interface appears on the iPod screen. Four buttons store preset stations, and up and down arrow buttons select different frequencies. Changing stations was easy, but even in Ithaca, finding clear frequencies wasn't so simple, especially since our hills change reception quality significantly as we drive around the area. Notably, the TuneBase FM provided five different volume settings that controlled the audio output level, which was particularly helpful with the iPod nano, which has lower audio output levels than other iPods. It's also possible to switch the TuneBase FM from stereo to mono, though mono is useful mostly for audiobooks.
From a usage standpoint, the TuneBase FM stood out. It automatically paused playback whenever I turned off the car, and it automatically resumed playback when I turned the car back on. Welcome as these capabilities were, they weren't perfect. It took the TuneBase FM some time to start transmitting, which meant about 8 seconds of static from the radio before the music kicked in. And although the automatic resume feature worked well, a few seconds after music came in again, there was a brief pause while the TuneBase FM switched from its tuning display to the top level of the iPod's interface. Unfortunately, the display always reverted to the main menu, whereas it would have been better to retain the previous spot in the interface, or at least the Now Playing screen. Finally, although automatic resume works well when only a single person uses the car, since Tonya and I share the car, I would sometimes have to find my place in a podcast because she had either listened to it or just turned off the stereo without first pausing the iPod.
My main complaint with the TuneBase FM, though, is that it prevents a connected iPod from going into deep sleep. That means that if your trips are relatively short (such that the iPod doesn't charge for long) and you don't drive for several days, the iPod will drain its battery entirely. On the next usage it reboots, having forgotten its position in a podcast, and sometimes refuses to respond to input until it has acquired a small charge. I don't know that this is actively bad for the iPod, but it proves annoying on a regular basis, and didn't seem to affect any of the other adapters I reviewed.
What about a Cassette Adapter? With all of the car iPod adapters I've discussed so far, nothing prevents the use of a cassette adapter that plugs into the iPod's headphone jack. The pros of a cassette adapter are that it eliminates the burst of static that plagues all the FM transmitters other than the iTrip Auto and it provides better audio quality than any of the FM transmitters, particularly at the higher volumes necessary to drown out road noise on freeways. Though my hearing simply isn't very good - or at all trained - I'd say that the sound from the cassette adapter was less muddy and provided more range than that coming from the FM transmitters. Plus, since plugging into the iPod's headphone jack enables the iPod's own volume control, I've found that you can extract more volume from a cassette adapter than from any of the FM transmitters that work through the iPod's dock connector. And no, I'm not a semi-deaf head-banger, but in our relatively inexpensive (and thus not heavily sound insulated) cars with factory sound systems, the road noise at speed, particularly with the windows down, requires a fair amount of volume.
But cassette adapters aren't perfect either. I dislike having a cable trailing down the dashboard from the cassette player and that cable makes both removing the iPod (as we do sometimes when parked in public) and ejecting the cassette adapter clumsy. Also, despite the fact that the cassette adapter itself provides better sound quality, the two that I have both make a noticeable amount of noise turning the fake reels. They of course don't do anything, since there's no tape to wind, but the fake reels make much more noise than real ones in a normal cassette. Of course, many new cars simply don't have tape decks at all, as was the case with the rental car we used on our April trip to the West Coast. Lastly, the iPod nano, with its bottom-mounted headphone jack, can't be used with a cassette adapter in units like the RoadTrip and TuneBase FM.
Nevertheless, for my uses, the cassette adapter was the lesser of two weevils, to quote the late Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey character, and that enabled me to bring a final iPod car adapter into this test.
Griffin Technology TuneFlex nano -- Whereas the Car Tune and iTrip Auto provide charging and FM transmission, but not a holder for the iPod, Griffin Technology's $40 TuneFlex nano offers charging and a dock at the end of an 8-inch (20 cm) thin gooseneck, but no FM transmission. And since the TuneFlex works only with the iPod nano, whose headphone jack is on the bottom, next to the dock connector, it has to work with a cassette adapter or by plugging directly into an input jack. The trick is that the headphone jack for this purpose is located at the base of the TuneFlex, where it plugs into the car's electrical outlet. Because the TuneFlex is connecting to the iPod nano's dock connector, that headphone jack is putting out line-level output, making the iPod's volume control irrelevant, but providing more than sufficient audio output levels.
The TuneFlex's thin gooseneck is far less obtrusive than the TuneBase FM's thick gooseneck, and it's far more adjustable. Because the cassette adapter plugs into the base of the TuneFlex, the cable to the cassette adapter doesn't hang off the top of the iPod, reducing cable clutter and making it easy both to swing the entire TuneFlex out of the way or to remove the iPod nano to store it in the glove compartment.
Like the iTrip Auto, the TuneFlex automatically pauses playback when the car turns off, but does not resume when power returns. I do prefer the way Belkin's TuneBase FM automatically resumes, but I'm willing to put up with pressing Play on the iPod nano, especially since it means that Tonya and I have fewer conflicts with positioning in podcasts.
Today's Favorite -- Although all these devices provide basically the same set of features, I was somewhat surprised to find that my favorite ended up being Griffin Technology's TuneFlex. In large part that's not due to great technical engineering - the TuneFlex's is perhaps the simplest of the devices - but to its excellent industrial design and physical usability when combined with the svelte iPod nano. Belkin's TuneBase FM has the best set of features overall, ranging from a good interface, powerful audio output levels, and decent physical usability, but the constant blasts of static every time I turned on the car put me off. It's likely that Belkin's TuneBase FM for iPod nano is in fact the ultimate device; it would depend on how it enabled a cassette adapter or direct cable to be plugged in. I can't really recommend Griffin Technology's RoadTrip; it doesn't match up to the TuneBase FM, and the need to turn it on every time you start your car is unnecessary effort. Although I may have sounded somewhat dismissive of Small Dog's Car Tune and Griffin's iTrip Auto, they're so small that they become easily thrown into a laptop bag for a trip that will involve driving in a random rental car. Choosing between them is difficult, since the iTrip Auto is better in every way but ease of tuning, something that's constantly necessary on long car trips in unfamiliar areas, and it costs more than twice as much as the Car Tune.
One aspect of my testing that surprised me was how much more I liked using the iPod nano in the car in favor of my large iPod photo. My iPod nano is black, so its color and size make it harder to see against the black dashboard from outside the car, making me worry less about leaving it out. Since it's solid-state, I also worry less about the heat and cold endemic to this part of the world hurting the iPod. It's a 4 GB model, and although that's significantly smaller than the 30 GB iPod photo, it has proven to be more than sufficient for the music and podcasts and audiobooks we want to hear in the car.