Last week I gave you Part 1 of my holiday gift suggestions for the iPod user(s) in your life, covering Apple accessories, music, software, cases, bags, and jackets. Part 2 provides you with the best in third-party iPod add-ons, car accessories, speakers, reading, and repair options. Give your favorite iPod user even more reason to love their iPod with one (or more) of these useful items.
To recap from last week: I’ve divided products into categories, and included approximate U.S. prices for each, though you may be able to find items for significantly less. I’ve also noted whether each product is available for the older (FireWire port) iPods, the newer (dock connector) iPods, or both. For recommendations on headphones, see "Music to Your Ears: 2003," elsewhere in this issue.
Accessorize iPod Add-Ons — The iPod is much more than simply a portable music player, and it’s more versatile than many people realize. Here are some add-ons that your iPod lover might love to own.
SendStation PocketDock ($19, dock connector): One of the biggest criticisms of the newer iPods is that they did away with the standard FireWire port in favor of the new dock connector. Granted, the dock connector has opened the doors for some great accessories, but it was still nice to be able to use any old FireWire cable you had lying around to recharge or sync your iPod. The PocketDock is a nifty (and tiny) adapter that you plug into the dock connector on your newer iPod, enabling you to use any standard 6-pin FireWire cable.
SiK imp ($26, both, but only dock connector iPods for the purpose here): The imp is officially a car charger for any iPod, but if you have an iPod with a dock connector, it provides a truly unique feature: you can disconnect the imp’s cable from the car charger and get a truly portable, line-level output cable, perfect for use with a portable headphone amplifier. (The cable also provides a standard FireWire port, like the PocketDock.)
TEN Technology NaviPod ($50, both): One of the great things about the newer iPods is that the dock base provides a real line-level output, making it perfect for connecting to your home stereo. Add a NaviPod, and you have a true remote-controlled iPod audio system. The NaviPod receiver sits on the top of your iPod and lets you use the included remote control to play/pause, skip, search forward/backward, and control the output volume. (The latter is useful on older iPods that don’t have a line-level output, or when you’re connecting your newer iPod via the headphone jack.) The NaviPod also includes a handy metal stand that keeps the iPod standing upright (and, thus, keeps the remote receiver visible) when not in the dock. Both models provide pass-through jacks – so you can still connect cables when the NaviPod is in place – for headphones (both) and FireWire (older iPods). The only drawback to using a NaviPod is that you can’t see the iPod’s display from across the room (but to be fair, the iPod’s own remote has the same limitation).
Belkin Backup Battery Pack ($60, dock connector): The newer generation of iPods are smaller and lighter – but at a price. The battery only lasts about two-thirds as long as the previous generation. If you or your iPod lover need longer iPod battery life and don’t mind adding some bulk, consider Belkin’s battery pack. It holds four AA batteries and connects to the dock connector on the iPod, providing 15 to 20 hours of juice (assuming a fully charged iPod battery). The iPod fits in a cradle on the pack, secured by a suction cup that safely attaches to the iPod’s metal back.
SiK HotWire ($11, both): I often want to charge my iPod through my Mac without it mounting in iTunes, so that I can just snatch it out of its dock base when I need to use it. The HotWire provides a solution: a "power-only" FireWire cable. Use it by itself with older iPods, or via an adapter like the PocketDock with newer iPods. Since it doesn’t transfer data, you can’t sync with it, but it’s perfect for charging.
Belkin iPod Voice Recorder ($50, dock connector): This tiny gadget allows you to record voice notes on your iPod; you can then play them back on the iPod (the Voice Recorder also includes a tiny speaker), or transfer them to iTunes or another audio application when you get home. The sound is mono-only, and the recording quality isn’t close to being high-fidelity, but then again, the Voice Recorder is intended for voice memos, not for concerts and performances.
Belkin Media Reader for iPod ($100, dock connector): If your iPod owner is also a digital photography buff, the Media Reader might be useful. It’s basically a universal media card reader (CF, SmartMedia, SD, Memory Stick, and MMC) that plugs into the iPod’s dock connector and then transfers photos to the iPod. When you get back to your computer, you can then import the photos into iPhoto or your favorite photo application. The Media Reader is most useful for those times when you either don’t have a computer handy and you need to empty your media cards, or you want to make sure you have backup copies of important photos. There have been reports of poor transfer speeds when copying more than 256 MB of photos at once. Belkin and Apple are reportedly working on a fix.
PodPod iPod stand ($15, both): The new iPod docks are great for syncing, but they’re also useful for keeping the iPod upright (and thus away from desk clutter and scratches). If you want a stand for a second location (or, if you have an iPod that didn’t come with a dock), the inexpensive PodPod is a nice option. Simple? Sure. But it’s hard to beat for the price, and it’s quite attractive.
Griffin Technology iFM ($35, old): If you or your recipient is a radio listener, and has an older iPod, you can add an FM tuner via Griffin’s iFM. It connects to the iPod’s remote control jack and uses (and requires) the iPod remote to control the tuner. To cut down on cable clutter, the iFM piggy-backs onto the iPod remote and provides a place to store the iPod remote’s cable.
Griffin Technology RadioSHARK ($70, both): Unfortunately, this product isn’t available for the December holidays, but it’s such a cool idea that I had to mention it. The RadioSHARK provides an AM/FM radio that connects to your Mac via USB; the included software lets you record radio to digital audio files, which can be played on your Mac or transferred to your iPod for on-the-go listening. Think of it as TiVo for radio.
Road Trip: Car Accessories — To truly appreciate what it means to have thousands of songs on your iPod, you need to take a trip that passes through radio no-man’s-land. Whether it’s a lack of any radio stations at all, or an overwhelming proliferation of "all talk, all the time" stations, having your favorite music with you can make the trip much more enjoyable. But you need a few items to get your music playing in your car and to keep your iPod going. (In other words, setting someone’s car up to be an iPod-playing-roadster is a great holiday gift.)
Griffin iTrip ($35, both): Although a number of FM transmitters – devices that broadcast your iPod’s signal to a specific radio frequency, allowing you to listen to it via your car’s FM radio – exist on the market, the iTrip is clearly the top dog, for a number of reasons. First, it’s an amazingly small package that sits right on top of the iPod, leaving no wires or dangling parts. Second, it allows you to use any frequency on the FM dial, which means that you’re much more likely to find an open frequency than with many of the other transmitters. (Griffin even offers the "iTrip Station Finder," a Mac OS X application that tells you which frequencies are open in each city, as reported by users.) Finally, and most importantly, I found the performance of the iTrip, especially on the newer iPods, to be much better than some of the other models on the market. The only downside is that setting the broadcast frequency is a bit of a quirky procedure; however, once you figure it out, it’s easy to do. (Also see Travis Butler’s detailed review of the iTrip in "Taking an iTrip: Three FM Transmitters" in TidBITS-681.)
Cassette adapter (cost varies, both): If the car stereo in question has a cassette deck, consider a cassette adapter instead of an FM transmitter. Originally developed years ago to connect portable CD players to car cassette players, these devices are now available for as little as $10, and can take the signal from your iPod’s headphone jack and transmit it to your car stereo via an adapter that looks just like a cassette tape. Since there’s no radio transmission involved, the sound quality is often significantly better. There are so many of these adapters on the market, and relatively little difference between them, that I didn’t list any particular models here. For the most part, you can’t go wrong with any one you pick.
Direct connections (cost varies, both): For the best possible sound in the car, you can try to connect your iPod lover’s iPod directly to your car stereo. If it’s a newer stereo with an auxiliary port on the front, it’s as simple as buying a mini-to-mini cable: connect one end to the iPod’s headphone jack (or, preferably, the line-level output on the dock base), and the other end to the stereo. If the car in question doesn’t have such a jack, you may be able to add one for a reasonable price. Most car stereo dealers have kits, or you can find them online.
Griffin PowerPod ($25, both), Belkin Auto Kit for iPod ($40, dock connector), SiK imp ($26, both): To use the iPod for longer trips, you’ll need a way to power it past its normal battery life. You could use the Belkin Battery Pack mentioned above, but these solutions let you power (and charge) your iPod from any automobile with an accessory power jack (the "cigarette lighter" jack in older cars). The PowerPod provides a standard FireWire port, so you can use it with any iPod, old or new, and it’s now shipping with a free dock-connector-to-FireWire cable (which is $20 by itself from the Apple Store). The Belkin Auto Kit works only with newer iPods with a dock connector, but it has a headphone jack built into the charger body. The imp works with old and new iPods, and provides a true line-level output when used with newer iPods.
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Belkin TuneDok ($30, both): For me, the biggest challenge of using my iPod in the car was where to put it. There are a number of mounting products on the market, but I prefer the TuneDok. It provides three different sizes of "cup" bases, one of which is sure to fit in your vehicle’s cup holder. You then attach the actual iPod mount – which securely holds your (bare) iPod using the same suction cup design as the Belkin Battery Pack – to the base. The iPod’s top and bottom are left exposed, so you can still connect an auto charger, audio cable, and/or FM transmitter. In fact, the TuneDok has a clip on the back to keep the audio or charger cable attached when you take the iPod out of the car. Okay, so it’s hard to describe; trust me, though, it works very well.
Listen Out Loud: Speakers — Apple responded to feedback when they added a line-level output to the dock base for the newer iPods; now users can get the best possible sound when connecting the iPod to a home stereo. Here are a few accessories for listening without headphones. If you have an older iPod, or a newer iPod without a dock base, you can also use these accessories; however, you must use the iPod’s volume control to approximate a line-level output from the headphone jack.
Griffin iPod Home Connect Kit ($15, both): You can buy the right audio connection cables anywhere – such as your local Radio Shack or electronics superstore – but the Griffin set is a "can’t go wrong" choice. It includes both iPod-to-male-RCA and iPod-to-female-RCA cables, which should let you connect to any home stereo that uses RCA inputs.
Tivoli PAL ($129, both): There are a lot of portable speakers out there, but the dirty little secret of "stereo" speakers is that if they’re too close together, you pretty much lose any stereo imaging. So in many cases it’s better to get a higher quality mono speaker. I highly recommend the Tivoli Audio PAL (Personal Audio Laboratory). You simply connect your iPod to the PAL’s line-level input via a mini-to-mini cable. With its small size (6 by 4 by 4 inches; 15.2 by 10.2 by 10.2 cm), all-weather design, and 15 to 20 hours of rechargeable battery life (it can also run off AC power), you can take it with you on any adventure. Even better, it includes one of the best AM/FM tuners on the market, and, most importantly, it sounds great. I often use a PAL, iPod, and NaviPod remote (mentioned above) as a portable system (see my amateur picture at the URL below) – people are always amazed by the sound coming out of this tiny package. It also makes a great office or bedroom system.
Tivoli Model Two ($159, both): If you don’t need portability and want true stereo sound, check out the PAL’s big brother, the Model Two. It has the same amazing tuner and input jack, but with stereo sound via two separate, real wood, enclosures. It also has a second "computer mix" input that lets you hook up your Mac at the same time – a nice touch that lets the computer audio play full-time, whether listening to the iPod or the radio. Like the PAL, you’ll be amazed by the sound, and the design is retro-cool.
Altec Lansing inMotion speaker system ($150, both): In terms of gadget factor, this portable speaker system wins hands-down. Stored for traveling, it’s the size of a small hardcover book. But open it up and it provides stereo speakers in an impressive package that complements the iPod’s own design – simply place the iPod in the built-in dock (which can actually charge and sync newer iPods) and you’re good to go. Although the sound quality isn’t as good as that of the Tivoli models mentioned above, it’s a lot better than I expected given the size of the speakers. Plus the inMotion is a better solution for a suitcase, carry-on, or backpack due to its slim profile.
Cambridge SoundWorks Model Twelve ($400, both) or Acoustic Energy Aego 2 ($600, both): If you (or your loved one) are picky about sound and you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket, check out the ultimate in two-channel, self-powered speaker systems – just plug one of these systems into your iPod (or your Mac, for that matter) and get great sound that will amaze your friends (and possibly annoy your neighbors). Both of these systems have stellar reputations; the Aego 2 takes the prize for best sound, but the Model Twelve system is "transportable" and can be powered by a battery, accessory power jack, or AC.
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Read Up — Although the iPod and iTunes are easy to use, you’ll never use them to their full potential without some help. I suggest a little iPod leisure reading.
Secrets of the iPod ($12, both): A number of iPod books are out there, but in my opinion none of them quite matches up to Chris Breen’s Secrets of the iPod, published by Peachpit Press and now in its third edition. In addition to general iPod info, tips, tricks, and shortcuts, it also has the best section on troubleshooting of any iPod book I’ve seen. And it’s the only book on the market that offers you free music (a link to Chris’s own solo piano album).
We Can Rebuild Him — If your favorite iPod user has an older iPod, or just hasn’t taken very good care of their newer one, some gifts for repair and maintenance might be appreciated.
Ice Cream ($20-$25) or iCleaner ($17-$25): One of the drawbacks of the iPod’s shiny, attractive surface is that it scratches easily. Ice Cream and iCleaner can both remove those small-but-far-too-noticeable scratches. The standard products are intended for your iPod’s plastic surfaces, while Ice Cream M and iCleaner Pro are for removing scratches off its smooth metal backside.
Battery Replacement ($50-$100, both): One criticism of the iPod has been that its battery is non-replaceable. However, if your loved one’s out-of-warranty iPod battery is starting to show its age, all is not lost. Laptops for Less now offers replacement batteries ($50) for both the original and newer iPod models, including detailed installation instructions. PDASmart offers both a do-it-yourself kit ($60) and a mail-in replacement service ($68). Finally, even Apple is now offering their own replacement service ($100). The upside to Apple’s service that you get a 90-day warranty; the downside is that I’ve read reports that you may not actually get your original iPod back; instead you get a refurbished replacement unit. I haven’t been able to confirm this either way.
AppleCare for iPod ($60 or less, both): Apple has long provided AppleCare policies for their computers; they’ve recently introduced one for the iPod. It’s officially a "two-year" plan, which in AppleCare language means "two years from the date of iPod purchase." In other words, instead of 90 days of phone support and one year of warranty support, you get two full years of both. Note that you can buy AppleCare from authorized resellers including companies like TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics.
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