By Nick Aziz
Wednesday, Apr 19th, 2006 @ 1:54 pm
If you own an iPod and a car that doesn't have a direct line-in to its stereo, you're undoubtedly familiar with FM transmitters. Put simply, an FM transmitter enables you to connect an iPod to your car's stereo. While many cars offer a direct line-in to plug an MP3 player into the car's stereo, some new models still do not. That's where FM transmitters like the Griffin iTrip come in.

An FM transmitter is a simple and inexpensive device that plugs into your iPod and broadcasts your music over a selected FM channel within a radius of few feet. For optimal quality, one typically selects a channel that has nothing static noise on it. This way, you're not competing with a powerful signal from a radio station.

The most popular FM transmitter for the iPod is a product called iTrip by Griffin Technologies, a long time maker of Apple accessories. I owned the original iTrip, which, despite some clumsy interface issues, worked well. There are some inherent limitations to the quality of the audio put out by an FM transmitter. That's because the FCC regulates antenna size and signal strength. Other factors like the quality of your car's radio antenna can make matters worse.

In my experience, however, the original iTrip worked quite well. As previously mentioned, it had a ridiculously cumbersome interface for selecting the broadcast channel that involved navigating through the iPod's playlist interface and selecting a faux song file with a corresponding channel name (such as 94.1). Awkward? Absolutely. But once your channel was set, further tinkering was usually not needed. Unfortunately, in some large cities different channels work better in different parts of town, meaning some drivers had to change channels frequently. As a result of demand for a better interface, Griffin developed a next-generation iTrip with buttons and a tiny LCD screen to quickly select a new channel.

If Griffin had left the old iTrip alone and just added buttons and a screen, it would have been a great product. Unfortunately, that wasn't possible. Apple forced manufacturers to adopt a new interface standard for the iPod that meant all FM transmitters would have to work via the dock connector on the bottom of the device.

At first glance, it seems like a smart and tidy idea: every manufacturer would use the same interface and basic layout for their transmitters. Unfortunately, Apple's concept and Griffin's implementation are both horribly flawed. Many of the problems with this device relate to Apple's connector standard, while other issues can be blamed on Griffin. For the purposes of this review, I am simply looking at the overall end-user experience.

Noise police rejoice

I discovered the first problem before I even made it out of the Best Buy parking lot where I purchased the iTrip. Because the new iTrip uses the dock connector (a line-out) instead of the headphone jack, the volume controls on the iPod do nothing. With the old iTrip, it was possible to set the iPod's volume to around three-quarters maximum in order to achieve enough volume. With the new iTrip, the volume is stuck at a very low level, meaning you have to crank the volume much louder on your car's stereo.

If you've ever turned the output volume on your television extremely low, and increased the volume on your amplifier to compensate, then you're familiar with the phenomenon I'm describing. As I cranked the car's volume control higher, I experienced an increasing amount of background static. At levels I'd describe as "loud," the music is unbearably tainted by the hum of static in the background.

To make matters worse, even with the volume set to maximum on our test car's stereo, the music was neither loud enough nor clear enough. Of course, not everyone likes to blast their music for all to hear. If this was the only issue with the iTrip, I'd gladly give it a passing grade for the Oldsmobile drivers of the world. But my list of concerns has just begun.

It's also worth noting that even if you don't play your music loud, the difference between the necessary volume to achieve a desirable output from the iPod and the necessary volume to get the correct output from a CD is so great that switching from iPod to CD mode can be a startling experience. You must turn the volume down significantly before switching to CD, or your ear drums will be in for a big shock.

All backwards

The next concern I have relates to the positioning of the iTrip. The old iTrip sat atop the iPod. The new iTrip sits on the bottom. Not a big difference, right? Wrong.

When testing the iTrip, I found the most convenient place to put it was in a cup-holder. With the old iTrip, that meant the transmitter was sticking out in the air, unobstructed by plastic and metal, and farther away from the car's mechanical components. With the new iTrip, there's a noticeable amount of static due to it being in the bottom of the cupholder. Turning it upside-down resolved this issue, but it also makes the iPod very difficult to navigate. No amount of expertise in reading upside down will fully resolve this problem.

Cheesy interface

Another issue relates to how the iTrip attached to the iPod. Apple's Dock connector provides space for internal hooks to clip in to the iPod. If you've ever used an iPod with a Dock cable, you're familiar with this feature.

The fact that Griffin didn't take advantage of this feature speaks to lack of thought that went into this product. The new iTrip has a tendency to fall out of the iPod if bumped, moved, or vibrated by spirited driving. It also feels cheap inserting or removing it from the iPod.

And while we're on the topic of how the two devices interface, it's worth pointing out that the new iTrip doesn't even fit correctly on the 5th-generation iPod. The device was clearly designed to match the exterior dimensions of a 4th-generation player. Ironically, the 5th generation iPod is the first full-size model that actually requires the use of the Dock connector for FM transmitters.

Road trips not permitted

Lastly, the new iTrip makes charging the iPod with a standard adapter impossible while in use. With the previous iTrip -- which sat on top of the iPod -- it was possible to charge the player's battery using an adaptor cable that plugged into the Dock connector. Because the new iTrip occupies the Dock connector, it's no longer possible to charge the iPod while using it.

This, to me, is the nail in the iTrip's coffin. For a device that's clearly meant to be used in a car, it's inexcusable that it cannot be easily plugged into the car's power source while in use.

There is an alternative to using a traditional iPod adapter that involves using a $25 Griffin "PowerJolt" charger and a $25 mini USB cable to plug in to the car's power source. Unfortunately, that brings the overall cost to $100 and creates an unsightly mess of wires and gadgets. A hundred dollars for a setup that can't even provide acceptable volume or clear audio? I think not.

"iTrip Auto." Right...

So the standard iTrip sucks. Perhaps Griffin has realized this. Recently, the company unveiled a new iTrip model called "the iTrip Auto." If ever there was an redundant product name, this would be it. The only conceivable use for an iTrip is in an automobile. To suggest anything else is a slap in the face to consumers. One might argue that the iTrip could be used at home in conjunction with a standalone radio. I'd argue that the $50 spent on an iTrip could be put toward a set of standard computer speakers for home use instead. The sound quality would be better, too.

The iTrip Auto still uses the Dock connector, but it also adds the a built-in cable for charging. So at least one problem is resolved with this new device. Which begs the question: why are other models of the iTrip still sold?

Sadly, this new edition to the iTrip family doesn't address one of the most frustrating problems: volume. According to Griffin, "Speaker volume can be controlled solely from the car stereo controls, without having to adjust the iPod's volume level." Talk about positive spin. Perhaps Griffin hired Baghdad Bob to write its press material.

Pros: Better channel selection than old model. Better than nothing.

Cons: Poor sound quality, no volume control, doesn't clip in, requires proprietary power adapter setup.

Score: 2/5

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