Review: iPod FM transmitter round-up

How do you get iPod sound in the car stereo without a BMW? (August 4th, 2004)

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Product Manufacturer: Griffin Technology, Sonnet Technologies

Price: iTrip $35 (iPod mini $39), PodFreq $100

The Good

  • iTrip (Griffin Technology) Price: $35 ($39 for iPod Mini) simple operation; integrated hardware/software; works without need to remove iPod from holster; runs while charging iPod with Griffin\'s PowerPod (sold separately)

    PodFreq (Sonnet Technologies) Price: $100 self-contained unit holds iPod; no need for additional software; easy tuning; slightly stronger audio quality and signal strength

The Bad

  • iTrip requires software for operation; awkward switching of frequencies while in operation; software files play hash on iPod when in browse mode.

    PodFreq (Sonnet Technologies) bulkier unit than competition; requires removal from iPod holster/carrying case for use; price

The iPod has made a bundle of money for Steve Jobs and the Cupertino Consortium; it has also created some marvelous opportunities for other companies who make the accessories that go with the iPod. And if you're like a lot of iPod owners, you've discovered it would be really cool to listen to your iPod in your car, without having to wear the ear buds while driving (which is illegal, of course), or having to run wires all over the place. Thankfully, several of those companies mentioned above have developed products that take that need into account. They've come up with miniature low frequency FM transmitters that work with your iPod, allowing you to play your music through your car radio. Through various trials, I've run across Griffin Technology's iTrip and Sonnet Technologies PodFreq. I used each device on my full-sized iPod; Griffin also makes an iTrip model for the iPod Mini. Each product takes a distinctly different approach; one product may suit you better than another.

How it works

Simply put, here's how they work: you find an FM frequency that isn't being used by a local radio station. You tune your iPod into it with one of the devices, and you play your music over your radio. This works whether you're in your car, in your office or at the beach. The iTrip is clearly smaller and the more elegant of the two. It resembles a small tube that plugs into the earplug jack of the 3G iPod. It comes with software (an updated version is available from the company's website) that loads onto your iPod, allowing you to tune into an available FM frequency. The iTrip will continue to work on whatever frequency it was last set at, so it can be swapped between iPods that are not loaded with the playlist of frequencies. By contrast, the PodFreq works without additional software, which you may find to be an advantage. It's a snow-white container with a telescoping antenna that securely holds your iPod, and allows you to quickly scan an almost-full range of stations with simple up-and-down buttons. It also lets you easily control the volume, by simply using the car radio's controls; the iPod's volume controls are disabled by default.

Annoyances and Advantages

Neither the PodFreq nor the iTrip are perfect; both suffer from the same essential challenge; radio station signals fade and grow stronger as you're traveling in your car. The frequency that allowed you to play your iPod without interference 15 minutes ago may now be unusable, which can require frequent fiddling with your iPod, in order to find a frequency that allows you to get a clear signal. Both offer several advantages over the other, making it impossible to declare a clear winner. For instance, the iTrip's software loads as a song file for each frequency. They will occasionally play as a song selection on your iPod; granted, it's only five seconds of hash, but that's still five seconds more than you'll get with the PodFreq. The PodFreq also scans by .1MHz increments, making it immediately usable worldwide. The iTrip software scans in 200Khz increments for the North American market but contains 100Khz frequency increments on the CD that ships with it, making it usable in the European and Japanese markets as well. The PodFreq offers a big advantage if you're one of several people in a car, each with his or her own iPod. Swapping out iPods takes less than 10 seconds; the iTrip allows you to do the same, even if others don't have the software installed, but if you have to change stations along the way, you'll have to give the iTrip to the person with the software on their iPod, and they'll have to make the adjustment. That's several steps more than you need with the PodFreq.

What's The Frequency Kenneth?

Using the PodFreq, however, required me to take my iPod out of its carrying holster, something I didn't need to do with iTrip. In addition, neither product came with an adapter allowing me to charge my iPod while driving. Using a PodFreq while charging the iPod through my car's cigarette lighter port requires me to spend another $20 on a car charger cable, available through ExtremeMac.com. Griffin's well-designed PowerPod adapter costs five dollars more. The iTrip software also starts at 87.7MHz; For example, many US car radios support 87.7 and 87.9. Since there are no US FM stations broadcasting on these frequencies, they are ideal for use with the iTrip. PodFreq's transmitter starts at 88.1, which gives me a slightly narrower range of choices. Small point, to be sure, but I just returned from San Francisco, where almost every frequency at the low end of the FM band is taken up. Having those two extra stations loaded into the PodFreq would have been a nice option. Price is also a consideration. PodFreq is $100; iTrip goes for less than half that amount. And I thought PodFreq produced a more reliable signal and offered marginally better sound quality, the price-benefit ratio may lead you toward iTrip, especially if you're on a limited budget. I prefer the PodFreq, while being fully aware of the iTrip's advantages. I found PodFreq more intuitive and simpler to operate, especially when I needed to shift frequencies. But I can recommend both products. As long as you understand that neither is perfect, you'll be pretty happy with either.

by Steve Friedberg


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