So, I’m sitting in traffic in my 2005 Mazda Tribute when a Porsche Boxster pulls up next to me, top down, tunes blasting. I had my own tunes playing, my iPhone was plugged into my FM transmitter which was straining to override the channel I had chosen for playback. The sound produced from my setup was swamped by the Boxster’s sound system like a rowboat in a tsunami.
I could have fired up a CD, I suppose. I was trying to enjoy my Black Eyed Peas album, but my setup was barely getting the job done, and the Boxster just made matters worse.
So, when the light changed I was slower than normal taking off, I wanted the Porsche to get far enough ahead of me so that I could hear my music. The Boxster driver was only too happy to oblige.
I relay this story as an example of just how bad FM transmitters are at getting your music into your car’s sound system. If you sport an AUX jack, use it, but if you’re like me and have a pre-AUX sound system in your car, FM transmitters are the only real option you have for getting the music out of your iPhone and into your car. It’s not a great option. You have to search for clear or weak FM channels in your area, and the station signal changes strength depending on the time of day, sunspot activity, public opinion, or the price of pork futures. To add to your misery, the signal strength of most iPhone transmitters are woefully anemic, this due to federal regulations.
So, if you are in the market for an FM transmitter/in-car charger for your iPhone, your choices are bad, pretty bad, and worse. That is, unless you choose TuneLink Auto, from New Potato.
TuneLink Auto is a new FM transmitter/Bluetooth receiver/car changer device that’s plugs into your car’s 12v outlet, and what it does will raise more than a few eyebrows of those of us who rely of FM transmitters to listen to our music is our cars.
The Blue glow means TuneLink Auto is doing its thing
As I mentioned, TuneLink Auto is an FM transmitter, but the device differentiates itself from others by giving you an extensive list of channels in your area that will provide the best experience. The list is ranked — 4 stars are your best bet, and the channels get iffier as the number of stars decrease.
I’ve been playing with TuneLink Auto for about 3 weeks now, and have tried all four 4-stars channels in my area. All are channels I likely would not have picked on my own because each actually have a real FM station playing on the channel, albeit playing rather poorly. I can only assume that the station’s signal is weak enough in my location for TuneLink Auto’s signal to dominate by proximity, and it does an excellent job of dominating. At night the sound from TuneLink Auto is loud and clear. Even during the day, when interference from other sources muck with all FM signals, TuneLink Auto still outshines other in-car transmitters. You are more likely to hear the hiss of interference during the early morning hours, and even then it’s not horrible.
List of likely FM channels that gets the best sound. Tis a good list!
I found a station that works pretty well for me, both day and night, and I’ve left TuneLink Auto tuned there whereas I’ve almost always had to change channels with other transmitters. Sometimes, during the day, interference was so bad that I gave up trying to listen to my tunes altogether. That’s never happened so far with TuneLink Auto.
Another problem that TuneLink Auto addresses is volume. Without getting too technical, transmitting a FM signal can be dicey; too much information in the signal “envelope” and you start clipping the music’s high notes and loud passages, and losing bass tightness. Too little information and what gets through to your radio sounds weak and may be overridden by interference.
TuneLink Auto attacks this in two ways; first, there’s a filter to weed out electronic noises your car may generate. The second and best part of this equation is TuneLink Auto’s FM transmitter, which works pretty well out of the box, but TuneLink Auto lets you tweak parameters other devices don’t even offer.
Share Modes can make sharing fun. Or not.
For instance, you can adjust the transmitter’s output volume. The low, medium, and high setting lets you adjust how much information is in that envelope I mentioned earlier. The low setting works well if you have a good channel and loud music. Classical music, with its quiet passages, and soft voice recordings may not work best in this setting. The high setting works best for the softer voice recordings and music that doesn’t have a lot of highs and lows, like easy listening, soft Jazz or Rock.
As you may have guessed by now, medium is a good all around setting. Most Classical music works best here, but, truth be told, a lot of Classical, like Bolero or Appalachian Spring, and Classic Rock, like Chicago, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and Boston may have a tough time in any one setting because of the very wide range of volume. This is where all FM transmitters for iPhones and iPods are weakest. At least with TuneLink Auto, you can adjust it.
Another interesting feature is TuneLink Auto’s ability to let others in your car share their music.The Tune Link app offers three sharing options; Free, Ask, and TuneLink Auto.
Free lets another device connect, via Bluetooth, to the TuneLink Auto hardware. When that happens the currently connected device gets booted.
Ask works as the same as Free, but, as the name implies, it pops up an alert requesting access. Access can be refused. If allowed, then the currently connected device is dropped.
The self-titled TuneLink option is the most interesting — it lets multiple devices connect to the TuneLink Auto hardware and alternately plays songs from each. So, you might have a Jazz playlist running, but your significant other wants some Beatles thrown in the mix that he or she just happens to have on his or her iPhone. If the TuneLink Auto app is install on the other’s iPhone you’ll get Jazz, then The Beatles, then Jazz, and so on with the TuneLink option. It’s works well and it actually pretty cool.
Nice in-app music control, but control shouldn’t be in your iDevice.
If you don’t have others demanding access to your TuneLink Auto then you’ll likely want to leave the sharing options off. I found Free and Ask to be annoying more than useful, because both options disconnect your first device from TuneLink Auto, requiring you to go through the Bluetooth connection menu in the General Settings to get reconnected. It would be much better if the devices stayed connected, which the TuneLink sharing option proves can be done.
What if you have a car that has an AUX connection? TuneLink Auto has that covered too. Instead of constantly plugging in your iPhone every time you climb into your car you can simply leave the TuneLink Auto hardware plugged into the jack, then, whenever you turn the ignition, TuneLink Auto will fire up, make the Bluetooth connection to your iPhone, and start the tunes playing. This is a great option and you’ll wonder why someone hadn’t thought of it before.
TuneLink Auto will also display tune information if your car’s system support Radio Data System. It’s a nice feature that, unfortunately, only works when using the FM connection. So, it’s a trade-off; get the best sound possible with AUX, but you won’t get tune info (if your sound system supports it), get tune info with FM, but the sound quality, while very good, can’t compare to an AUX connection.
As if to put icing on an already scrumptious cake, New Potato gave the TuneLink Auto dongle a USB port for charging your device. Not just any USB port, this one sports 2.1 amps of fast-charging power to o top off your iDevice of choice. They even throw in a USB cable.
The only thing missing is the ability to control songs through your car’s system, or at least from the TuneLink Auto dongle. The only way to currently control your tunes is through your iPhone. Luckily, the TuneLink Auto app does not have to be running, but the app is well behaved enough that you may wind up using it a lot. Not only can you set your FM channels and create a list of favorite channels, but you have full control of your music. It even lets you create playlists within the app.
Still the lack of music control outside the iPhone is a sorely missed feature.
TuneLink Auto, as an FM transmitter for connecting my iPhone to my car’s music system, works better than any other system I’ve used to date. No FM system is perfect, but TuneLink Auto’s combination of hardware and software work together to make it a level about any hardware-only solution.
Will it stand toe to toe with Mr. Boxster?
No, but you won’t have to strain to hear your tunes over his, and that’s a big plus in my book.
Add to that the ability to have your music automagically fire up from where you last played, regardless of whether you use the FM feature or the AUX option, is a blast.
The TuneLink Auto Auto app lets you share and control your music in your car like never before. It’s easy to use and loaded with features.
The TuneLink Auto dongle is so simple to use once you’ve made the Bluetooth connection; just decide whether to use FM or AUX. If you’re using FM then select a channel, tune your radio, and listen. Using AUX is even easier, it’s already playing.
The cost of all this FM transmitting goodness is US$99.00, and I think it’s a bargain just for the clarity and volume TuneLink Auto has over the competition.
There are downsides. If you use FM for your music, though better sounding, in my opinion, than any FM solution on the market today, still won’t sound as good as from a CD or via the AUX jack. And while TuneLink Auto makes it easier to find the best stations to use, you’ll still have to change channels from time to time to get the best sound, though not nearly as often as you might with other units. If you have to use FM to hear your iPhone tunes then the best way is with TuneLink Auto.
The Sharing feature is a great idea, but the first two options (Free and Ask) forces a Bluetooth disconnect of the first devices, which has to be reconnected through the Bluetooth connection process if you want to listen to tunes on that device again. I think that’s too much of a bother for most people to use. The TuneLink option, however, makes up for it by allowing multiple Bluetooth connections, then alternately playing songs from all connected devices. Kind of a multi-device jukebox.
The biggest oversight, and something I hope is addressed in the next iteration of the product, is the lack of music control on the dongle. Even a button that lets you tap out music control as you might through headsets would have been great. As it is you must use your iPhone, which kind of defeats the purpose of wireless connectivity, to skip to the next song.
Just for the quality of the FM transmitter alone I have no problem Highly Recommending* TuneLink Auto, but the few flaws it has are enough to keep me giving it my highest rating.
|Review Item||TuneLink Auto|
|Manufacturer||New Potato Technologies|
Apple iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch running OS 3.0 (or higher)
* Note: My rating system goes like this;
- Get it Now! - Highest rating and an absolute must-have
- Highly Recommend - Minor flaws, but a great product
- Recommend - Flawed, but still a solid product
- So-so - Problem product that may find a niche market
- Avoid - Why did they bother making it? A money waster.