On Using An iPod Whilst Motoring In An Automobile…
October 10th, 2003
Episode #3

When I got my first iPod (the original 5GB model which I promptly named "MyPod"), there were no accessories for the 'Pod whatsoever. The iPod add-on industry, in fact, had yet to be born. So there were no cool products like iSkin, Deluxe iPod Case, iPod Armor, or iPod Auto Charger yet, which meant that we, the early adopters, were left to our own devices (pun intended) when it came to the care and feeding of our beloved new techie toys.

So I made a foray to a nearby Radio Shack storefront.

Me: I want to listen to an iPod in the car. Whaddya got?

Radio Shack Dude: What's an iPod?

I started to explain but had a better idea midway through…

Me: Forget the iPod. What I meant to say was that I want to listen to my personal CD player, which has a 1/8-inch stereo plug on it, in the car.

Radio Shack Dude: Why didn't you say so in the first place? This here's a Radio Shack Cassette Adapter. For just $20 you'll be able to listen to your portable CD player through the cassette player in your car.

And he handed me a device that looked like an audiocassette but had a wire terminating in a 1/8-inch plug sprouting out of its backside. I handed him my US$20, ripped open the packaging on my way out of the store, then got in my car and gave it a try.

It worked. The frequency response left something to be desired, introducing a slight muddiness to the normally pristine iPod output. But it did work, and it did work pretty much all the time. I was satisfied, but always hoping in the back of my mind for something just a little bit better.

I didn't think much about it until I got my new car late last year. I went to stick the cassette adapter into the tape player and much to my surprise, there was no tape player. In my excitement over my new ride I hadn't noticed there was no cassette deck in it.

Thus began a frantic search for a replacement device. Now you have to understand how desperate I must have been to run out and pay cash money for an FM transmitter for my iPod. Think about it… I could have surfed the Web, found out what solutions other iPod owners were using in their cassette-less cars, then asked the company to lend me one to review.

But I wanted something NOW, so I went down to Fry's, my favorite geek gadget emporium and bought what they had in stock, an iRock 300W Wireless Music Adapter for US$30 (US$29.99 - Amazon.com).

All I can say is don't waste your money. It can only transmit to 4 FM station frequencies and none of them is very clear here in Austin, TX. The on/off button is big and easy to press accidentally, which, of course, drains the batteries. And the design of the thing is such that the cable broke off from the body of the unit after only a few weeks of use.

Here are a thousand words worth of picture:

The iRock 300W Wireless Music Adapter didn't do much for me.
(Click the thumbnail for a larger version)

Then I read a rave review of the C. Crane Digital FM Transmitter in Jim Heid's book (The Macintosh iLife: An Interactive Guide to iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and iDVD - US$20.99 - Amazon.com). He pretty much said that this was the only FM transmitter worth buying, so I dutifully arranged to borrow one for review.

He was right. This is the one -- several times better than the iRock, with a digital tuner that lets you play your iPod music on any FM station you like, not just the four choices iRock forces upon you, and an output level control that lets you fine-tune the signal and get the absolute best reception. And, the frequency response was better than the cassette adapter solution, clearer, and without much muddiness.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that it does have some drawbacks:

  1. It's large -- slightly larger and heavier than an iPod
  2. It's expensive -- US$80.
  3. It chews through AA batteries like crazy -- unless you spring for the optional US$30 mobile accessory kit, which includes a cigarette-lighter power adapter.

If you're going to use an FM Transmitter, the C. Crane Digital FM Transmitter is the one.

Anyway, Heid was right and for the past year I've used this little baby every day with no major complaints beyond those already mentioned.

But an FM transmitter, even a good one like the C.Crane, will never be the perfect solution in a moving car. No matter what station you select, there are going to be times when you hear static or other interference, and as you travel from city to city, you may have to switch stations one or more times to keep the sound clean and clear.

So even though this was the best solution I'd found yet, I kept hoping for something even better And I recently found it in a most unusual location -- at my Mini Cooper dealer. I had my car in for its 10,000 mile checkup, and I asked my service advisor (hey, Daniel, I hope you're reading this…) if there was a way to run a cable from my iPod to the car stereo. US$170 later I had an Auxiliary Input jack installed in my glove box.

My dream car audio setup -- the iPod (lower right) plugs into the Auxiliary Input in the glove box (top right), and I control everything from the iPod remote control clipped to the emergency brake (lower left).
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

This is as good as it gets… louder, cleaner, and less trouble than any solution before it. Or at least that's what I thought until my friend Eric Prentice (Dr. Bott) told me about this:

ICE-Link for iPod

Compatible with both classic and 3rd generation iPods, ICE-Link for iPod routes iPod audio through the CD changer port and translates head unit key presses into remote control commands for the iPod giving access to FF/RW as if the iPod was an integrated component of your car hifi. First deliveries are scheduled for w/c 20 October. The ICE-Link for iPod interface is priced at £79.99 with an optional damage-free cradle mounting system (3rd generation iPods only) available for an additional £29.99."

from Bridger's Web site.

It's not shipping yet but how cool does that sound? Controlling the 'Pod from the steering wheel car stereo controls! Whoo-EEE!

I'll tell you more after I get mine installed. I can hardly wait.