I wasn’t really planning to get an iPod anytime soon, but all my siblings were snapping up latest-generation iPods of their own (2 second-gen Shuffles, one second-gen Nano, and one fifth-generation/Video). They got theirs cheap because of educational discounts (about 20% off) so I was actually considering riding on their discount since I no longer have a student ID (I still have my university ID, but I haven’t been enrolled in my Master’s program in two years!). So when my mom asked me to accompany her last week to the Apple distributor near our place, I took the opportunity to get an iPod Video (30 gig) for myself and my wife.
I’m not much of a digital music player user, especially since I have my laptops at home to play music on. But since my car stereo doesn’t have a CD player nor CD changer, I usually tire myself out changing FM stations until I find a song suitable to my liking. So when we got the iPod, I thought it would be cool to stream music to the car’s audio system.
The other day, we went hunting for an iPod accessory I could use with the car’s stereo. I was actually just looking for a cheap tape-deck adaptor that plugged into the iPod’s audio port. Yes, it’s old school, but I thought it should be simple enough to work with. But I was also looking into the Griffin iTrip–I know it’s the most well-known brands when it comes to FM adaptors.
We canvassed around and found a Griffin iTrip for about $70–I decided to check my other options before buying ($70 seemed such a high price for an audio accessory, even after purchasing a $250+ iPod video!). Some stores also carried those cheapo, generic $20 FM adaptors that plugged into the audio port, but had to use separate batteries. I also found one that included a cradle, charger and FM adaptor all for $40. But this one only worked when plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter adaptor, and I thought this would only accelerate the depletion of my iPod’s battery (frequent charging, after all, is bad for Li-Ion batteries).
I finally found something that hit the sweet spot: the Belkin TuneFM. It works with the iPod video, 4G, photo, mini and nano (first or second gen). The price: about $60. I had two options, white and black. Black was perfect for my black iPod, but the sticker price was $8 more than the white one! I asked the store clerk to verify, and thankfully, the white and black models were both priced $60 after all.
In the box
The Belkin TuneFM package includes the TuneFM transmitter, car charger, and plastic spacer. The charger will optionally charge your iPod–this means you don’t have to plug it in for the TuneFM to work, which is great since you can use the iPod even when away from the cigarette lighter plug. The plastic spacer is used as a placeholder if your iPod is not in a case. The TuneFM actually has some allowance for thick cases–great since you don’t have to take the iPod out of the case before plugging in.
Operating the TuneFM is plug-and-play. The moment you plug it in, your iPod will play the last tune it’s been playing–no fumbling here. Great when you just got in your car and you’re about to drive off. The default frequency is the lowest in the TuneFM’s range, 88.1 MHz.
Just use the up and down arrows to select a frequency that you know is clear of an actual radio station, as this might cause interference and bad reception. Actually, the manual suggests you tune in your receiver first to a free radio station before selecting a frequency on the TuneFM, but since my car stereo is auto-tuning, I find it easier to select a frequency on the TuneFM first and then tuning in with the stereo afterwards.
Disconnecting is easy too, as you don’t have to turn off anything on your iPod. Just disconnect the TuneFM, and the iPod automatically pauses whatever is currently playing. All your settings are saved on the TuneFM’s memory, too, so these are retained the next time you plug in, even when you use it with another iPod.
I find the charger useful when travelling. After all, the Tune FM sucks in power from your iPod’s battery, so you can expect reduced battery life. It’s great, though, that the TuneFM doesn’t have to be plugged in to work.
I notice that audio quality is sometimes dependent on how one holds the unit. The car’s radio sometimes gets static when hands touch the back part of the TuneFM (which I presume contains the antenna). When handled properly, though, quality is pretty great. People in the backseat can hold the iPod (with TuneFM) and you can still expect good reception. I usually just leave the iPod on the console box, untouched, so audio transmission is perfect.
The TuneFM has four memory locations, each corresponding to a numeric button on the face of the device. I find this useful when the audio quality drops because of interference in one frequency. You might also find this useful when travelling–since stations in different cities might be using different sets of radio frequencies.
The TuneFM allows for two frequency ranges: Japan and US. The Japan range is from 76.0 to 90.0 MHz, for the US, it’s 88.1 to 107.9 MHz. You can also adjust the volume of the output by five steps. This is for when there is a large discrepancy between the playback volume when using the TuneFM and when listening to regular FM. iPod Nanos notably give off softer audio than other models, so a higher setting might be necessary.
For me, the Belkin TuneFM is a good buy. Using headphones while driving is a no-no (you shut out audible traffic feedback, such as horns, and even your own engine’s sound). And fumbling with settings while driving is likewise dangerous. I like the fact that I can just snap the TuneFM in and it plays automatically. I have some issues with getting static when the unit is too far from the antenna (say, at the backseat if your car’s antenna is in front) and the holder is touching the TuneFM’s antenna part. If you drive and you have an iPod, this is one must-have gadget.