Three FM iPod car adapters
Reviewed

On December 27, 2007, in FM Transmitter, iPod, Review, by John Nemerovski

Our MyMac.com rankings blend objective quality with subjective personal experience. Your audio signal mileage may vary a lot from mine. If you can try before you buy, or return/exchange if not completely thrilled, you’ll eventually be satisfied by one of these units.

Three FM iPod car adapters:

iTrip Auto SmartScan FM Transmitter and Car Charger for iPod
Company: Griffin Technology

Price: $80
http://www.griffintechnology.com/products/itripautoss

TuneBase FM with ClearScan
Company: Belkin

Price: $90
http://catalog.belkin.com/

BTCUP
Company: MacAlly

Price: $119
http://www.macally.com

* * * * *

FM iPod transmitters locate and use vacant FM radio frequencies to broadcast iPod audio via a car radio. Signal clarity can range from excellent to horrible, depending on factors beyond the control of the car and its occupants.

MyMac.com has reviewed many of these devices: Here, Boom, Pow, Wow, Bang, Crash, Zing, and Oh, and here, too. Whew! That’s a lot of previous reviews, and very mixed results, to acquaint you with the technology and evolution of this class of product.

Belkin, Griffin, and MacAlly each sent MyMac.com an iPod FM transmitter/charger that is very different from its rivals. To compare features and functionality, below is a comparative ranking of the most important attributes of each one:

FM SIGNAL CLARITY, INTEGRITY, AND CONSISTENCY

iTrip Auto SmartScan (Griffin) = good (tie)

BTCUP (MacAlly) = good (tie)

TuneBase FM with ClearScan (Belkin) = okay to marginal (may be better in your town — I live in a mountainous area with severe signal multipath <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multipath> and few vacant FM stations)

EASE OF iPOD USE WHILE DRIVING

TuneBase FM with ClearScan (Belkin) = excellent

BTCUP (MacAlly) = good

iTrip Auto SmartScan (Griffin) = okay to marginal

ABILITY TO VIEW FM STATION INFORMATION IN BRIGHT DAYTIME LIGHTING

TuneBase FM with ClearScan (Belkin) = excellent

BTCUP (MacAlly) = good

iTrip Auto SmartScan (Griffin) = bad

FM STATION SCANNING AND TUNING

BTCUP (MacAlly) = good

iTrip Auto SmartScan (Griffin) = okay

TuneBase FM with ClearScan (Belkin) = okay to marginal

UTILITY OF DESIGN

TuneBase FM with ClearScan (Belkin): flexible, articulating neck, rotating cradle, multiple cradle inserts, Pro buttons and settings = excellent

BTCUP (MacAlly): spring-grip base for secure placement in auto cup holder, Bluetooth wireless cellular telephone functionality = clever and ingenious

iTrip Auto SmartScan (Griffin): long cable, but no iPod security whatsoever = inefficient

(Note: FMCUP by MacAlly is half the price of BTCUP, when you don’t need Bluetooth phone capability. We did not have a FMCUP for review.)

FMCUP
Company: MacAlly

Price: $60
http://www.macally.com

INCLUDED PRINTED MANUAL

TuneBase FM with ClearScan (Belkin) = comprehensive and thorough, but in very small type

iTrip Auto SmartScan (Griffin) = very good, and easy to read

BTCUP (MacAlly) = good, and easy to read

BEST FEATURES DURING EXTENSIVE ROAD TESTING

BTCUP (MacAlly) = ease of use with iPod and/or Bluetooth cellular phone, hands-free phone conversations, consistency of FM signal, ease of viewing and changing FM stations, iPod security in car’s cup holder

TuneBase FM with ClearScan (Belkin) = flexible, movable cradle and neck that is very convenient, secure, and legible; rugged construction

iTrip Auto SmartScan (Griffin) = iPod can be operated while in a protective case; passenger can operate iPod and iTrip Auto SmartScan

WORST FEATURE(S) DURING EXTENSIVE ROAD TESTING

iTrip Auto SmartScan (Griffin) = insecure iPod, invisible and confusing signal settings

BTCUP (MacAlly) = concern for eventual damage to small, flexible Bluetooth microphone*

TuneBase FM with ClearScan (Belkin) = annoying FM signal static and inefficiency

*Regarding the BTCUP’s microphone, Nelson from MacAlly Tech Support tells MyMac.com: “I pushed to bend the BTCUP Mic back and forth for 50 times, it is not broken inside, talking still works. Average user won’t ‘abuse’ it this way. We have done the test, Mic might seem soft and fragile, but it is robust enough.”

* * * * *

Are you enlightened now by our real world test results, or completely confused? Let’s distill the variables above into two straightforward recommendations:

1. When you drive in an area that has clear, vacant FM frequencies, Belkin’s TuneBase FM with ClearScan is a well-designed and robust iPod receiver with a three-year warranty. My town has few vacant FM frequencies, and none of them are clear enough for me to be able to use Belkin’s TuneBase FM, although I wish I could.

2. For overall versatility and reliability, MacAlly’s BTCUP or FMCUP are good choices. This is the FM technology I’m using on a daily basis.

* * * * *

FM iPod transmission is a distant third place for audiophiles or serious music listeners, who pay much more for dedicated auxiliary connections to their car stereo systems. This subject was covered in detail during MyMac.com Podcast #156, along with several other lengthy topics. Second place for iPod car audio goes to cassette adapters, which are clumsy and not available in many newer automobiles, but deliver consistent sound output. When FM signals are strong, iPod audio transmission is as good or better than from a cassette adapter.

* * * * *

Here are the URLs for the three units being reviewed:

BTCUP (MacAlly)

iTrip Auto SmartScan (Griffin)

TuneBase FM with ClearScan (Belkin)

Our MyMac.com rankings blend objective quality with subjective personal experience. Your audio signal mileage may vary a lot from mine. If you can try before you buy, or return/exchange if not completely thrilled, you’ll eventually be satisfied by one of these units.

BTCUP (MacAlly) = 4.5 out of 5

TuneBase FM with ClearScan (Belkin) = 3.5 out of 5

iTrip Auto SmartScan (Griffin) = 2.5 out of 5

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