Griffin iTrip AutoPilot
by Christopher Bray
The iTrip AutoPilot ($100 US) is a recent addition to Griffin's amazingly long list of iPod compatible products, ranging from cases, to speakers, to FM Transmitters. The iTrip AutoPilot is an iPod-specific FM transmitter car adapter with some neat features.
First, like many car FM Transmitters, this one plugs into the cigarette lighter adapter (will we still call them that in 10 years when nobody smokes anymore?). Many we've used in the past have a cable that ends in a headphone jack, for universal transmission. This is great if you don't have an iPod, or if you want the flexibility to use it on, say a portable DVD player or a laptop. However, there is generally going to be more distortion from the headphone jack because the signal is already being run through your device's amplifier. Many devices also have a "line out" jack which bypasses the amp so you'll get cleaner sound.
The iTrip plugs into the bottom of your iPod, iPhone, or iPod Touch (it should fit all of them), thus using the music player's line out. It also provides power to the iPod, so you won't have to worry about running down your battery on a cross-country excursion. The neatest feature of this device, though, is that there are buttons right on the cigarette lighter end, which on most cars at least somewhat near the driver for play/pause, forward, and back. These are fantastically convenient if, like me, you don't have a good place to put the ipod to keep access to its controls (I use the cup-holders when I don't have a coffee in there). They're even better if you have an iPhone or Touch; much as I love the touchscreen most of the time, the lack of tactility means I have to constantly take my eyes off the road to skip or pause songs. So this thing should be my musical savior in the car.
Much as I love the idea of this device, though, I could only stand it for a couple of days. The problems is with its FM transmitter, without which it's nothing more than an expensive car charger. FM transmitters are becoming more and more popular these days as fewer and fewer cars have included tape decks in the last 15 years. Recently there's the trend towards the Auxiliary jack to get around this, but it's still so new that if your car is five years old, chances are you don't have one. So the FM fills the gap by transmitting a signal you tune into on the car's radio. The trouble is two-fold. First, in order to be legal to sell (those pesky governments regulate what frequencies we can transmit on), the transmitter has to be pretty low power. And second, FM radio is prone to interference, from the big radio stations, from small radio sources, from other people with FM transmitters, and so on.
In my experience, all FM transmitters are quite prone to both interference and "dead spots." What causes the dead spots, I have no idea, but every so often I'll drive around a corner or by a tree, and the sound will cut out or go fuzzy for a second. Interference tends to come in many forms, from hearing the FM transmitter of the kid next to you at a stoplight, to being completely drowned out by local radio stations on nearby frequencies. Now this radio finickiness is why most FM transmitters have more than one frequency they can play on, with many now able to use just about any frequency the car can tune to.
The iTrip AutoPilot is among these, with little + and - buttons to let you pick any frequency. My trouble was, in two different vehicles, none of the frequencies were good. Not only was there an unbearable amount of interference on nearly every frequency I tried. With other devices, 88.1 and 107.9 MHz work pretty well in my area, jumping back and forth when one gets fuzzy, but not so with this unit. To add insult to injury, the transmitter seems awfully weak, to the point where my auto-tune skips right over the frequency the thing's using, leading to much cursing as I try desperately to get back to that sweet spot.
Alas, while the simple addition of those iPod control buttons makes me want to love this device, for half of its $100 US price tag I can get an FM transmitter that actually works. I would think (based on my experiences) that all Griffin has to do is make the FM transmitter a little more powerful to beat out the interference. Do that, and I'd gladly put down $100 for version 2.0.
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