July 4, 2008

Review: Griffin iTrip Autopilot Car Charger

Griffin Technology recently announced two iPod/iPhone solutions for your automotive needs. Both are successors to the original "iTrip" product. I remember buying my first iTrip product back in 2004 for my 4th generation iPod; it was a standalone unit that just sits on top of the iPod turning my iPod's LCD into FM station selector. Well, the latest iTrip Auto Smartscan (MSRP $79) and iTrip Autopilot ($99) have evolved much beyond the original. All iTrip products are very convenient for people who want to enjoy their iPod for their car but either do not have an aux input from their OEM car stereo or do not want to pay upwards of $300 to buy OEM iPod integration offered by some companies like Acura, Audi, BMW, Honda, VW, and etc.

I received a review unit of the Griffin iTrip Autopilot. The difference between the iTrip Auto Smartscan vs. iTrip Autopilot is the latter cost $20 more, features iPod control on the charger along with RDS which displays information on supported radios. I decided to take it with me on my way to the 4th of July celebration at Coney Island for a live test. I'll get right into it:

Pros:
* Nice low profile charger design that can clear most car's arm rest storage
* iPod control at the base of charger is very handy, lights up too!
* Smartscan works very nicely to determine the best three FM stations to use
* RDS function is nice to display song information on supported Radio
Cons:
* FM modulators suffer in quality in big cities with lots of interference (this applies to all FM solutions)
* I could think of a couple of more features to add (ie. aux in/out, build-in mic for iPhone)
* Too many steps to get to the menu for the preset-stations

This product is very easy to use, hardly any learning curve is necessary; it literally works right out of the box. The smart-scanning is a great feature; making it very easy to automatically detect the best 3 FM stations and automatically pre-sets them for you. I really loved the way you can control your iPod or iPhone using the control buttons on the base of the charger; while it is useless in my car (because its hidden out of the way of access by design), I can imagine it being very handy on cars with cigarette chargers more prominiently mounted. The charger does a great job at, well, charging your iPod and iPhone; as with any modern day accessory, power supply is always my top concern, an accessory (such as bluetooth headset) that contributes to draining my device is never welcome in my collection. The control module is compact and easy to navigate with only three buttons, which is just the right configuration; I especially like the high-contrast LCD display on the control module.

As far as the sound quality, this is where I ran into a little bit of trouble; the problem with NYC is that it has so many stations that interferes over FM. iTrip Autopilot has done a terrific job and managed to find the best three stations which worked, but lots of hissing and intereference can be still be heard. As I manually searched for an open station; the white noise I hear are way too overpowering. Therefore; I conclude that if you live in a smaller city or township with less interruptions over air wave; FM modulators are great; in larger metropolitan like L.A., N.Y.C or Miami, chances are almost all FM modulators would run into some form of interruption.

Overall, I am quite impressed with Griffin's product design and usability. Having the ability to easily scan and preset three of the best available station is very handy. The high-contrast display is good throughout day and night. The sound quality is on par with any FM stereo solution. For a basic iPod solution I think the $79 iTrip Auto Smartscan will do the trick. If you have extra money to invest in the $99 iTrip Autopilot, I think it's a worthy upgrade to be able to get the extra iPod control and display. Of course the real value depends on your car's interior layout; some car's cigarette lighter is tucked far away from reach which would render the control useless. Because I have the luxury of a dedicated aux-in port in my car, I will continue to take advantage over that method; however, this iTrip will come in handy when I am visiting friends and family or using a rental car; it charges and plays my tunes over air wave.

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