Review: iTrip (LCD)
At a Glance
When I travel around talking about the iPod, the subject of portable FM transmitters invariably comes up. And when it does, Griffin Technology’s popular iTrip is sure to be mentioned in the first minutes. While I admire the engineering that went into the original iTrip, I can’t leave the stage without saying, “It’s a perfectly fine transmitter, but if you attempt to change its broadcast station while driving, you will die.” Given the imminent release of the updated iTrip, it looks like I’ll be searching for a new joke.
Unlike previous iTrip models, which required that you play special tones stored as MP3 files on your iPod to change broadcast channels (and take your eyes of the road for a dangerous period of time to fiddle with navigating to the tones and pressing a couple of buttons to play them), the new iTrip makes moving from one channel to the next a comparative breeze. (Note, however, that regardless of which FM transmitter you use, the wisest path is to have a passenger change channels for you or pull off the road if you must do it yourself.) The new iTrip offers more than improved controls, making it my new favorite in inexpensive, ultra-portable transmitters. Read on to learn why.
Design and Control
The newest iTrip (which Griffin calls simply “iTrip” rather than “iTrip 3” or “iTrip LCD”) is just slightly bigger around than the previous model for full-sized iPods. Unlike the earlier iTrips, this one bears a good-sized LCD on the left side of the device and a silver control knob on the right. The knob acts both as a dial and as a button. To tune in a station, just plug the iTrip into your dock-connector iPod’s Headphone and Remote ports, start the iPod playing, turn the control knob until the LCD displays the station you desire, and press the knob to lock in the station.
The iTrip’s LED lights up when you twist the control knob, making it easy to see what you’re doing even under ill-lit conditions. Shortly after you stop turning the knob the display dims. The LED continues to display the currently selected channel as long as the iPod is awake. When the iPod goes to sleep, the display disappears as well. When the iPod awakens, the display won’t appear again until you start playing the iPod.
The iTrip includes some welcome—and unique—new features. To begin with, you have the choice of setting it to transmit in either LX or DX mode. In LX mode, the iTrip transmits in stereo. DX mode switches the iTrip to a stronger mono signal—perfectly acceptable when you’re listening to audiobooks or podcasts or you simply need a little extra oomph in areas where there’s a lot of interference from FM radio stations. To switch from one mode to the other it’s a simple matter to press the control knob for three seconds and, when you see the flashing LX or DX in the display, turn the knob once to change to the other mode and press the control knob in to set the iTrip to that mode.
This is a valuable function and it works very well. While in LX mode during my tests the iTrip offered much the same performance as the old iTrip and Xtreme Mac’s AirPlay—having its moments of static as I moved the iPod around. Once I switched it into DX mode, the signal became much stronger and the broadcast rock solid. If you’re a podcast or audiobooks junkie, this one feature puts the new iTrip way ahead of its like-priced competition.
Although the feature is undocumented, pressing and holding the control knob offers another cool capability. Push in the knob for approximately 8 seconds and you can switch between U.S. and International frequency modes. In U.S. mode, FM frequencies range from 88.1 to 107.9. Switch to International mode and you can tune the iTrip to a range of 76.0 to 90.0 (both tuning modes are offered in .1 increments). If you have a radio that tunes below 88.1, this can be a real boon. My kitchen boombox, for example, will tune down to 87.5, a frequency off-limits to U.S. broadcasters, thus giving me a clear channel to work with.
Finally, the iTrip will attempt to automatically set an optimal volume output on your iPod. It works like this: With the iTrip broadcasting, crank the iPod’s volume to the point of distortion (the iTrip puts out a fairly hot signal so this won’t be hard) and take your hands off the scroll wheel. Watch in wonder as the iPod switches to the Volume screen and the volume dials down to a point where there’s no distortion.
For the most part, this feature works as advertised. A time or two the signal was still just a little hot and the iTrip didn’t adjust volume again until a loud part of a track kicked in. To prevent this sort of multi-adjustment you need only let the iTrip do its thing and then use the scroll wheel to adjust the volume down just a hair.
When discussing the advisability of using an FM transmitter a lot of factors come into play: How congested is your local FM dial? How sensitive is your radio’s antenna? Do you have a better option such as a direct connection to your car stereo? And how much poop does the transmitter seem to have behind it? For those who respond to the first three questions with Very, Not Very, and Yes, it’s possible, if not likely, that an FM transmitter isn’t the solution for you.
But if you don’t have other options (or choose not to exercise them) and the environment is right—you have some open space on your radio dial and your antenna is well-placed—a transmitter with adequate power could be the answer. In regard to its power, the new iTrip in LX mode is as good a candidate as other under-$50 FM transmitters I’ve used and, in DX mode, right up there with the best transmitters around.
I compared the new iTrip, the original iTrip, XtremeMac’s AirPlay, and Sonnet’s PodFreq on my home stereo to listen to its sound quality; outside with a boombox to test its broadcast range; and on the road in two different vehicles (a VW Beetle with poor antenna placement and a Toyota Sienna with a good antenna) to see how it fared when traveling.
Although the PodFreq is over twice the price and far bulkier than the other transmitters—wrapping the iPod in a plastic case with the transmitter mounted below and attached to the iPod’s dock connector—I included it in the tests as the standard of comparison. The PodFreq represents the best power and sound I’ve found in a self-contained, portable FM transmitter. But you pay for it in both price and size.
With the home stereo the iTrip didn’t reproduce the higher-frequencies or offer the kind of stereo separation I got from the PodFreq. For example, the second acoustic guitar playing in the right speaker of Rosie Thomas’ “I Play Music” was quite distinct with the PodFreq. It got lost with the new iTrip and the AirPlay. Overall, the stereo separation from all of the transmitters, save the PodFreq, wasn’t very clear.
Outdoors the new iTrip in LX mode reliably broadcast to the boombox from up to about 20 feet. The AirPlay fell short of that mark by about five feet. Switching to DX mode allowed the new iTrip to match the signal strength of the PodFreq, which broadcast reliably from about 30 feet away.
In the VW and Toyota driving tests all the transmitters held onto 105.9, a frequency that’s uncluttered in my area. In LX mode in the VW the iTrip was subject to the same kind of occasional static as the old iTrip and AirPlay (the PodFreq remained static-free). In DX mode in the VW the new iTrip was solid as a rock and clearly outperformed the old iTrip and AirPlay (though it did so in mono). In the Toyota, where the stereo and antenna perform better with FM transmitters, there were no static issues from the less-expensive transmitters, but the PodFreq offered the same clearer separation and more distinct sound that I noted in my home stereo testing.
One more important note regarding performance: The iTrip is powered by the iPod’s battery and therefore its use depletes an iPod battery charge more quickly than does the operation of the iPod without the iTrip. I tested the effect of the iTrip on the iPod’s battery charge by choosing the Songs entry on a fully-charged 40GB 4G iPod and pressing play to have the iPod play from the beginning of the playlist until it ran out of juice. It played for 8 hours and 6 minutes. Without the iTrip attached the same fully-charged iPod had previously played for nearly 12 hours under the same conditions.
Because the iTrip does shorten the life of a battery charge you should consider using it with an auto power adapter during long road trips.
The new iTrip is impressive. It offers reasonable range in LX mode and outstanding range when flipped into DX mode. Its controls are intuitive. The display is clear and readable. Its ability to take on frequencies outside the normal range in the U.S. will be a great help for those whose radios can take advantage of it. And I’m fascinated by the technology—however occasionally imperfect—that allows the new iTrip to automatically adjust volume.
The iTrip’s range and sound quality don’t match the PodFreq, but then neither do its price or size. I’ve been pleased with the AirPlay, but given the iTrip’s extra features, I’m even more impressed with it and am happy to award it a Playlist Pick. If you need a small portable FM transmitter priced for under $50, this is the ‘Trip to take.
Review updated to include battery charge test data.