Review: Griffin Technology iTrip Auto with SmartScan
When it comes to iPod FM transmitters, Griffin Technology's iTrip is one of the world's best known brands, and the company has sought to expand its dominance through numerous updates. The original portable iTrip was revised a number of times to fit newer and smaller iPods, then incorporated into a series of car-only FM transmitters and charging cables called iTrip Auto. Today, we're looking at the newest versions of each product: Griffin's 2008 version of iTrip, and its late 2007 version of iTrip Auto, called iTrip Auto with SmartScan ($80).
Before saying anything more about either of these products, it’s important to note up front that Griffin has repeatedly “revved” past iTrips, making post-release, generally undisclosed changes that have generally—but not always—improved them. Though we typically strive to review iTrips immediately after their release, we held off a little on these because we heard that revised versions were coming. Our reviews below note the current and anticipated changes as best as possible, but bear in mind that no one can fully predict how they’ll impact performance, and whether the unit you buy will be one of the original or newer models. These types of concerns are legitimate, so take them into account if the types of changes matter to you.
Griffin’s first version of iTrip Auto was released in late 2005, offering the convenience of an LCD-screened FM transmitter and charging cable in an all-black body that looked great in a car. Back then, we noted that its $70 price was on the high side given other options in the marketplace—a fact underscored by Belkin’s release of the $50, superior TuneFM charging transmitters for the iPod and iPod nano—but Griffin’s design was pretty sharp.
iTrip Auto with SmartScan attempts to upgrade everything about its predecessor, and largely succeeds. The charging cable now features a multi-colored ring of light that lets you know with red, yellow, or green indicators how the iPod’s battery is doing. Griffin’s upgraded the transmitter’s housing with a bright OLED screen behind a colored, mirrored surface that looks a lot like Sony’s low-end flash-based Walkman models, and used three buttons that change functions based on the menu you’re in. By default, two handle FM station tuning and one calls up the menu of functions.
The function menu lets you activate the new SmartScan mode, which like similar transmitters from Monster, Kensington and Belkin scans your local radio stations for empty channels and inserts three of them automatically into your presets. This feature worked well in our testing. Alternatively, the menu lets you choose between the presets, or change the unit’s broadcasting from monaural to stereo. Stereo is less powerful but has left and right channel separation, while monaural is more powerful and lacks the separation; we’ve tended to prefer using iTrips on monaural mode in our cars because of the clarity boost it provides.
We also discovered a hidden feature in iTrip Auto’s menus: holding down the button for a few extra seconds during stereo/mono selection brings up the ability to tune US, European, or Japanese frequencies. In Japanese mode, you can tune all the way down to 76.0FM, which isn’t useful for U.S. users, but the virtually always clear 87.9FM station is. If you’re experiencing clarity problems on other stations, switching to 87.9FM is a quick, easy, and hugely satisfactory solution.
There weren’t huge differences between the performance of iTrip Auto and the most recent version of iTrip. As noted in the other review, Griffin has for years been maximizing the iPod’s audio quality to match the limits of FCC broadcasting regulations, and iTrip Auto sounded as good as we’ve heard from an FM transmitter since the agency cracked down on overpowered devices. There’s still a low base level of static in the audio, even on empty stations, but it’s not offensive, and your music is by far the dominant sound you’ll hear while in your car. We found that the Auto version of iTrip was less position-sensitive than the portable one, likely due to the presence of its charging cable, which like the USB cable in the standard iTrip box can slightly boost the unit’s broadcasting strength. Overall, we’d pick iTrip Auto over iTrip for car purposes if all other things were equal.
Unfortunately, they’re not all equal. Griffin has bumped the new version’s price up to $80, which now creates a $30 gulf between the models, despite the fact that you can buy a standard iTrip and a car charger such as Griffin’s PowerJolt for only $70. True, picking iTrip Auto instead has certain benefits, such as the colored charging bulb, SmartScan, and the ability to store presets, which will strike some users as worthless and others as worthwhile. iPod icon-duplicating colored lights aside, we tend to fall on the “worthwhile” side, but $80 is still a steep price.
A more significant issue—and the one that cost iTrip Auto a stronger B+ rating—is the mirrored design of iTrip Auto’s transmitter. While we loved the Sony-esque look of this component, its transparent mirrored finish can make the menus difficult to read in bright light, and though this issue is in no way as crippling as some people might be led to believe, Griffin has opted to revise iTrip Auto by removing the mirroring from units that will appear in stores early this year. (One of our two test units also had a small piece of plastic floating around inside the transmitter housing between the screen and the plastic shell, a quality control issue that didn’t impact performance, but diminished the unit’s appearance. You can see this in the US, EU, JP menu image above.) Yet another revision will also add full iPhone compatibility; the current version works with the iPhone, but triggers the iPhone’s Airplane Mode nag screen, and isn’t officially Works With iPhone certified. You may want to wait if these issues concern you.
Overall, iTrip Auto with SmartScan is a good in-car FM transmitting and charging solution with strong audio quality, but also a couple of issues that may limit its otherwise broad appeal. While it’s almost entirely improved over the version that shipped in 2005, its competitors have gotten better, too, and both a higher price and post-release changes cloud what would otherwise be an impressive new in-car accessory.