Review: Griffin RoadTrip with SmartScan (2008/iPhone)
What happens when you combine two of Griffin's best-known products -- the iTrip FM transmitter and the TuneFlex gooseneck car mounting, audio-out and charging solution -- into a single accessory? You get RoadTrip with SmartScan ($100), an 8.5" long device that combines all of these features into a sleek package, with most of its predecessors' advantages, and only a couple of omissions. Notably, the version we review is for iPods only, not iPhones. Updated January 30, 2009: This review was originally published on February 14, 2008. In December, 2008, Griffin released RoadTrip with SmartScan for iPhone + iPod, an iPhone-certified version that replaces the original model. Photos and review updates are found at the bottom of this review.
Before you get too excited about the prospect of an all-in-one mounting, audio, and charging solution for iPods, bear in mind that the concept’s been done many times before—but rarely well. Griffin previously swung and missed with its first version of RoadTrip, which was released in 2004 and updated in 2005; these products used shaky, multi-piece plastic mounts, detachable FM transmitters, and oversized, over-complex iPod cradles. On a positive note, the early RoadTrips were reasonably priced at $80, and at least tried to do something different from their chief competitors, DLO’s $100 TransPods/TransDocks and Belkin’s $90 TuneBase FMs.
The latest version of RoadTrip isn’t as daring as its same-named predecessors, but it’s dramatically improved in most of the ways that count. Using the latest version of TuneFlex Aux as a base—they share the same cigarette lighter charging plug and flexible gooseneck-style mount—RoadTrip replaces Aux’s larger, interchangeable iPod cradles with a platform that looks almost identical to its recent iTrip Auto FM transmitter, minus the mirrored front surface. Unlike the green-tinted iTrip Auto, RoadTrip’s platform is black, but features the same general three-button arrangement and OLED tuning display, enabling you to pick an FM station to receive your iPod’s audio with or without automated assistance. Seven different cradle inserts resize the platform for most current and past iPod models.
These changes and others have contributed to a design that’s the most attractive we’ve yet seen in the all-in-one iPod car accessory genre, and as firm of a mount as any of these devices have been. By dropping the thick, goofy plastic tubes found in earlier RoadTrips and all of DLO’s TransPods, Griffin—like Belkin before it—loses a bit of extension length, but gains on looks and stability. Just as with TuneFlex Aux, if the latest RoadTrip isn’t stable in your car’s cigarette lighter port, don’t expect that anything else will be stable there, either.
There’s also some generally good news on the FM transmitter’s performance. It’s based upon the one in iTrip Auto, and delivers similarly impressive sound quality assuming that it’s close to your car stereo’s antenna. In the right car, and on the right station—RoadTrip’s automatic radio dial-checking SmartScan feature more often found the right, nearly empty station for us than Belkin’s similar ClearScan technology—you’ll get a very low base level of static, and clean renditions of your iPod’s tracks. A feature called SmartSound helps RoadTrip ensure that your iPod’s audio doesn’t get clipped, or compressed-sounding, when it’s being broadcast to your radio, while a mono/stereo mode lets you switch between a more powerful, cleaner sounding monaural broadcast and a less powerful but more left/right separated stereo broadcast.
Not all is rosy with the latest RoadTrip, though. One change we didn’t care much about is that you can no longer detach the FM transmitter, as you could in the original RoadTrip—this helped Griffin make the new version’s transmitting and charging cradle as small and simple as possible. But between that, the shorter 4” length of the gooseneck extension mount, and stricter FCC broadcasting regulations, RoadTrip lost some of the antenna distance and power it might otherwise have had. In our tests against Griffin’s iTrip Auto, which dangles its transmitter in the middle of a long cable that you can place wherever you want, RoadTrip just wasn’t as powerful at overcoming local stations, apparently because the transmitter box is fixed in a location where its FCC-limited broadcasting ability can be encumbered by both your iPod and the car stereo. Different cars will experience different results, but from what we saw, even when playing with RoadTrip’s settings, it was always a little underpowered and consequently not totally satisfactory for our listening needs. We preferred the results from Belkin’s older TuneBase FM, but haven’t yet seen how the newer iPhone-compatible 2008 model will perform. Thankfully, RoadTrip offers an auxiliary-out port on the charger for connection to the aux-in ports on modern car stereos, though unlike TuneFlex Aux, the port doesn’t have a knob for level adjustment.
Griffin has tried to do some different things with RoadTrip’s integrated transmitter and screen, which are easier to read than the early iTrip Auto thanks to the lack of front mirroring. The first 2008 versions of RoadTrip provide only iTrip Auto-style tuning, SmartScan, and three preset functionality, but an updated March or April 2008 revision will add play/pause and track forward buttons as an alternate main screen, letting iPod touch users control playback and skip tracks with single button presses rather than swiping and fumbling with the touch controls. This comes close to mirroring the functionality of the company’s AutoPilot accessory without requiring additional on-charger buttons. We also found that the newer firmware revision also hides some interesting tuning, power, and sound adjustment features if you go into the settings menu and play with the buttons; apart from the ability to pick the frequently available 87.9FM frequency for broadcasting, we didn’t find that these features made a huge difference in RoadTrip’s performance, but your experiences may be better than ours. You’ll be able to identify the newer firmware version by a sticker on its screen that looks like the FM-Play/Pause-Track Forward image in our photos.
Our only other comment on RoadTrip is a note on its pricing. The original $80 RoadTrip struck us as a bargain relative to the $100 TransPod years ago, and Belkin’s $90 TuneBase FMs have also been pretty good deals, particularly when they’ve offered better looks and performance. Griffin subsequently bumped RoadTrip’s price up to $90, and this year, all three companies are selling their latest versions for the same $100 price. None is a fantastic deal relative to earlier products we’ve tested; Griffin now sells the mountless iTrip Auto for $80, and hopes that you’ll step up to this version instead. We’d advise you to consider your needs and options carefully before doing so. Based on its superior FM audio performance, we’d pick iTrip Auto first—RoadTrip only barely matches it in our ratings, and then because of its added audio-out versatility, elegant mounting design, and hidden extras, not its transmitting power. As with most of these all-in-one solutions, we’d recommend making your purchase from a store with a good return policy to be sure that it works in your car; additionally, if iPhone compatibility is important to you, look to other options or wait for an updated version before buying anything.
Updated: When Apple announced the iPhone, it knew—without question—that its decision to include the iPod’s four-year-old bottom Dock Connector would come with benefits and consequences. Some old iPod accessories would work. Others would not work at all. And still others would sort of work, but ultimately require developers to re-engineer everything from wiring to components, releasing similar but not identical versions that performed properly. Like other companies, Griffin Technology started the re-engineering process as quickly as possible after the first iPhone was released, and over the last few months has released updated, iPhone-ready versions of several key car accessories: iTrip Auto, RoadTrip, and TuneFlex AUX. This brief review update covers the iPhone version’s changes to RoadTrip.
In short, the iPhone version of RoadTrip offers small but worthwhile improvements to the previous iPod-only version, which is cosmetically identical save for two things: the included cradles, and the firmware version. Griffin has updated this RoadTrip with little firmware tweaks—including the aforementioned alternate FM, play/pause, and track forward screen—that will improve the user experience for iPhone and touchscreen iPod users, and the unit’s sound quality has improved a bit, too. Once again, it won’t work wonders in every car, but it sounded very good in both of our test vehicles by contemporary, lower-powered FM transmitter standards. Notably, it wasn’t interrupted by iPhone 3G audio interference, but an iPhone or 3G in EDGE mode will introduce a relatively quiet but still audible TDMA beeping.
Unlike iTrip Auto, RoadTrip’s pricing hasn’t gone up despite the improvements. While the $100 MSRP you’d pay at an Apple Store remains steep for an accessory of this sort, the street price of around $65 is much easier to swallow, and delivers strong overall value. As charging, mounting, and FM transmitting solutions for iPhone go, RoadTrip is a very solid pick, though it’s still not quite perfect for every iPhone user. It receives a rating of B+ overall, higher than the original iPod version’s B rating.