Review: Griffin iTrip mini
Pros: Matches the iPod mini’s look, delivers solid FM broadcasting on clear channels, includes user-friendly software, interfaces well with the iPod.
Cons: Like other transmitters, signal on unclear channels is unimpressive; cheap sticker on top of case and other small finish issues detract slightly from appearance.
Little more than a year ago, iLounge excitedly reviewed Griffin’s iTrip, a FM transmitter impressively designed to integrate externally and internally with Apple’s earliest iPods. Subsequently, Griffin followed up the iTrip with a version physically tailored to the “New iPod” (third-generation), and most recently released the iTalk, a combined microphone and speaker accessory for voice recording.
Each product release has further cemented Griffin’s position as the most style-conscious developer of electronic iPod accessories, and because of the iTrip’s popularity, certain third-party carrying case manufacturers have gone so far as to advertise their offerings as “iTrip-compatible.” In fact, even though Griffin hadn’t yet released an iTrip to match the iPod mini, case maker iSkin developed a new iSkin mini case with a “beveled top surface for direct plug in of devices such as the iTrip.”
This week, Griffin surprised the world by delivering a third version of the iTrip, this one custom-tailored to the shape of the iPod mini. Though mostly similar to the iTrip we’ve already reviewed, the new iTrip mini does differ in several interesting ways from its predecessors.
The first two iTrips designed looked like lipstick tubes that attached lengthwise to the top of their respective iPods. Using iPod-matching polished white plastic shells and LED indicators, the iTrips were easy to attach, detach, and operate: lacking LCD screens of their own, they let owners use the iPod’s screen to change FM broadcast channels, and illuminated the LED to indicate channel changing and broadcast status. A steady LED indicated broadcasting, while a flashing LED showed that the iPod was receiving instructions to change channels.
Like the iPod mini, Griffin’s iTrip mini looks different than its predecessors, but not necessarily better. Unlike the prior iTrips, Griffin opted to match the precise shape of the iPod mini with an iTrip shell that simply extends the top of the iPod by nearly an inch. As a result, the iTrip mini is thinner and narrower than its predecessors, but taller.
Additionally, Apple’s choice to switch to colored anodized aluminum cases left Griffin without a single easy matching metal or plastic option. Rather than stick with polished white plastic, the company opted to switch to a dull matte white casing that parallels the surface of the click wheel. Like the earlier iTrips, the left and right sides of the iTrip mini’s case have hairline seams, but the lack of polish makes them stand out a little more than before. So, though the new shape and case plastic choices technically match the iPod mini, there are still reasons one might prefer the look of earlier iTrips.
While the top and bottom of the iTrip mini have also changed in interesting ways, we’re happier with the bottom than the top. Molded to precisely fit the top of an iPod mini, the new iTrip leaves nary a gap between the two surfaces, even featuring a small depression to accommodate the hold switch. As a result of Griffin’s tight new design, the iTrip mini is incompatible with iSkin’s aforementioned mini case - ironic considering the latter company’s design intentions - but still works with the increasingly numerous iPod mini cases that lack tops altogether, notably including Matias’ iPod Armor mini.
The top of the iTrip mini will likely raise some eyebrows. Rather than plastic-coat the top, as Apple did with the iPod mini, Griffin merely applied a cheap-looking sticker to the top of the iTrip mini - an underwhelming touch for a company otherwise so concerned about aesthetics. Persistent whispers have suggested that this was an intentional touch, designed to enable any iPod owner to easily find and remove the internal FM broadcast antenna inside the iTrip’s case, and thereby boost its signal strength. We’ll reserve comment on this for later, but suffice to say that a plastic top - removable or otherwise - would have looked a lot better than an inexpensive sticker.
As a final aesthetic note, Griffin did improve one small feature of the iTrip’s case: its LED. While we liked the color of the original 1G/2G iTrip’s LED more, the switch to a red LED for the 3G iTrip was acceptable and marred only by its relative dimness. The iTrip mini’s LED is brighter, and thereby easier to see.
Same Interface, New Software
Like the prior iTrips, Griffin’s channel surfing interface for the iTrip mini ingeniously utilizes the iPod’s existing interface and screen. After opening the box, you begin by using Griffin’s latest iTrip software CD (version 2.0), to transfer channel surfing software from the CD to iTunes and then from iTunes to your iPod mini. The installer is now easier to use and better looking than before, and the whole iPod preparation process takes only a few minutes.
Tuning is accomplished through an iPod playlist titled iTrip Stations, showing channels from 87.9 to 107.9. Click on a specific station, and within 15 seconds, the iTrip mini will start broadcasting a signal there. Though channel switching takes a few minutes to master - you need to learn that rapid flashing from the iTrip’s LED light means “channel successfully switched” - the interface quickly becomes second nature.
Because the iTrip mini’s tuning is all handled through a reprogrammable software interface, Griffin offers additional software on its web site to enable the iTrip to broadcast elsewhere in the world, including frequencies from 88.0 to 108.0 (Europe) and 76.0 to 90.0 (elsewhere). It bears some emphasis that such international tuning just can’t be achieved on most other FM transmitters.
Griffin now also packs in a handy piece of software called the iTrip Station Finder 2.0, which contains a United States map featuring a huge collection of cities and “empty” radio frequencies. As a result, it’s now even easier for the average person to find a local station for the iTrip to overwhelm. While our tests of several “empty” stations didn’t yield perfect results - the iTrip found enough existing interference on two of them to have problems broadcasting over the audio - we’ve had similar problems with the other FM transmitters we’ve tested. Griffin’s inclusion of the Station Finder is at least a nice step in the right direction of making FM tuning easier for inexperienced iPod users.
Like its predecessors, when the iTrip mini finds a clear station, it delivers a solid, uninterrupted stream of stereo-separated music from the iPod, relatively static and distortion free - depending on distance from your radio’s antenna. Under typical usage conditions, we found its performance to be virtually identical to the standard 3G iTrip and other FM transmitters, which is to say that it does better the closer it gets to your radio, and delivers a perfectly clear signal only when it finds a totally empty channel on the radio.
In the congested Southern California radio airwaves, we found that the iTrip Station Finder software’s recommendations worked better indoors than in our car, where the iTrip mini struggled - as other FM transmitters have in our past tests. As a general statement, we had more success locally with higher and lower frequencies using the iTrip mini than ones in the middle, finding it easier to find a clear station where existing signals wouldn’t interrupt the iPod.
For a variety of reasons, including indoor/outdoor placement of the iPod, local signal interference and radio congestion, some users of past iTrips and Belkin’s TuneCast II have found that one device or the other works better for them. (We’ve had great experiences with the iTrip, but note the diversity of opinions for your reference in case you want to experiment.) Perhaps intentionally in an effort to give users the choice to violate FCC broadcast transmission rules, Griffin’s use of a sticker at the top of the iTrip mini enables users to easily transform the internal wire antenna into an external antenna, boosting the device’s signal strength in the process. Once the sticker is peeled off and the antenna’s raised, the iPod’s music suddenly becomes clearer and virtually static-free from greater distances.
Since a modification of the iTrip violates FCC guidelines and may have other consequences, we neither recommend it to our readers nor consider it a “feature” of the iTrip for review purposes. We note only that there is a difference between the strength of the signals the device puts out when modified and unmodified, and that it remains interesting that the iTrip is capable of accomplishing both forms of broadcasting without additional batteries, and in a far smaller shell than any of its competitors.
Because the iTrips have combined good looks with great performance, small profiles and no additional battery requirements, we’ve liked all three generations of Griffin’s product line, and generally recommended them over other options. When the needs of international users are taken into account, Griffin’s reprogrammable FM transmitters stand even taller above their competitors.
Potential for iTrip mini modifications aside, and given that there are so few differences between the newest iTrip and its excellent predecessors, it should come as no surprise that the iTrip mini continues receive our “Excited” rating in the FM transmitter category. However, there are two qualifications to the rating that are worth bearing in mind.
First, this iteration of the iTrip differs from its predecessors only in three minor ways: a smaller casing, new software, and a shape that fits the iPod mini are all small changes. So long as your intent is to use the iTrip mini legally, there’s no reason whatsoever to upgrade from or ignore the alternate purchase of the prior iTrip 3G unless you’re obsessed with matching the iPod mini’s aesthetic. As between the iTrip and iTrip mini, the latter device’s $5 increase in MSRP (to $39.99) likely won’t deter any purchaser, but we do prefer the former device’s glossy plastic exterior regardless of whether it perfectly matches the iPod mini’s profile or now.
Second, as we have emphasized in other FM transmitter reviews recently, we do not recommend any FM transmitter as a superior alternative to either cassette tape adapters or direct line-in connections to a car stereo or receiver. Because of the number of radio stations clogging the airwaves, FCC private broadcasting limitations, and other issues identified above, the average person with a $20 Sony cassette tape adapter will have better results than with any FM transmitter. For this reason, we qualify each FM transmitter review with the following comment: choose FM transmission as an option of last resort, and don’t be surprised if you need to screw around for a bit to find a channel without static.
If you’re an iPod mini owner who needs FM transmission, we think that you’ll be happy with the results you get from Griffin’s new iTrip mini. Overall, it’s as excellent of a match for Apple’s smallest iPod as you’ll find unless the FCC changes its private FM broadcast regulations.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school - ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.