Review: Dension ICELink 1.1
Pros: Delivers line-quality signal from iPod to your car stereo.
Cons: More than occasionally fails to connect to car’s head unit, requiring pulling and reattachment of cables, doesn’t fully integrate with all of head units’ remote controls, no on-screen iPod track information, included mount may modestly scratch your iPod.
Let’s say you own an iPod and a vehicle, but you don’t have a BMW. More likely than not, you’re probably hunting for the best possible adapter to bring together your two favorite toys.
For years, most iPod-loving drivers have been forced to suffer through the second-rate sound quality of wireless FM transmitters, though some have tried to fashion their own iPod integration devices with cassette adapters, line-quality splices into their stereo systems, and other hacks. These results vary in quality, but are rarely ideal.
Enter Dension’s ICELink, a seemingly simple and excellent way to unite an iPod with most automobiles. The original ICELink allowed customers to simultaneously perform feats never before possible: the car’s stereo performed the iPod’s sound while keeping it charged, and permitted people to control the iPod from the car’s head unit (what most people call “the radio”).
Now a new version of the ICELink has surfaced. Addressing concerns raised by the first version, the ICELink 1.1 allows for a sleeker installation, utilizing an packed-in iPod cradle: the hassle of connecting cables has given way to the simple action of dropping the iPod into a dock. However, unlike the original ICELink, the new product has something that may prove difficult to deal with: competition. With products like Alpine’s anticipated iPod interface, and Apple’s BMW iPod Adapter, can the ICELink preserve its dominance of the high-end auto-integration market?
Components and Installation
The ICELink 1.1 comes with a few basic components: the ICELink itself, which resembles a glue-stick; a cable which connects the ICELink to your audio system; and an iPod cradle with cabling that plugs into the ICELink. In addition, the package includes instructions, a mounting device, and included with our test kit, a custom mount made to fit your vehicle.
Internal installation of the ICELink was as simple as advertised. We installed the new ICELink in a Honda Accord that included a Kenwood KDC-X869 headunit. One cable ran from the ICELink to a CD Changer Port on our audio system, which in this case happened to be on our Sirius Satellite Radio tuner. The cradle’s cable, after being routed underneath the center console, was connected to the ICELink. Once the cables were connected, the installation of external components should have been equally simple.
Many people enjoy the convenience of Apple’s Dock, but with the growth of the iPod accessories market, it has become increasingly important to bear in mind that most cradles are designed to fit a bare iPod. The ICELink cradle is no different: it’s made for a third-generation 30/40GB iPod, and comes with a small plate that attaches to the cradle to fill in the space that is created if the user uses a 10/15/20GB iPod. With the plate in position, the smaller iPod is a solid fit. But there is no room to use a case, of any sort, with the cradle, and the cradle does make hard contact with the iPod’s backing and sides. Though it’s true that the only noticeable scratch in our iPod’s back after a few weeks of use was a thin, short, line in the center of the case, and the iPod still would pass as “new” to most viewers, the scratching was still a bit disturbing.
Additionally, though ICELink’s car mounting bracket was specially designed to fit our car, it didn’t seem as if it had been designed to fit the new iPod cradle. To install the mount and the cradle, we had to drill new holes in the mount to correctly position the mounting device between the mount and the cradle. This modification, while simple, should not have been overlooked.
Part of the beauty of Apple’s BMW solution is its tried and tested simplicity: if you have a newer-model BMW, you buy a part that’s guaranteed to interface with your car without problems. Since Dension makes parts that are supposed to interface with so many different makes and models of cars, they have a harder task of insuring compatibility and proper performance. But that’s not an adequate excuse when the product has issues.
The first ICELink we received had serious bugs which prevented us from continuing with the review, including the all-important function of turning off the iPod. On our test unit, the iPod would not shut off when the car was turned off, so long as the head unit was left flipped on to the iPod’s input source. The iPod did, however, turn on with the car, as well as with its associated source, and turned off when the source was changed to something besides that belonging to the iPod.
We were more troubled by the fact that if the user turned off the car with the iPod connected and the iPod source turned on, the car would not recognize the ICELink again until the user manually removed and re-inserted the cable connecting the ICELink to the headunit. Luckily for us, the ICELink was connected to a Sirius tuner which sat under the driver’s seat, but for most consumers, this would mean disassembling the center console to reach the cable behind the head unit.
A Second Unit
We spoke with Dension and were sent a second review unit with new firmware, which thankfully ironed out the aforementioned issues. But we quickly discovered additional issues. We couldn’t control the iPod’s playback with our head unit’s remote control, even though our remote featured next/previous buttons which worked with all other input devices we tested. However, the volume controls did work, though solely to control our head unit, and not the line-out signal from the iPod.
Another disappointment, but one we knew about before the ICELink arrived, was the fact that the iPod’s track information is not displayed on the headunit. Many head units, including ours, feature the ability to display CD Text, or even read ID3 Tags. It’s interesting that Dension had the technology to display their web address on the screen of our head unit, but didn’t push further and transfer useful data from the iPod to the screen.
There were other small but abrasive performance issues. For example, the iPod automatically commences playback every time either the car or head unit is turned on, so music will start rolling even if the user doesn’t have the head unit set to the iPod. Although we did bring this to the attention of Dension, we do not consider this a fatal flaw, as no harm comes out of this situation. The iPod simply remains in a Play state, fully charged by the ICELink, and will turn off if a new source is selected or when the head unit is powered down.
In addition, several times during our test procedures, the ICELink became unavailable as a source on the head unit. Again, the only remedy was to disconnect and then reconnect the ICELink from the head unit. We found that this occurred most frequently when the user tries to access the iPod’s controls when the ICELink is in the process of powering the iPod up or down; this is an issue if you brush your finger across the scroll pad or remove the iPod from the cradle while exiting your vehicle. The problem also occurred when the iPod had turned completely off, such as if it had not been used in several days, and was left in the cradle while starting the car.
If you’re able to put these issues aside, the ICELink otherwise performs quite well. Sound quality, we are pleased to report, is fantastic: the audio signal is very clean, and there is simply no comparison between the ICELink, wireless FM transmitters, or even tape adapters. However, by comparison with another test configuration, namely Belkin’s Auto Kit with the iPod line out connected directly to a set of AUX inputs on the back of our head unit, the difference in sound quality begins to decrease. We didn’t use scientific testing to measure the sound quality, but perceived that the ICELink provided clearer, more balanced sound, with enough bass to satisfy most people, while the Belkin unit seemed to offer more power, with a deeper, bass-heavy sound.
Charging didn’t differ between Dension and Belkin’s devices: our iPod remained charged throughout our tests with both. Because of the ICELink’s design, our iPod was always able to replenish its battery when it needed to, even if the car was off. This troubled us at first, but upon consulting Dension, we were assured that the iPod would be unable to drain the car’s battery.
The head unit’s Next / Previous controls, as well as Fast Forward / Rewind, Play, and Pause controls worked fine, though as previously noted neither the wireless steering-wheel mounted remote, a standard remote, nor a flat remote which worked with the head unit in all other modes, performed any of these functions when the headunit was set to the iPod source. Track information, such as time or track number, which showed up on the headunit did not reflect those of the iPod. Therefore, the ICELink 1.1 does one thing: it provides a stable line-quality audio source from your iPod to your car stereo, but not much else.
The new ICELink sets out to accomplish a notable goal, to seamlessly connect iPods to a variety of automobiles. Our testing suggested that while the ICELink does what it claims to do, sort of, it is not as complete or refined of a solution as it should have been. From the firmware issues to hardware limitations and a mount that left small scratches on our iPod, the ICELink has more than a few problems that could and should be remedied in a later version of the product.
Especially given its price tag. With most of the ICELink kits running for between $189.00 and $229.00, the ICELink isn’t a cheap add-on to either your iPod or your car, and expectations are high given that other adequate (if similarly imperfect) options are available at lower prices. With new competitors continually introducing products for this market, we feel that the ICELink may need some more work if Dension wants to have a product that can withstand new releases from Apple and Alpine.