Review: Griffin RoadTrip All-in-One Car Solution
Pros: Solid FM transmission and charging in an all-in-one package that’s less expensive than only major competitor.
Cons: Large size, proved difficult to adjust for use in our test vehicles, numerous detachable pieces prove overly inelegant ways to attach/detach iPod and FM transmitter, which is not especially useful when removed.
If any accessory maker has consistently matched Apple’s uniquely attractive product designs, that company would be Griffin Technology. From the iTalk to the SightLight to the PowerMate, the company’s iPod and Macintosh accessories have been both visual knockouts and quality performers, uniformly praised for their elegant simplicity.
After winning considerable praise from iLounge and others for its beautifully integrated iTrip FM transmitter series for iPods, Griffin’s new RoadTrip is an unexpected break with the company’s traditions. While reasonably priced and full of interesting-at-first-blush features, the RoadTrip turns out to be little more than a clumsier but cheaper iteration of DLO’s earlier and well-established TransPod three-in-one iPod car charger, cradle, and FM transmitter. Thus for the first time we can recall, Griffin appears to be competing mostly on price rather than on concept or execution, a hopefully temporary change of strategy that only some users will appreciate. Whether the RoadTrip is right for your personal needs will depend heavily on several factors that we consider below.
(Editor’s Note: iLounge has tested and reviewed DLO’s previous generation TransPod, which is mentioned herein for comparative purposes only, and has not reviewed the current version of the product. We do not render an opinion on any differential quality of the FM transmission of the two products, only other features that appear in one product but not the other.)
Unless Apple integrates FM transmission into future iPods, there’s little doubt in our minds that Griffin’s earlier and iconic iTrip transmitters were designed as beautifully as such accessories could be designed. Using the iPod’s screen for channel selection, each iTrip’s small white casing fit perfectly on top of its respective iPod, and without additional batteries provided more than acceptable FM transmission for most purposes. Equipped with an iTrip, an iPod can broadcast to a home radio, a car radio, or any other FM radio you can find; moreover, thanks to Griffin’s unique iPod and software-based frequency tuning solution, and unlike competing products, the iTrip operates even in foreign countries with different radio frequencies.
Though it will inspire comparisons with the iTrip, the RoadTrip is an almost completely different product: it only works with the iPod in a car. Featuring a large white cradle with an integrated cigarette lighter power charger, an FM transmitter, and two detachable extension arms to (separately or together) connect the cradle to your vehicle, the RoadTrip lets you mount, charge, and listen to your iPod while driving without any additional cables. Assuming your car’s power charge port leaves enough clearance for the RoadTrip - which may not be a safe assumption, depending on your car - it’s relatively easy to pivot both your iPod and the RoadTrip’s LCD tuning screen into a viewable position.
Because every blister-packed package actually includes a total of nine parts, the RoadTrip reminded us of Ron Popeil’s infamous infomercials: “that’s not all - you get much, much more.” The remaining packed-in pieces include a white plastic belt clip that fits on a 3G iPod to act as a portable mounting device for the RoadTrip, and an iPod mini belt clip adapter that turns Apple’s packed-in mini clip into the same sort of RoadTrip-ready mount. You mount your iPod on the clip, and then insert the clipped iPod into the RoadTrip’s cradle. A soft in-clip spacer pad for thinner iPods, a white plastic adaptor cap for certain vehicles’ power plugs, and a two-cable bundle round out the package. That’s a lot of parts for Griffin’s $79.99 asking price.
And, as Ron Popeil might add, “wait, that’s not all!” You need the aforementioned two-cable bundle because the RoadTrip’s FM transmitter is detachable. Two holes at the top of the transmitter provide power and audio inputs, hence Griffin’s packed-in USB-to-power cable and a 3.5mm stereo mini-jack cable. Though the white plastic and silver stickered transmitter isn’t aesthetically impressive, and actually looks like a cheap pedometer, the screen and three buttons are easy to see and use. A separate alternating red and yellow LED light on the RoadTrip cradle indicates that power is flowing to the connected iPod.
Without question, given all of its detachable parts, the RoadTrip is a somewhat less elegantly implemented all-in-one solution than DLO’s TransPod, but then, it’s cheaper and claims to do more. What other single package can offer everything from detachable FM transmission and car charging to belt clipping and car mounting?
Functionality: the Good
After several days of testing, the RoadTrip is at once an easy product to describe in broad strokes and a difficult product to recommend without noting serious issues that may impact certain users. To start with the broad strokes and nice things we can say about the RoadTrip, there’s no question that it works, and works well to perform stereo FM transmission of the iPod’s audio and recharge the iPod in a car.
Transmitter tuning is simple thanks to tactile, front-mounted up and down buttons, plus a simple on/off button that always worked. (The button also flips between station presets when lightly pressed.) Additionally, the RoadTrip’s screen was easy to read during the day and night, thanks to a simple yellow backlight that illuminated the black numeric display, and the transmitter was easier to re-tune than the iTrip, something that proves useful mostly when travelling great distances by land. Most of our driving is local and suburban, so we typically don’t have as much need to change stations to avoid signal problems, but those with different needs may appreciate the RoadTrip’s separate LCD interface.
Even without the use of an unwieldy external antenna, such as the one employed by Sonnet’s PodFreq, we found that the quality of the RoadTrip’s FM broadcasting was quite good - as strong and clear as we’ve ever heard in our test vehicle. However, as with all FM transmitters we’ve tested, there was a very mild static hiss in the signal at all times, which became noticeable mostly at higher volume levels. For this reason, cassette tape adapters and direct line-in/out solutions still remain our solutions of choice for users who have those options.
Recharging is straightforward. The RoadTrip’s built in two-color LED isn’t the best we’ve seen - some LEDs use three colors to indicate two different types of charging, one signaling that 80% of the iPod’s battery has been charged - but it works. Red indicates that the iPod is charging, and yellow is supposed to indicate that the RoadTrip is on but no charging is taking place. Not surprisingly, we had no problem recharging either of our test iPods with the RoadTrip, but we did notice that the light went yellow sometimes even when the iPod’s battery indicator showed that charging was still taking place.
Functionality: the Bad
Unfortunately, the issues we experienced with the RoadTrip were more memorable than the positives of its performance, and we think that many users may have similar gripes, depending on their specific needs and vehicles. In order of the issues presented below, the RoadTrip is most likely to satisfy a user who: (a) doesn’t need to use his iPod with radios indoors, (b) doesn’t want to circumvent the RoadTrip’s FM output by using direct line output, (c) has a car power port located conveniently away from a gear shifter or other existing object, (d) does not need to use both extension arms to connect the RoadTrip, and (e) likes to belt clip his iPod or iPod mini (and doesn’t use a protective case).
Other users should be forewarned. By comparison with DLO’s TransPod, the RoadTrip’s new and different features don’t work quite the way most people would expect them to work, and unnecessarily complicate what was otherwise an acceptable (if also somewhat large) design.
First, many users will be surprised to learn that the detachable FM transmitter component of the RoadTrip isn’t a replacement for either the iTrip or Belkin’s TuneCast II. It lacks both a battery and a battery compartment, and thus cannot run on either its own power or the iPod’s. As a result, though you can detach it from the RoadTrip, it can only be connected to a personal computer with a powered USB port. If you want to use FM transmission with your iPod indoors, you’ll need to buy something else. And while you may want to broadcast your computer’s audio to a radio, we’d venture a guess that your computer has its own speakers, limiting the practical usefulness of this detachable “innovation.”
On a related second note, an interesting feature in DLO’s TransPod was a line-level output port that allowed users to circumvent the FM transmitter and instead plug in a cassette tape adapter or direct line-out cable to the iPod. Griffin doesn’t include such an output port. Though you could conceivably accomplish the same result by detaching the RoadTrip’s FM transmitter and buying a separate female to male adapter to interface with the male stereo plug found on the RoadTrip, Griffin could really have done better by flipping the stereo ports on the RoadTrip and the transmitter, and including a different cable. As is, no adapter is found in the box to accomplish this purpose, either.
Our third and fourth issues relate to the RoadTrip’s two extension arms. The main body of the RoadTrip is a sizeable white plastic cradle that attaches to three or four parts: the iPod (with attached belt clip), the separate FM transmitter, and one or two of the arms. If you’re lucky, your car’s power charger port is positioned such that you can mount the RoadTrip with a single arm, and if so, your experience with the RoadTrip will be significantly better than ours.
Try as we did over the course of three days, we couldn’t place the RoadTrip in a position that was both viewable and avoided bumping in to one of our test cars’ gear shifters when it was moved, and the closest we could get was when both extension arms were attached. The RoadTrip was even less easy to view in our other test car. While this could be blamed on the positioning of existing components in our test vehicles, it’s actually more the fault of the RoadTrip’s oversized cradle (6.5” by 2.5” x 1.7” with 3G iPod attached), its dangling FM transmitter, and the design of its extending arms (which add 5-10” beyond the cradle).
Notably, some iLounge users reported similar problems in positioning DLO’s TransPod, and we note that while one of the two extension arms from both products is the same, DLO’s second arm is more adjustable than Griffin’s. In other words, if you’ve tried the TransPod and had a positioning problem, the RoadTrip is not likely to be any better. It could even be worse.
An added problem was that the combined weight of the RoadTrip cradle, the transmitter, the attached iPod and the belt clip were enough to make the double-extended contraption rock slightly to the left and right while we drove. This was despite using some nicely implemented, easy to adjust screws to tighten the locks of the multi-positioned extension arms; the weight of the RoadTrip was just too much to keep totally stable when everything (even when used only with an iPod mini) was attached. The problem decreased when one of the extensions was removed.
As a fifth and final design point, we’re not sure that other people will like the idea of using belt clips as iPod mounting devices for the RoadTrip. Since we don’t belt clip our iPods, and prefer to keep them in protective cases, we can say for sure that we don’t like the idea, but you can decide whether you want to keep your iPod or iPod mini on a white belt clip when it’s outside of your car.
Value and Conclusions
The choice between DLO’s TransPod (MSRP $99.95, available for $85 and up) and Griffin’s RoadTrip (MSRP $79.99) is a tough one: on one hand, Griffin’s product comes out of the gate slightly less expensive, and like other Griffin products may well fall to an even lower retail price (say, $69.99) at some stores within weeks of release. Additionally, if RoadTrip’s belt clip system or detachable FM transmitter appeal to your personal needs, and you own a car where only one of the product’s two extension arms will be needed, then there’s little reason not to go with the RoadTrip. On a final positive note, even if the RoadTrip isn’t the world’s best-looking device, it does what it claims to do - in some cars.
But on the other hand, the TransPod is less unattractive - an intentional double negative - and the feature differences between the two units don’t practically favor the RoadTrip unless you fall into the camps above. Non-FM audio out is easier for TransPod users than RoadTrip users assuming anyone wants to use such a device solely as a charging cradle, and the TransPod’s packed-in extension cord and dash mount kit may prove more valuable additions for some users than Griffin’s belt clips and modestly useful FM transmitter-related accessories.
As noted at the start of this review, the RoadTrip is an unexpected break from Griffin’s past, and to the extent that the company has otherwise made great products, we consider it a merely average exception to a generally superb development history. We suspect that it may be nothing more than an attempt to capture DLO’s market share with a similar, cheaper product, even if it’s not particularly special. And if that’s the case, it’s a shame. Under normal circumstances, Griffin is unquestionably capable of developing a smaller, lighter version of the TransPod, likely improving (say, a gooseneck?) upon that device’s so-so articulating arms, and in any case releasing something that was better looking overall. Needless to say, we were disappointed on each count, but we hope that based on Griffin’s otherwise excellent track record, the company won’t go down this road again.
(Editor’s Note: Regardless of the device you consider purchasing, based on TransPod user comments and our own RoadTrip experiences, our inclination is to recommend that the purchase of either device be made only from a store with a reasonable return policy. Placement in your vehicle may not be as straightforward as you imagine, and you can avoid the double penalty of disappointment and financial hardship by choosing a merchant that offers a fair testing period without a restocking fee. We also continue to recommend cassette tape adapters, direct line-out adapters, and separate power chargers for users who want superior audio quality and don’t mind the extra cables and related charges.)
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.