Review: DLO TransPod FM 2004 (for Dock Connector iPods)
Pros: Clean-looking, easy to use integrated FM transmission, power charging and car cradle with packed-in accessories to meet most users’ in-car iPod mounting needs.
Cons: Slightly pricey given competing options, more demanding users may be put off by occasional high-pitched noise in the auxiliary output. Only useful in a car.
[Originally posted August 25, 2004, this review was updated on June 3, 2005 with added paragraphs and photographs of the new silver and black TransPod FM models. A change to currently shipping TransPod hardware was also made, improving the unit’s grade from a B to a B+.]
Until the recent introduction of Griffin’s RoadTrip three-in-one iPod FM transmitter, car charger and mounting cradle, Digital Lifestyle Outfitters’ TransPod FM was a one-of-a-kind product. As previously reviewed (“Happy” rating, July 2003), the TransPod for first- and second-generation iPods was a solid but not ideal car option, offering a good enough mounting and charging solution but only acceptable sound quality and tuning.
Since then, DLO has evolved the TransPod to an extent that may surprise even those who recently purchased the device. Two different versions of the TransPod recently arrived for testing at iLounge – one that is currently shipping, and the other an earlier but highly similar version that many iLounge users have already used and generally liked. For reasons discussed below, while we think both versions are solid offerings for those who need their features, we had mixed feelings about the iterative changes the latest TransPod has gone through, and therefore reached somewhat different conclusions on the two otherwise similar products.
Concept and Design
Advertised as “the only all-in-one car solution for your iPod,” DLO’s TransPod FM combines three key features into a single white plastic package: utilizing a car’s cigarette lighter power adapter for iPod battery charging and a built-in digital FM transmitter to broadcast the iPod’s audio to the car’s stereo, each TransPod also serves as an adjustable iPod mounting cradle. DLO’s TransPods are rendered compatible with both iPods and iPod minis via the use of an included plastic sizer and two soft adhesive pads.
The two TransPods differ from one another in several important ways. DLO’s newer TransPod is around half of an inch shorter than the prior version, and a bit less than half an inch thinner than before. Its lines are sleeker: no longer does its FM transmitter protrude from the front of the unit, and its backlit LCD screen is slightly larger. Rather than two FM tuning buttons (up and down), it now includes three, with an oval used to switch between five preset stations that aren’t user programmable. And as an additional benefit, DLO has redesigned both the iPod mini plastic sizer and the Transpod shell that accommodates it, substantially easing what was previously laborious insertion and removal. Overall, while both TransPods look better than Griffin’s iTrip, the newest TransPod looks the best.
Each TransPod includes a total of ten parts in its blister-packed case, enabling different car users to adapt the product to their individual needs. Three different power solutions are included: one or two adjustable mounting arms can be used to mount the TransPod at varying lengths from your car’s power port, while a white corded power adapter and a two-piece screw-mounted attachment let you attach the TransPod elsewhere on your car’s dashboard. A small plastic ring adapter accommodates cars with smaller power ports, while the aforementioned pads and iPod mini plastic sizer adjust the TransPod’s cradle for different iPod hardware.
DLO’s part selections are more interesting when compared with the components packed in with Griffin’s competing RoadTrip. Whereas the TransPod cradles iPods and minis simply by letting them drop inside, the RoadTrip requires users to attach iPods to belt clips before securing them in the cradle. And while the TransPod includes an optional dashboard mounting kit and corded power adapter, the RoadTrip provides no such option.
Of additional importance: whereas the RoadTrip includes a detachable FM transmitter, the usefulness of which we found to be modest, the TransPod’s FM transmitter is not detachable. Instead, DLO offers users the ability to circumvent FM radio output by way of a convenient auxiliary-out audio port, mounted on the device’s left side. Given the choice between a detachable transmitter and the TransPod’s auxiliary port, we’d choose the latter any day: it renders the TransPod compatible with cassette tape adapters and some cars’ line-in jacks.
But the single most important difference actually turns out to be one feature that made older TransPods better than the new ones, and for that matter a noticeably more compatible product than Griffin’s RoadTrip. This change isn’t advertised by DLO, and unless you buy a TransPod in person or ask your mail order retailer specifically which TransPod you’re getting, you won’t know which unit you’re getting.
A Part Change and an Appeal for Version Numbers
Though most of the differences between the two TransPods are cosmetic, DLO changed one of its packed-in accessories in the latest package: the company switched out a superior second car mounting arm – a part which had been included with TransPods dating back to the first- and second-generation iPod units – for a less flexible and thereby more problematic part that’s identical to the one included with Griffin’s RoadTrip. Those who read our review of the RoadTrip will recall that this latter part precluded us from using the device at all in one of our two test vehicles, and severely limited its use in our other car.
The TransPod uses one or two arm pieces to mount its cradle away from the cigarette lighter port: you’ll only need the first adjustable arm if your port isn’t recessed or surrounded with dials, switches, or other protruding pieces of plastic, but many cars will require you to also attach the second arm, which extends the first. Older TransPods included a second arm with both a ball swivel joint and a locking adjustable joint that could be moved 180 degrees. Newer TransPods, like Griffin’s RoadTrip, include an extending arm with only the ball swivel joint. Practically, this new piece turns out to be next to useless in cars where the port is dramatically recessed, unlike the older part, which could be positioned quite nicely at the user’s discretion.
Undisclosed changes like this confuse our readers – and us. In comments to our review of the RoadTrip – written when we only had the earlier and superior TransPod arm in our possession – a reader noted that he was “not sure why they keep saying that the roadtrip has a different design than the transpod,” explaining that “[t]he ‘stalk’ appears to be a 100% copy job down to the ball joint top section [and] 2 split pieces.” Both descriptions turned out to be correct, a problem that developed because DLO has continued to sell the newest TransPod under the same name, and apparently the same part number (009-2002) and ISBN number (8-36258-92002-5).
This isn’t the first time undisclosed product changes have caught iPod users unaware: the makers of Plane Quiet headsets recently (but quietly) updated only the insides of their mediocre headphones with better technology without changing the product’s name, and we’ve even heard reports that some 4G iPod owners have been surprised to receive 3G units they mistakenly ordered from retailers after the release of the “new iPod.” There can certainly be unhappy consequences when companies release new products without conspicuously renaming them and/or insuring that retailers identify the changes to customers. For this reason, we appeal to DLO and other companies to at least use version numbers (3.0, 3.1) so that customers can know exactly what they’re buying ahead of time. Even small changes can create big problems for people who are trying to research their purchases.
Real-World Physical Performance
The change in mounting hardware actually has practical implications for potential TransPod users. When we received the earlier version of the TransPod, we found it considerably easier than the RoadTrip to mount and adjust in both of our test cars, and were prepared to give the product a commensurately higher score for that reason. However, the current shipping version of the TransPod – like the RoadTrip – could not be mounted in one of our test vehicles using the two extension arms, meaning that the device could only be used in such a car when tethered to the packed-in corded power adapter, and would therefore require use of screws and the special two-piece plastic mount if we wanted to attach the cradle for easy viewing in that car. To DLO’s credit, only the TransPod offers these other options – you’re out of luck entirely with the RoadTrip – but if DLO had simply used the old arm, they would have provided a significantly better option for many customers.
As-is in the current TransPod, we found that the device just narrowly avoided bumping into the gear shifter on our other test car, creating a tight but ultimately usable fit in that vehicle. Because of the TransPod’s design, a cradled full-sized iPod stands only five inches tall rather than the RoadTrip’s six-and-a-half inches, and seems both more stable and integrated in DLO’s cradle enclosure design. We found both the TransPod’s LCD screen and iPod’s screen to be relatively easy to view when the device was attached and properly adjusted.
Like the RoadTrip, we found that the newest TransPod had a tendency to sway slightly to the left and right as we drove because of the design of the device’s extending arms and the weight of the cradled iPod. This tendency was slightly less pronounced in the TransPod, and even less noticeable when the iPod mini was attached. It was still less of a factor when the older, superior second extension arm was used. For this reason, and again like the RoadTrip, we think that the new TransPod’s most satisfied users from a mounting perspective will be those who don’t need to use the second extension arm.
Broadcasting and Charging Performance
Again like the RoadTrip, the TransPod’s charging performance was unsurprisingly fine: when the iPod or iPod mini was connected to the device, it charged, and the newest TransPod includes a LCD indicator that flips between a lightning bolt (charging) and a full battery for those interested in its status. Modestly more intuitive than the RoadTrip’s two-color LED charging light, the TransPod’s LCD icons performed just the same function. DLO has also programmed the new TransPod’s LCD backlight to automatically turn off after a short period of time, conserving power and reducing the number of bright things in your otherwise dark car at night.
As a FM broadcasting device, the two TransPod versions had positive and negative characteristics. For FM purposes, we preferred the earlier TransPod because its FM tuning range was larger: it could tune all the way down to 87.7, which was a perfectly clear channel on our cars’ FM radios. But the new TransPod (like the RoadTrip) only tunes down to 88.1, a small difference, but one that required us to do a little more channel searching before we found something comparably clear.
The addition of a preset station button (lacking user programmability) to the newest TransPod is a pleasant enough one, though we would have preferred that DLO just move the tuning buttons to the front of the unit from their current location on the device’s right hand side. As currently designed, we fumbled a bit to adjust the controls we couldn’t see, especially when we switched between the two units and accidentally hitting the preset button. With front-mounted controls, Griffin’s RoadTrip has the slight edge in this regard.
These differences aside, both TransPods’ FM transmitters sounded the same. Like the RoadTrip, both TransPods use digital tuning to broadcast a relatively strong stereo signal that easily overwhelms empty stations, and we found it pretty easy to create good quality broadcasts. We found the FM output from the two TransPods and the RoadTrip to be practically indistinguishable from each other.
As we routinely note in FM transmitter reviews, while the signal will be acceptable for most users – and may be the only option for some – it cannot compare in clarity to the sound of an audio signal from a cassette adapter. When using both of the TransPods’ auxiliary out jacks, we noted that both units performed significantly cleaner audio with a larger “stage” – music didn’t sound as flat or compressed. The older TransPod also artificially shifted the treble (high-end) in a manner that made auxiliary output slightly tinny by comparison with the flatter but “warmer” bass-heavy FM output, a change that could be easily accommodated by adjusting in-car bass and midrange settings. However, the newer TransPod produced a more balanced and acceptable auxiliary output sound out of the box.
One aside on the TransPod’s auxiliary output is that its comparative clarity reveals a quiet but noticeable high-pitched hard drive access squeal each time an iPod’s or iPod mini’s hard disk is accessed – typically once every five to seven tracks, depending on their size. This issue, which manifests through the Dock Connector port in older iPods, also manifests (as an audio defect) in the headphone jacks of some fourth-generation iPods, and is accompanied by static. Whether this sound bothers you will be a decision you need to make on your own, but we note that we did not hear the sound when using the line-out on Belkin’s Auto Kit and other Dock Connecting accessories. It is almost unnoticeable when using the TransPod’s FM transmission, and in abbreviated testing we couldn’t hear it in the FM performance of Griffin’s RoadTrip, either.
Value and Conclusions
One of the most difficult questions we’re faced with after testing both of the TransPods is how to assess their value, given that both devices retail for $99.99 and only sometimes can be had for $85 or less, and also given that Griffin’s RoadTrip sells for $79.99. On one hand, we think that the earlier-generation version of the TransPod is a definite winner over the RoadTrip: its accessory arms are more likely to prove compatible with different vehicles, and its packed-in alternate accessories are just more useful (and less convoluted, especially given the lack of iPod belt clip requirements) than the ones in Griffin’s package. The inclusion of the auxiliary-out port, its comparatively less odd body shape, and its solid FM performance would lead us to recommend it at the B+ level to our users. It’s pricey given that similar functionality can be achieved for most people through a Belkin Auto Kit, a Sony Cassette Adapter, and an inexpensive mounting device, but it’s integrated and it works pretty well.
But that version of the TransPod is not the one currently shipping, and as such, users will have to scramble if they hope to find the most compatible TransPod mount in stores. By comparison, the newest TransPod’s body design changes were all pleasant improvements, from its sleeker, smaller body to its bigger LCD screen, additional preset tuning button, and more balanced auxiliary output. The product’s single major failing is that like the RoadTrip, it will be unnecessarily difficult to mount in some users’ cars, an issue all the more regrettable because the prior-generation TransPod didn’t possess that problem.
However, as we found even the newer TransPod to be slightly more compatible in this regard than the RoadTrip, and liked so much of its design, we feel comfortable recommending it at the solid B level to our users, with a similar caveat to the one we included with the RoadTrip: purchase it only from a store with a reasonable returns policy in case you find that it won’t mount properly (or, with the corded power adapter, acceptably) in your vehicle.
Those with compatible vehicles will no doubt find the new TransPod to be an attractive and useful accessory that fulfills virtually all of their in-car listening needs. But those with incompatible vehicles will be sorely disappointed, as this new device has plenty to offer and comes tantalizingly close to providing the ideal design for in-car iPod integration.
Added June 3, 2005: Silver and Black TransPods
In May of 2005, DLO released two new colored versions of the TransPod FM, one in silver and one in black. These new offerings are intended to provide a greater variety of car interior-matching options for those who either don’t want the traditional white glossy plastic looks of iPod accessories, or own non-white iPods, such as silver iPod minis or black U2 Special Edition iPods. Regardless of color, each version fits all Dock Connecting iPods, including the thicker iPod photo.
The method of coloration varies from unit to unit. DLO’s white and black TransPods use glossy plastic, resembling the bodies of the full-sized white and black iPods, while the silver one uses a flecked metallic paint that resembles the silver iPod mini’s metal body. Black is quite reflective, while silver isn’t. Both new units are good color matches for their respective iPod models, and feature gray tuning buttons and painted-on DLO and TransPod logos on their front faces.
While the main bodies of each new TransPod are offered in these different colors, the piping and/or cabling they use to connect to cars is black in both instances. Therefore, the silver TransPod still uses black stalks and connectors, while the black version and its component parts are all black. This includes the pads used as sizers for thinner iPods, as well. This probably won’t matter much in the typical car interior or to the typical iPod owner, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.
A more substantial change was delivered as promised by DLO following publication of our earlier review. The company’s now gone back to using its earlier, superior arm joint with an additional pivot point, which we noted increases TransPod’s compatibility with a wider variety of cars. As such, we’ve boosted the product’s score from a B to a B+ to reflect the added benefit of the replacement arm.