Review: Belkin TuneCast Auto FM Transmitter and Auto Charger for iPod
Pros: A single car cable that provides FM transmission from and properly recharges a connected docking iPod. Includes easy-to-tune blue backlit screen and two memory stations.
Cons: FM transmitter quality is only okay, with high static levels on our test stations by comparison with other accessories we’ve tested. Two cables and dangling FM transmitter are a challenge to manage by comparison with simple integration of top competing options.
We are occasionally puzzled to see a major manufacturer release an iPod accessory that is merely okay, underperforming established competitors rather than trouncing them. Why bother? Perhaps to present a cheaper alternative to something that’s great but expensive. Or perhaps just to have something to offer specific retailers. Our guess is that Belkin’s TuneCast Auto ($60) is one of these products, because it’s highly similar to Kensington’s earlier and relatively excellent Digital FM Transmitter with Auto Charger (iLounge rating: A-), but nowhere near as good.
On paper, the accessories have a lot in common. They both have integrated FM transmitters with blue backlit LCD screens that can be tuned with big buttons from 88.1FM to 107.9FM. TuneCast Auto can recall two preset stations, Kensington’s three. They both properly recharge your iPod while you drive using an integrated Dock Connector cable, which happens to be compatible with the iPod nano, fifth-generation iPod, and every earlier docking iPod save iPod shuffle. And they’re both around the same price - TuneCast is a bit cheaper.
TuneCast’s physical design is more than a bit different. Kensington wisely integrated its transmitter directly into the car charger bulb, which plugs into your power adapter. Belkin separates the components, dangling TuneCast Auto’s transmitter between two different cables, one connecting to the power adapter bulb, the other to your iPod. You’re supposed to use an included hook to mount the TuneCast’s transmitter someplace in your car, which we really didn’t like much, as it created cable clutter that then had to be semi-managed with two included Velcro strips on TuneCast’s cables. We suppose that someone will like this design, but we really preferred the Digital FM Transmitter’s more elegant integration.
They’re also different when you plug them in and listen. First, we did tests just driving around with different stations, and weren’t especially impressed by the static levels we were hearing. It seemed like finding a good station to use with TuneCast Auto wasn’t easy, and the signal was regularly interrupted. The location of TuneCast Auto’s transmitter appeared to make no difference in broadcasting quality. Then we tried comparative tests using our standard two in-car testing stations, bringing along Belkin’s earlier TuneBase FM and Kensington’s Digital FM products as references.
For those who haven’t seen our earlier FM Transmitter Shootout, 87.9FM is a generally empty station in the USA, and most frequently provides a clean way for transmitters to work. If a transmitter supports it, we test it on that station; if not, we test it on 88.5FM instead. TuneCast Auto doesn’t support 87.9FM, so we tested it on 88.5FM, finding the static to audio level to be objectionably high - not as good as even TuneBase FM, or the Kensington when tuned to this channel. On 103.3FM, the static level was very high, comparable to the TuneBase FM, which previously fared the worst of all transmitters we tested on this channel, and below the Kensington on both static and dynamic audio quality by a noticeable amount. All of this is not to say that the TuneCast Auto is unusable as an FM transmitter - it’s not - but you’ll have more of a challenge finding a good-sounding station than with the better transmitters we’ve tested. And the audio won’t sound as powerful or dynamic as Kensington’s.
Overall, as a transmitting and charging option, TuneCast Auto strikes us as only a bit better than okay. We weren’t super impressed by its FM transmitting, which has fallen behind top competitors on clarity and balance, nor were we happy with the transmitter’s location and the attendant cable management and mounting challenges it posed. Kensington’s Digital FM Transmitter remains our top pick in this category by a substantial margin if you want a similar solution without an integrated dock.