Review: Belkin TuneCast Auto for iPhone and iPod
All-in-one iPod charging, mounting, and audio solutions for cars have been popular over the last several years, but one-size-fits-all mounts don't work so well in some cars. Frequent car swappers, such as users of rental cars, also need greater flexibility, since they mightn't know where such accessories will mount or connect from vehicle to vehicle. So another category of accessories -- mountless, cable-based charging and audio solutions -- has continued to flourish, with companies such as Belkin, Griffin, and Kensington leading the way. The most car compatible solution, notably popularized by Kensington, let you broadcast your iPod's audio to any car stereo with an FM radio built in, while keeping your iPod juiced up from a cigarette lighter port; it didn't use wires to connect in any other way to the stereo.
Belkin’s first combination car charger and FM transmitter was released as TuneCast Auto in late 2005, a white and gray $60 cable with an iPod Dock Connector at one end, a car charging bulb at the other, and an FM transmitter awkwardly in the middle. Now Belkin has redesigned the product, christening it TuneCast Auto for iPod and iPhone, and raising its price to $80. Thankfully for iPhone owners, who will discover that TuneCast Auto is the first such product with the Works With iPhone logo, the results are better than the prior model’s, but still not great.
The single most obvious change between the old and new models is Belkin’s improved FM transmitter. Now resting comfortably in a pill-shaped enclosure in the middle of the cable, the transmitter features a bright LCD screen with current station (88.1 to 107.9FM) information, two manual tuning buttons, access to two presets, and three “Pro” audio optimization modes. Most interestingly, a dedicated ClearScan button sits on TuneCast Auto’s face, ready to search local stations for a clear place to broadcast.
What’s conceptually great about the new design is that, like recent competing products from other companies, TuneCast Auto seeks to eliminate your need to fidget with the manual tuning buttons—or really, any other buttons at all. The ClearScan button is extremely easy to push, rather than buried within a menu or hidden on the unit’s side, letting the unit guide you directly to a channel that you then tune with the dial on your car radio. One click, and you’re done. You don’t need to push the Pro button at all; TuneCast Auto figures out your connected iPod or iPhone model and optimizes the transmitter’s levels for what you have.
If only it were practically so easy. Unfortunately, in our testing, TuneCast Auto did a surprisingly mediocre job of finding truly clear stations; in fact, after searching for five or so seconds, it often zeroed in on ones that had pre-existing radio signals. After repeated attempts to see how it made judgments about “clear” stations, and watching the transmitter switch all across the dial, the station selection process seemed better than random, but less than smart. Griffin’s competing iTrip Auto did a much better job of finding empty channels; it typically took several button presses on TuneCast Auto to get a station that was good.
Belkin’s FM transmitter is, like ones from other companies in the post-FCC enforcement era, good but not great. When it hits the wrong channel, iPod or iPhone audio is seriously interrupted by existing radio broadcasting rather than overwhelming it; on a completely clear channel, there’s still a low but audible level of static in the audio. You can toggle the Pro settings to boost the source volume over the static, most notably with the third setting, which also shifts TuneCast Auto into monaural mode for cleaner sound. We didn’t find it to be as impressive sounding as iTrip Auto at its best, and unlike the iTrip, it can’t be switched into 87.9FM mode, but it generally sounded good by current FM transmitter standards—at least, when connected to an iPod.
The real issue TuneCast Auto faces is iPhone compatibility. Beyond the standard expectations—namely, that you’ll be able to hear the iPhone’s iPod audio output, interrupted automatically for phone calls that will require you to hand hold the phone, activate speakerphone mode, or use a separate Bluetooth accessory to talk—there are several elements to making a truly iPhone-compatible accessory: elimination of TDMA (beeping) noises in the audio, proper iPhone charging, and removal of the iPhone’s “nag” screen. TuneCast Auto gets the charging part right, but doesn’t completely nail either of the other features. We tested TuneCast Auto in a couple of cars, both purchased in the last five years, and found that TDMA noise wasn’t completely eliminated in either one.
In the first car, TDMA noise was intermittent and loud throughout multiple test drives; in the second, it was intermittent and soft, with a slight apparent decrease in FM transmission quality when the iPhone was using its cellular antenna. Part of the issue is that TuneCast Auto cannot stop the iPhone’s TDMA noises from interfering with a car’s existing speaker wiring, which was clearly much worse in one of our test cars than the other; the other issue is that the device doesn’t put out a completely clean signal, and is subject to sounding a little worse when the cellular antenna’s broadcasting. Since TuneCast Auto is the first iPhone-certified FM transmitter out there, it remains to be seen how iPhone-specific versions of Griffin and Kensington charger/transmitters perform, but in a quick test of the iPod-only iTrip Auto, the differences were nowhere near as pronounced as we’d expected. In any case, it’s fair to say that your results will depend as much on your vehicle’s existing speaker shielding as on the accessory itself; future iPhones will hopefully put out less noise, as well.
It’s worth a brief note that TuneCast Auto’s Works With iPhone certification is supposed to mean that users won’t be bothered by the nag screen that claims an accessory isn’t made for the iPhone, but just as with Altec’s Apple-certified T612, you’ll only avoid the screen if you guarantee that you plug your iPhone in when power is running to the accessory—here, typically, if you turn on your car first. Otherwise, you’ll still have to deal with the annoying screen.
As eight months have passed since the iPhone was released, the lack of completely compatible car accessories has definitely been an issue for users, and TuneCast Auto for iPod and iPhone only comes part of the way towards a solution. To the extent that it performs fine as a charger and pretty well, but not flawlessly, as an FM transmitter, it’s deserving of our general recommendation, but the unimpressive performance of its ClearScan feature, its less than complete handling of TDMA noise, and its continued display of the iPhone nag screen under certain circumstances all leave plenty of room for improvement in competing products, say nothing of future Belkin revisions. By the standards of Belkin’s past TuneCast Auto, this is a big step up for iPod users, but it’s not as good as iPhone users should expect given Apple’s seal or the $80 asking price.