Review: DLO TransDock (2008)
Over the past several years, DLO has significantly broadened its line of TransDock-branded iPod car chargers and FM transmitters, starting with one model -- originally called TransPod -- and expanding this year to four. On paper, today's TransDock family may initially seem to evolve in a linear fashion as its prices go up, but it's actually more complex than that, so we'll sort through each version in this review. For sake of simplicity, we've previously reviewed the $60 FM transmitter and charger TransDock Micro, the only cable-like product in the collection; the remaining three TransDocks are all transmitters, chargers, and car mounts, with cosmetics and features that vary from version to version.
The first step up from TransDock Micro is the $80 TransDock Classic, a rounded iPod cradle and plastic mount so named because it’s actually a two-generation-old version of TransDock, brought back solely to offer an inexpensive alternative to this year’s $100 and $130 models. The $130 model, TransDock Deluxe, is based upon the last-generation TransDock, with a reshaped cradle, video-out functionality, a USB charger, and an RF remote control. In the middle is the $100 TransDock, a completely new design for 2008, featuring video-out and a streamlined mounting system but no remote control or USB charger. All of the models are compatible with all iPods released over the past four years; none are designed to work with the iPhone.
There’s no easy way to sum up all of the TransDocks in a single sweeping statement, save to say that their FM transmitters and chargers all work more or less identically. Any 2004 or newer iPod you connect will charge without an issue, and its music will be played through your car’s radio on your choice of stations from 88.1FM to 107.9FM. A new feature called IntelliTune has been added to TransDock Micro, TransDock Classic, and TransDock—not Deluxe—enabling you to press one or two buttons and have the TransDock automatically find an “empty” station to start playing on, leaving you to tune your car’s radio to match. In our testing, TransDock Classic and TransDock didn’t do a great job of finding empty stations, actually landing routinely on ones that were already playing music or talk programming, but they also overwhelmed the stations so significantly with iPod music that it barely mattered.
Though there are small differences between their FM transmitters, specifically in their tuning—the 2008 TransDock tunes properly in 0.2 increments from 88.1 to 88.3 without stopping at 88.2, unlike older models—and in their versatility, with TransDock and Deluxe possessing the ability to change audio levels and/or monaural/stereo broadcasting modes—all three of these units performed about the same under their peak broadcasting settings. While they weren’t as strong as XtremeMac’s InCharge FM or an amped up Griffin iTrip Auto for iPod and iPhone on reducing low-level static, they were better than Kensington’s LiquidFM and much better than Griffin’s RoadTrip in our testing. We found the sound performance comparable to Belkin’s TuneBase FM, with a low but slightly noticeable base level of static that didn’t seem to disappear no matter what station we tried, but otherwise clear and powerful audio.
From TransDock Classic to TransDock and TransDock Deluxe, what will really matter to you are the additional features the various models offer. TransDock Classic is the simplest of the models, with four presets, an auxiliary input, and a line-level output port for use with “aux-in” direct-connecting car audio systems. It’s the hardest to activate IntelliTune on, as you need to press both of its left and right side buttons rather than just one button on its face, and it doesn’t have other settings. TransDock Deluxe has six presets and adds a lot more to Classic’s functionality, including video out, the remote, the USB charging capability, the aforementioned transmitter settings, the ability to change the color of its backlighting from Classic’s blue to white or red, and interchangeable faceplates that further customize its looks. DLO packs Deluxe with video cables that can be connected to a car video system, a steering wheel mount for the remote control, and sizer plates for different iPods.
Our only major issue with these two versions of TransDock is a carryover from past models—the components all have a certain cheap plastic feel that doesn’t live up to the standards of the iPods inside them. We haven’t liked the twin plastic pipe mounting system for a long time, as it looks and feels clunky, though it’s unquestionably longer and more adjustable than all of the gooseneck solutions we have otherwise come to strongly prefer. The steering wheel mount for the remote control similarly uses an improvised Velcro-like strap system that works fine but doesn’t look as classy as the similar design in Kensington’s recent LiquidAUX car solution. In our testing, the remote worked pretty much as expected, only one requiring a restart of the TransDock Deluxe in order for the remote to properly register commands. Its buttons permit track, play/pause, and preset toggling, as well as transmitter tuning if you press two buttons at once; an IntelliTune icon on the remote doesn’t activate an IntelliTune feature, suggesting that IntelliTune was planned but never made it into the final product.
Between all of the complexities of its buttons and the clunkiness of TransDock Deluxe’s parts, it’s fairly obvious why DLO switched over to the design of the new TransDock, which is considerably nicer in all regards save length. This model has a cleaner, smaller design, the ability to adapt in size to iPods and nanos, and a tuning screen that is virtually identical to TransDock Micro’s. While this screen is smaller than the other TransDocks, it’s bright and easy to read, packed with more user settings, and easier to IntelliTune than TransDock Classic. The single biggest issue with TransDock is that its gooseneck mount is a mere 3.5” long, with an inch or two of additional hard plastic connecting to the iPod cradle and car charger. This is comparable to Belkin’s latest TuneBase FM design, though a couple of differences actually elevate your iPod a bit higher in TuneBase than in TransDock.
Functionally, TransDock is TransDock Classic plus the addition of video-out capabilities. You still have an auxiliary input on the side, but you can now also output video from the unit into an in-car monitor. Oddly, DLO doesn’t include a video cable with TransDock—it does with TransDock Deluxe—which means that you’ll need to buy one separately. The good news is that both TransDock and TransDock Deluxe support video-out from 2007 and newer iPods, which wasn’t the case in last year’s TransDock Deluxe.
As a final point on all of these TransDock units, DLO has adopted a charging bulb connector which will be a boon for some users and a bust for others. It uses metal rails to secure itself inside of a car’s cigarette lighter power ports, and in the right car—one of the three we tested the TransDocks in—it’s both incredibly stable and not too hard to remove. In two other cars, we found it to be incredibly stable, but also incredibly difficult to pull out without feeling that we were risking damage to our vehicles. Results will vary from car to car, but it should suffice to say that if you’re planning to install a TransDock, you’ll do best to leave it in one place and not pull it out of the charging port.
Overall, our feelings about the various TransDock units are generally positive, though each one has something that keeps it out of our high recommendation category. Of the three, we liked the standard TransDock the most, as it has the cleanest design, best controls, and a video-out feature that hasn’t been seen before at its $100 price level. It’s not our top pick on sound quality, and its lack of iPhone compatibility places it at a disadvantage relative to products such as Belkin’s TuneBase FM, but it’s a very good option nonetheless. TransDock Classic strikes us as an outdated design at a more attractive price, while TransDock Deluxe is similarly outdated on design and more expensive, offset by a bunch of interesting additional features. Ideally, the TransDock lineup would all have longer goosenecks, and ramp up more smoothly in features as prices increase, but for now, you’ll have to decide whether certain look and design tradeoffs in these models square with the features you need.