Company: Digital Lifestyle Outfitters (DLO)
Price: $60, $70
Compatible: iPod 4G, 5G, classic, mini, nano, touch, iPhone*, iPhone 3G*
DLO TransDock Micro (2008/iPod, 2009/iPhone)
When DLO released the first version of the combination car charger and FM transmitter TransDock Micro back in early 2006, we weren't completely impressed: the company had done little more than bundle an iPod USB cable with its mid-2005 TransDock for iPod shuffle and bump the price from $60 to $70. So when the company released a completely redesigned 2008 version of TransDock Micro ($60) this year, we were intrigued. And, after testing it, we were pleased by the results.
This year, TransDock Micro is a single-piece solution: a flexible car charging bulb with an integrated FM transmitter and a highly iPod case-compatible cable. The cable runs out of its bottom rather than its top, and what used to be separate buttons for FM station tuning have been replaced by a silver plastic dial that circles a blue-on-black display. By turning the dial, you manually change stations in .2 increments from 88.1FM to 107.9FM, and by pressing it inwards once, you activate Intellitune, a clear station finder. Intellitune takes 5 or 10 seconds to locate and tune itself to a clear local radio station, after which you set your car’s radio to match whatever’s on TransDock’s screen. In our testing, IntelliTune did a pretty good job of finding clear stations, and continued to hunt for additional options with every additional press, only occasionally doubling back on past results. It sometimes picked stations that weren’t totally clear, but most of the time its picks were empty, and its findings and speed were preferable to manually tuning through the dial.
Similarly, TransDock Micro’s FM transmitter technology is pretty good. Though there was still more static in the audio signal than in XtremeMac’s InCharge FM, a recently impressive performer, TransDock Micro was more powerful than Belkin’s most recent TuneCast Auto and comparable to Griffin’s iTrip Auto with SmartScan. In other words, you’ll still hear a bit of static in your audio, but there’s far more music than noise here.
DLO has also built in a number of settings that can be accessed by holding down the dial for several seconds and then flipping through with rotations of the controller: the screen’s brightness and dimming settings can be changed, as can the iPod’s audio output level relative to the transmitter, and the device’s stereo or monaural broadcasting mode. As with other FM transmitters, TransDock Micro does better at overwhelming stations when in monaural mode, and the iPod output level adjustment lets you make the iPod’s sound louder if you need to further overwhelm the static. Different iPods output sound at different levels, however, so the adjustment that’s right for your iPod will depend on your model. DLO sets TransDock Micro on low by default, and experimenting will help you avoid “clipping,” or dulling the peaks of certain sounds in the process of making the noise louder.
Though everything else about TransDock Micro is impressive, two things have been omitted from the earlier product. This unit’s bottom is functionally bare, omitting both line-in and line-out ports that previously enabled you to connect the device directly to a car stereo and a non-Dock Connecting device. Consequently, this is the first TransDock Micro that doesn’t work with an iPod shuffle, which isn’t a tremendous loss but might matter to some users. If you want line-in or -out, you’ll need to look at one of DLO’s more expensive TransDock versions instead. We also need to note that the charging bulb uses an unusual securing mechanism with metal rails that has the benefit of staying stable in your car’s power outlet, but the consequence of being comparatively very difficult to remove. It wasn’t as much of an issue in TransDock Micro as in the other TransDocks we’ve recently tested, but it’s worth noting.
The small line-in and -out omissions may have helped with TransDock Micro’s pricing: at $60, it’s $10 less expensive than InCharge FM, and $20 less expensive than both Griffin’s iTrip Auto with SmartScan and Belkin’s TuneCast Auto. The numbers alone are somewhat deceiving in that all three of the other options look at least a little cooler than TransDock Micro, InCharge FM outperforms it on static level, and TuneCast Auto offers iPhone compatibility, which TransDock Micro lacks—it’s only compatible with recent iPods. But TransDock’s aggressive pricing, combined with its very good sound quality, superior manual settings, and inclusion of IntelliTune make it an option we’d recommend as worthy of consideration for budget-conscious users. While we’d be inclined to pay a little bit more for InCharge FM’s styling and stronger audio performance, TransDock Micro is a very good option, and worthy of our strong general recommendation.
Updated March 26, 2009: DLO has released an updated version called TransDock micro with IntelliTune for iPhone ($70), adding $10 to the prior version’s price, and offering compatibility with both the iPhone and iPhone 3G. The new version has a smaller Dock Connector plug and a small bulge mid-cord, possibly for a ferrous core or other shielding technology; it no longer includes the separate plastic charging insert bundled with the last version. We will update this review with testing results and a rating for the new model.