Review: Griffin iTrip for iPod + iPhone With iTrip Controller App
In light of the App Store's growing popularity -- and Apple's recent support for accessory-compatible apps -- iPhone accessory developers now have to choose whether to create universally iPod- and iPhone-compatible add-ons, or instead release app-dependent accessories. Griffin Technology's latest portable iTrip FM transmitter, the iTrip for iPod + iPhone With iTrip Controller App ($50), tries the Yogi Berra approach: it comes to that fork in the road and takes it. The result is an iTrip that can be used app-less with any Dock Connecting iPod or iPhone like its predecessors, but if you have an iPhone or iPod touch and download Griffin's free iTrip Controller app, it gains a new on-device interface.
Once again, iTrip’s purpose is to flood an empty local FM radio channel with radio signals, helping users with stereos—typically car stereos that lack auxiliary audio inputs—to hear iPod or iPhone music without headphones or the devices’ small integrated speakers. As with its predecessors, the new iTrip attaches to the bottom of an iPod or iPhone, adding a bright, readable OLED screen, buttons, and a pass-through charging port. The bluish-green screen turns on just long enough to show you that the accessory is broadcasting FM radio signals to a specific station, and give you a choice of several options in small text: + and - for tuning, and Scan for a feature called SmartScan, which automatically finds an open radio station to broadcast on. Hit a menu button and you’re given additional options, as well: it cycles through four screens, one with the tuner features, one with presets, one with track control buttons and scrolling track text information, and one with “reset” and “options” buttons. The number of features accessible in the new iTrip can be a bit overwhelming, but you needn’t use any of them; the unit is set up by default to just be tuned to a station and left alone.
From a hardware standpoint, there’s only one negative change to prior iTrips—the replacement of the prior models’ mini-USB pass-through charging ports with a less compatible micro-USB connector. Since Griffin doesn’t include a micro-USB cable with iTrip or its other chargers, this means that you’ll need to go and buy one if you want to keep your iPhone or iPod powered in the car or at home while using the accessory. Otherwise, expect to see your iPod’s or iPhone’s run time cut when it’s using iTrip, less so when it’s running without the app than with it, though notably less than many competing transmitters due to the company’s aggressive screen and transmitter power management engineering. As with some prior iTrips, the new model rests a bit off-angle when it’s plugged in, but thanks to its extended Dock Connector plug, it does connect to iPhones and iPods even when they’re inside cases.
Of note is that the new iTrip is roughly on par with its recent peers in sonic performance; set up properly and placed near a typical car stereo to broadcast on an empty radio station, your music will dominate but not completely overwhelm static, such that you’ll hear mostly whatever you’re trying to play, with occasional static pops—an issue that is common to virtually every FM transmitter these days, and mitigated only by positioning your iPhone or iPod closer to the car’s antenna, then hunting around on the FM dial for the optimally vacant local station. We tested iTrip across several days, including an extended two-state drive, and found the performance to be consistently good but not amazing in rural and urban areas alike. SmartScan helped us find clear- or near-clear stations more quickly, but like most companies, Griffin is limited by the FCC and other international regulatory agencies in its ability to broadcast as powerful a signal as it would prefer. For related reasons, it has also removed this iTrip’s ability to tune to 87.9FM, a station that is almost always clear in the United States, a real disappointment.
From a software standpoint, there’s good and so-so news to report on the iTrip Controller app. One good thing about the app is an unexpected benefit Apple has provided to app-based accessory providers: connect iTrip to your iPhone or iPod touch and you’ll receive a message that there’s an app to be downloaded from the App Store—clicking on the “Yes” button to install it takes you directly to the correct App Store page to get it, too. This is simple, smart, and a real value-added feature for consumers.
On the other hand, the app itself is only a fair addition to the new iTrip accessory, and the dialog box’s claim that “this accessory requires [the] application” isn’t really true. iTrip works with or without the application, which essentially duplicates the functionality of the accessory’s integrated screen and buttons, placing the same features in a nicer interface. The FM radio tuner now has both plus and minus buttons and a rotary dial. Three preset buttons can easily be selected or updated with new preferences; the Smartscan button locates empty or near-empty local frequencies for broadcasting, and the Stereo button activates or deactivates stereo broadcasting mode, which reduces broadcasting signal strength but preserves the stereo separation of your audio. Apart from the rotary dial, all of these features are also found on the iTrip device itself, but sometimes require two or more button presses to find; the app puts them all right in front of your eyes.
The problem with the app is a fairly simple one: it feels more useful as a one-time set-up application for iTrip’s various options than as an ongoing way to actually use the accessory. As cute as the rotary dial feature may look, for instance, it doesn’t really help much in tuning, and the space that it occupies could have as easily been filled with numerous additional preset buttons or other features to expand rather than duplicate the hardware’s existing functionality. Moreover, the app lacks for its own integrated music selection interface, so in practice, you’ll find yourself running the app, then exiting it to go back to your iPod library to change tracks. We quickly found ourselves asking a question—why bother loading and using the app when we have the iTrip’s built-in buttons right there?—and answering it by ceasing use of the app once we’d set everything up.
Another answer, we’re guessing, is that this isn’t the only iTrip that Griffin plans to release, and that a smaller, buttonless, and screenless version may follow—hopefully at a commensurately lower price. The app may improve in the future, as well: software updates will surely continue, as a 1.0.7 release took place during the time we were testing the accessory, fixing bugs and changing the icon. Our hope is that a future update goes further, enabling international tuning, including 87.9FM, and redesigning the app’s menus to bolster its functionality rather than just repeating what’s already on the accessory’s screen. For now, the latest version for iTrip is a good accessory and a nice option for those who are still dependent on FM transmitters to make connections to their car stereos or other radios, but our feeling is that it only opens the door to more exciting developments yet to come. Whether Griffin fully capitalizes on the opportunities its new app offers remains to be seen.