Review: Griffin Navigate In-Line Controller and FM Radio for iPod and iPhone
For years, Griffin Technology was unquestionably the iPod's most innovative accessory developer, churning out add-ons that regularly redefined what Apple's devices were capable of, and occasionally bypassing Apple's hardware limitations in the process. One of its best add-ons was iFM, the first portable FM radio tuner for iPods, which doubled as an in-line remote control that could be used to change tracks, volume, and play/pause status without using the iPod's integrated controls. Apple subsequently rewarded Griffin's engineering feat by releasing new iPods that lacked the accessory port iFM used, and included new radio tuning software that only Apple's competing accessory, the iPod Radio Remote, was allowed to use. Consequently, iFM all but faded away.
Now iFM is back in two much-improved new forms, one hardware, and one software. [Editor’s Note: Important information has been added to the end of this review.] Griffin’s Navigate ($60) is the spiritual successor to the old iFM hardware, featuring an updated black and silver enclosure with a prominent new feature: a bright, highly readable OLED screen capable of displaying two lines of text and icons. With this addition, Navigate simultaneously serves as an FM radio tuner and a display remote control, letting users switch between navigating radio stations or their pocketed iPod/iPhone’s audio library without looking at its screen. Six buttons are positioned in an oval shape between Navigate’s display and its outer chrome bezel, with large Play/Pause and Mode buttons taking double-sized left and right spots, while smaller volume and track buttons sit above and below the screen. As with iFM, a shirt clip is found on the accessory’s back so that it can be worn around like a somewhat oversized second-generation iPod shuffle, and a hold switch is on the side to avoid accidental button presses.
As a display remote for the iPod or iPhone, Navigate does a pretty good job. It only takes a minute to figure out its track-selecting and browsing mechanism—hit Mode, click it again until you highlight playlists, artists, or albums, then hit track forward to move through options, then hit play to select one—and though we noticed infrequent, very small hiccups, we were impressed by how near-instantaneously it connected to both iPods and iPhones, and how quickly it was able to browse their libraries. Make no mistake: Navigate handles these tasks better than any display remote we’ve previously tested, a major quality-of-life upgrade for those familiar with earlier remotes such as Logic3’s 2006 offering.
On the flip side, in part because it connects to the iPod or iPhone through the bottom Dock Connector, and needs to manually attenuate the iPod or iPhone’s line-level audio, we noticed a couple of issues that could have been addressed better by the Navigate hardware. First, Navigate creates some white noise in the audio signal that’s noticeable even when connecting Apple’s stock earphones. Apple’s iPod Radio Remote does the same thing, but Navigate’s noise level is surprisingly higher, the only serious disappointment in this accessory’s design. Second, making a volume adjustment to Navigate works with its own headphone port, but does not result in a corresponding change to the headphone port of the connected iPod or iPhone; this volume level setting can be lost when Navigate is disconnected. Both of these issues can be worked around by connecting your headphones directly to the iPod or iPhone rather than the remote, but this shouldn’t be necessary.
Navigate’s FM radio tuner is very similar to the one in Apple’s iPod Radio Remote: though the clarity of station reception remains dependent on your location, improving as you head outdoors or closer to radio towers, we found that it generally brought in stations with a low base level of static, quite like Apple’s. Griffin’s audio is slightly more bass-biased relative to Apple’s; the iPod Radio Remote sounded a hint crisper but also occasionally sizzles on the high end. The differences between the two tuners were so modest that some users would never notice them, but in both cases, users should expect to hear a little, generally unobjectionable static when tuning FM stations indoors, and audio that’s generally very listenable. Notably, Navigate’s radio tuner successfully filters out EDGE and 3G audio interference generated by the iPhone and iPhone 3G; you may hear parts of the radio signal fade a little, briefly, but you won’t hear EDGE-related TDMA screeching.
Whereas RDS radio station text appears on an iPod’s screen with the Apple remote, it instead appears on Navigate’s own display; interestingly, text appeared for some stations on Navigate but not on the iPod Radio Remote. Another positive for Navigate is that it works with both the iPod touch or the iPhone, while the iPod Radio Remote does not; it remains to be seen whether Apple will change this with future iPod touch or iPhone software and hardware tweaks. On the flip side, the Navigate hardware includes only four FM presets versus the unlimited number of presets offered by Apple’s integrated iPod nano and iPod classic radio software; both accessories let you scan forward or backwards on the dial by quickly holding down the track forward or backward button.
Navigate is poised to jump further ahead of the iPod Radio Remote in the very near future.* Griffin has developed and submitted to Apple a free App Store program called iFM that’s designed to add additional software functionality to Navigate, including the ability to browse local radio stations on the iPod touch or iPhone screen, as well as purchase currently playing radio tracks directly from the iTunes Store. Since iFM isn’t included with Navigate and hasn’t been released yet into the App Store, we rate the hardware separately from the software, but it’s worth noting that Griffin plans to make Navigate even more capable than it already is. Hopefully Apple will help this time rather than standing in the way.
Overall, Navigate is a very good accessory—the first completely iPhone-compatible portable FM radio tuner, and the best iPod display remote we’ve yet seen. Though its passed-through iPod audio is less than perfectly clear, a factor that cost it a higher rating, it otherwise performs quite well, and stands a strong chance of becoming even more impressive when used with the upcoming iFM software. Current-generation iPod and iPhone owners seeking either FM or display remote functionality will find Navigate to be a solid pick.
Updated April 28, 2009: Following publication of our review, Griffin disclosed that its iFM application will work only with Navigate units that shipped with firmware version 1.08 or later. Notably, its first shipment of Navigate units—no longer in stores, says the company—arrived with earlier, incompatible firmware. Griffin says that its “tech support will automatically replace an older firmware unit if a customer calls and requests one for use with iFM;” a link is provided here.