Review: Griffin SmartDeck Intelligent Cassette Adapter for iPod (Headphone/Dock Connector Versions)
Pros: An innovative iPod-to-car stereo cassette adapter that’s capable of track forwarding, reversing, searching, pausing and stopping with compatible stereos, as well as starting or stopping your iPod automatically when the tape player turns on and off. Unlike competing products that connect to iPod’s headphone port, both versions find optimal iPod audio-out level without user intervention. Both versions provide better-than-FM transmitter audio quality.
Cons: Performance of features will vary from car stereo to car stereo, and merits local purchase and testing. Because the original version requires an iPod’s extended headphone port, cannot be connected to devices such as Belkin’s Auto Kit, SiK’s imp, or TEN’s flexDock/flexibleDock series to use cleaner bottom-of-iPod audio output. Because the Dock Connector version uses the iPod’s bottom port, but lacks a pass-through port, you can’t recharge your iPod and use SmartDeck at the same time. Both are sold at higher price than top competing option from Sony, which though less fully featured is more universally compatible with iPods and other accessories.
Editor’s Note: Originally posted September 29, 2005, updated December 7, 2005 with SmartDeck Dock Connector Version section at bottom, and new Pros and Cons at top.
Back in January of this year, Griffin Technology dropped a bomb on the in-car iPod accessories market: it was developing an alternative to the standard cassette tape adapter. This was surprising because cassette tape adapters had nearly become commodities: Sony had already developed the CPA-9C (iLounge rating: B+), the cleanest-sounding, sub-$20 way to connect any portable audio device to a car stereo tape deck, and competing alternatives were essentially just noisier and/or cheaper derivatives. Prices for all of these adapters were all in the same $10-$25 range, though careful shopping could yield even the top-flight CPA-9C for $10.
Having acknowledged the CPA-9C as its best-sounding competitor, Griffin has touted SmartDeck ($29.99) as an “Intelligent Cassette Adapter for iPod” - the first tape adapter to go beyond Sony’s offering in features. Improved visually in design since it was first shown, the shipping version of SmartDeck is a white and silver cassette tape with a switch on its top and a white cable dangling from its side. You plug SmartDeck into the tape deck of your car’s stereo, then into your iPod or iPod mini’s top extended headphone port. Once done, you can listen to your iPod through your car stereo, and use certain of its buttons to control your iPod.
SmartDeck operates in two ways. Position its top switch in “Skip” mode, and hitting your car’s rewind or fast forward buttons will go forwards a track or backwards a track. Move the switch to “Seek” mode, and hitting the buttons will move forwards or backwards within a track. Going forward to the end of the track will move to the next track, but going backwards will stop at the track’s beginning. Unless your library includes many extended tracks, such as classical recordings, extended audiobooks or podcasts, or the like, you’ll probably want to keep SmartDeck in “Skip” mode.
In addition, SmartDeck has a few other neat features. If your car’s cassette deck has a play button - rare these days - it will let you pause the iPod. It also uses technology first found in the company’s LCD-equipped iTrip to automatically adjust your iPod to the optimum sound output level for in-car listening. Turn your iPod’s volume up to the maximum and SmartDeck will automatically bring it down to a level with minimal distortion. And it also starts and pauses iPod playback automatically when your cassette deck (or car) turns on and off, a great little touch that makes an iPod with SmartDeck function like a much more expensive in-car installation.
On another positive note, we compared SmartDeck’s audio quality against the benchmark CPA-9C, and found that it sounded just as good: both units had a comparatively low base level of noise, superior to the noise levels of virtually every FM transmitter we’ve tested, one of the main reasons we’ve long recommended tape adapters as a better option than FM transmission for anyone who can use them.
The biggest problem we had with SmartDeck had a simple consequence but a complex cause: skipping back a track worked unpredictably. According to SmartDeck’s manual, you can hit the rewind button at any time within the first 5 seconds of a track, and you’ll go back one track. But in our testing, and as we confirmed with Griffin, this is a typo: the number is closer to 3 seconds, not 5. Just as when you’re using the iPod’s built-in controls, hitting the rewind button in the fourth or fifth second will just bring you back to the beginning of the track.
Technically, even hitting it in the third second (when the iPod’s screen reads 0:03) won’t work: just as with the iPod, you’ll need to start rewinding in the fraction of a second before the third second has started. In some cars, and especially ones with separate steering wheel controls, this will be a problem, as button presses may not be registered by the car quickly enough to start the rewind process going within the time limit. The same button press speed issue makes track scrubbing less worthwhile of a feature than it could be - you’ll need to have a pretty responsive tape deck to move predictably anywhere within a track, sort of like with now antiquated cassettes.
Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that SmartDeck is unlike all of the other cassette adapters that we’ve tested in that it cannot physically be used with other car accessories such as Belkin’s Auto Kit, SiK’s imp, TEN Technology’s flexDock, or others to pull line-quality audio from the iPod’s bottom; it requires the iPod’s extended headphone port to control the iPod’s features. Since the iPod nano lacks this port, the current SmartDeck won’t work with it at all - it works properly with 4G/color/photo and mini iPods. For that reason, Griffin plans to hurry out an updated version by mid-October that will connect to nano’s Dock Connector and headphone port instead. Another update after that - date yet to be determined - will let nano (and other iPod) users simultaneously charge their iPods and hear output from SmartDeck.
We were unsure how to appropriately rate the current version of SmartDeck, because its benefits and limitations are going to be question marks for different users, depending at least as much on one’s car as on one’s expectations. If your car’s stereo has a play/pause button, plus responsive forward and backward track buttons, as well a good way to let you access all of them while you’re driving, you’ll like SmartDeck’s added iPod control functionality. But if not, you’ll find SmartDeck to offer little more than Sony’s CPA-9C - mostly just auto-on and auto-off functionality for your iPod, plus track forwarding, both at the cost of needing to plug something in to the top of your iPod every time you drive - and without the option to connect SmartDeck to Belkin, SiK, TEN, or other bottom-mounting accessories for convenience or audio quality. We think of the two options as roughly comparable, though some people will find one or the other markedly better for their needs. You’ll need to decide for yourself whether SmartDeck merits its price premium, and we’d advise that you purchase it from a reputable local retailer so that you can test its fitness for your own situation.
SmartDeck Dock Connector Version
Back in September when we reviewed SmartDeck, it wasn’t yet obvious that Apple was preparing to entirely drop the extended headphone port connector found on every iPod from 3G to mini and 4G. But by early October, it was obvious that neither the nano nor 5G iPod would work with SmartDeck, and Griffin rushed to get a new version to market. Now we have SmartDeck Intelligent Cassette Adapter for all Dockable iPods ($30), which has just arrived in Apple Stores.
As its name suggests, the new SmartDeck connects to an iPod’s bottom Dock Connector port, which has one small benefit and one negative consequence. Now there’s no need to adjust the iPod’s volume to an optimal level, because SmartDeck always gets the “right” level from the iPod’s bottom. But filling the Dock Connector port with SmartDeck now entails a compromise: unlike iTrip with Dock Connector, there’s no pass-through port for a car charger on its body, so you can’t use SmartDeck and recharge your iPod at the same time. Because every other cassette adapter we’ve tested connects to the iPod’s headphone port, this isn’t an issue with any of them.
On the bright side, the new SmartDeck otherwise works as well as its predecessor. It automatically turns your iPod on and off with your car, and if your car stereo has responsive controls, you’ll be able to skip or seek through tracks as advertised. If you’re willing to give up car charging (or in the case of TEN Technology’s flexibleDock and its competitors, both charging and mounting) through your iPod’s Dock Connector - the only reason for its slightly lower-than-predecessor rating - you’ll find that SmartDeck is a much better alternative to using any FM transmitter on the market.