Review: Griffin Technology AutoPilot
There are iPod car chargers, which do nothing more than provide power to your iPod for $20-30, and then there are premium iPod car chargers, which add on one or two extra features as justifications for a higher price. As its price suggests, Griffin Technology's new AutoPilot ($50) is one of the premium chargers, differentiated from the masses by two features, both found on its black cigarette lighter power bulb. [Editor's Note: The company also plans to sell the AutoPilot charger with an integrated iTrip FM transmitter as iTrip AutoPilot for $100.]
The bulb is about the same size as most of the other ones out there, but its front has three buttons—one each for play/pause, track backwards, and track forwards—and a ring of light that glows to let you know how your iPod’s charging. Its top has a “hi/lo” switch, and its right has a 3.5mm minijack port that can be attached to an included black audio cable. If your car has an aux-in port, you flip the switch to “hi;” if you want to connect an optional, separately sold cassette adapter for use with an in-car cassette deck, you flip the switch to “lo.” As with Belkin’s Auto Kit for iPod and many subsequent accessories, this audio port lets you use a single Dock Connector cable for both iPod power and audio, a nice feature, and we had no complaints about the audio quality when the switch was set properly.
Griffin’s buttons are another story. They work just as expected, letting you skip through, stop, or start tracks, and the play/pause button lets you turn the iPod off, too, if you hold it down. But do you really need these buttons, given that they’re already sitting on the iPod itself? Griffin thinks that some people do. Cigarette lighter ports are often within arm’s reach in a car, so if your iPod’s not, you can always control the iPod from wherever AutoPilot has been mounted. The real utility, claims the company, is for the iPod touch, which doesn’t have such buttons: controlling it in a car always requires too many button presses. AutoPilot makes that comparatively easy.
We can’t claim that our own experiences with AutoPilot were convincing. Our tests in several cars found the cigarette lighter port located out of convenient reach in each vehicle; and certainly no closer than we could put the typical iPod itself if we wanted. Locating a remote control at the far end of a car charger, rather than near the steering wheel, or elsewhere wirelessly, may be convenient for the manufacturer, but you’ll have to decide whether it will work in your own car. To its credit, AutoPilot does indeed work with and simplify track changing on the iPod touch, assuming that you’re close enough to use the buttons.
From our perspective, AutoPilot is, like Griffin’s earlier SmartDeck, a nice alternative to the traditional remote control that will vary dramatically in utility from car to car. For many users, it will be nothing more than a charger with an audio-out port, priced $10 higher than Belkin’s similarly featured Auto Kit, but for others, it will add the either trivial or non-trivial convenience of simple button controls. If you’re an iPod touch owner with a nearby charging port in your car, consider it a good option; otherwise, you can do equally well with other options for less.