Review: Griffin Technology iTrip FM Transmitter for iPod nano
Pros: A strong, fully portable FM transmitter for the iPod nano, boasting relatively low static levels and strong audio quality on empty FM stations. The first FM transmitter to use the iPod’s screen for tuning without the need for additional software or user hassles. With a lower level of iPod nano battery drain than competing alternatives, it provides wireless broadcasting to U.S. and international radio stations, your choice between higher-quality monaural or lower-quality stereo broadcasting, and automatically saved alternate stations. Enclosure presents comparatively little risk of Dock Connector damage, and includes nice carrying case.
Cons: Design doubles thickness of iPod nano; preset functionality is limited by comparison with some competing options; struggles to overwhelm stations already populated by radio programming. Side switch isn’t as easy to use as three buttons would have been.
Two weeks ago, we posted a special edition of First Looks on Griffin Technology’s new iTrip FM Transmitter for iPod nano ($50), with photographs and extensive details based on a near-final prototype. Now that we’ve received a final packaged unit, we’ve transformed our original article into a final review with battery life and FM performance conclusions, plus a few new details on software and pack-in changes. Read on for the full story on one of the best iPod nano accessories yet developed.
Updated March 26, 2007: In late March, 2007, Griffin released an updated version of iTrip for iPod nano specifically designed for the second-generation, aluminum-bodied iPod nano. One picture of the new model is shown above. Differences between this version and its predecessor are noted at the end of this review.
Whenever Apple introduces a new iPod, accessory makers face three obvious challenges: physical, electronic, and practical. How do you make an FM transmitter that fits something as small as the iPod nano, especially when there’s no place to plug it in on the top? How do you make sure that it actually works, given that its antenna may be blocked by the nano’s partially metal body, and that the nano’s battery is so small? And how can you tune its stations on the go?
Though it stumbled with its recent iPod-agnostic iTrip with Dock Connector (iLounge rating: B-), Griffin thankfully has really good answers to each of these questions for its iPod nano-specific design. As with all of the prior iTrips, of which there are now many, this new add-on provides a practical way to broadcast your iPod’s audio to a radio, eliminating the need to connect wires to your car or home stereo. It is also the first transmitter to allow station tuning on an iPod’s screen without any special software, as shown in the photos below.
Griffin’s physical design for the nano version of iTrip is smart in a measured way: while not perfect, it’s more practical than any of the current FM transmitter alternatives that hang awkwardly off the nano’s bottom. It is built as a ‘sled’ that the nano slides into, doubling its thickness but adding comparatively little to its bottom, and nothing to its top or sides. The sled holds nano in place with what looks like an adhesive sticker, but isn’t - it’s a new micro suction cup pad that could easily be mistaken for white 3M tape. This pad lets you attach and detach your nano without leaving any adhesive residue, and better yet, Griffin claims that the pad will never wear out; you clean it with scotch tape if it ever loses suction power, and it’s as good as new. It’s shown here with a protective sticker on; you peel it off to reveal an all-white surface.
It’s hard to quantify how much better this sled works than earlier FM transmitters such as Griffin’s prior iTrip with Dock Connector and XtremeMac’s AirPlay2, which constantly feel as if they’re going to snap on the iPod’s bottom if the wrong pressure is applied. iTrip nano feels solidly bound to the iPod, and even gives the nano the ability to stand up on its bottom edge. An antenna is mounted on the back bottom, letting tinkerers have easy access to a way to boost broadcasting power - something we don’t recommend, as it violates FCC regulations to do so.
If you’re willing to mount or lay the nano on its back, a mini USB port at the bottom lets you charge the iPod at the same time as the iTrip is connected. A small red light on the bottom left corner is the only power indicator, and a three-position switch on the unit’s upper left is the only control system you’ll need.
What’s wrong with the design? Putting aside the unit’s thickness, which we believe is a necessary evil, there are only two things we can think of, and neither one’s a show-stopper. First, we’re not affirmatively fond of the three-position controller, which would have worked better as three small buttons in this design, roughly paralleling the company’s recently released iTrip Auto (iLounge rating: B+). We still think that the chrome dial used on the top-mounting iTrip (LCD) was the company’s best tuner yet, and this switch isn’t as easy to use. It’s worth noting, however, that Griffin made some last-minute usability tweaks to the final version of iTrip for iPod nano that improved the switch’s responsiveness, so it’s more than acceptable, and better than it could have been.
Second, there’s no way to use a standard iPod nano case while the iTrip’s attached. Thankfully, Griffin has addressed this concern by including a nice gray microfiber bag, which holds the nano and iTrip together, protecting both from scratches and possible separation. The bag uses a drawstring and two black, spring-loaded clasps to stay closed when the nano’s inside. Therefore, while you can use protective solutions such as Power Support’s Crystal Film or InvisibleShield for iPod nano instead, they’re no longer necessary thanks to the included bag.
The biggest stroke of genius in the new iTrip is the one you can’t see on its body: Griffin has long obsessed over simple, smart radio tuning, and has taken that to the next level here. Prior to mid-2005, iTrips always forced you to install a playlist full of tuning tracks if you wanted to change stations, a solution that worked pretty well until “shuffle songs” and better options became popular. When XtremeMac released AirPlay with an integrated LCD screen, that became the obvious best way to go… until now.
Since Apple has not included FM transmitter menus on an iPod, Griffin figured out a way to achieve the same effect: briefly convince the nano that it’s in the extended docking mode used in iPod docks and high-end car kits, and display menus as graphics on the “Do Not Disconnect” screen. No second screen is needed; the iPod’s brightly lit LCD handles all the work.
You trigger this screen with the iTrip’s side switch, interrupting whatever the iPod is doing at a given moment to tell the attached transmitter what to do. The first thing that pops up is a station tuning screen with large, easy to read numbers. You can change FM stations by pressing the switch up or down, then select a station by pressing the switch inwards.
Multiple inwards presses cycle through a collection of menu choices: rather than presets, the three last stations tuned are automatically saved by iTrip, and can be scrolled through on the second screen. We’ve actually found that we like this idea quite a bit, though some will find it less preferable to standard preset-saving options, particularly when they’re doing their initial searches for “good” stations and find that the iTrip’s first automatic list contains a bunch of useless channels. Those who need standard presets may prefer XtremeMac’s AirPlay2 (iLounge rating: B), which is nano-compatible and includes three preset options.
Then there’s the Mono or Stereo mode screen, where you select between the iTrip’s wisely renamed LX and DX modes. Mono mode does away with stereo separation but lowers the noise/static floor. Stereo mode provides left and right channel audio, but with more noise.
Next, there’s a three-option menu, which lets you select between EQ, AutoP, and US/Intl.
EQ lets you turn a single predefined equalizer on or off, a feature similar to the one found in the latest version of iFM.
AutoP is AutoPlay, which sets iTrip to start playing automatically when you leave the menuing system. This is done because the iPod is paused automatically when you enter the menuing system - something that some users mightn’t like, but appears to be necessary because of the way iTrip’s menuing system works.
The US/Intl menu lets you choose between US, European, and Japanese FM radio frequencies, just like prior iTrips. What’s new: 87.9FM is now included in the US frequencies, as it is with iTrip Auto. Consequently, there’s almost no need for a U.S.-based user to switch into the international modes any more.
Penultimately, there’s a Griffin ID screen with a display of the current iTrip revision number - the first we’ve seen on a portable accessory, and a welcome feature. Now if only these version number labels were found on the products and their packages.
In a first for iPod accessories - at least, that we’re aware of - iTrip for iPod nano actually includes an easter egg screen, our final picture above. If you get to the Griffin ID screen and hold the switch inwards for several seconds, a list of credits appears, naming Griffin’s iTrip team.
Design aside, the critical question for any FM transmitter is its real-world performance - how does it actually sound when it tries to overwhelm empty or partially used radio stations, and how much battery power does it consume in the process? Compared with other options we’ve tested, iTrip for iPod nano is a very good performer on both of these criteria, and like some earlier iTrips, there are ways you can further improve its sound quality.
As with all FM transmitters we review, we insert the following caveat up front: there is no such thing as a static-free FM transmitter. The only way to create a noise-free connection between the iPod and your speakers is to run a wire directly between them without interruption, and any alternative will create some base level of noise. When choosing a FM transmitter, then, the realistic aim is thus low noise, rather than no noise.
We tested the nano iTrip on our standard test stations, 87.9FM and 103.3FM, both indoors and in a car. On static levels, its performance was highly similar to the generally impressive top-mounting iTrip with LCD screen for earlier iPods, which is to say there was very little static when it was turned to Mono mode - amongst the lowest levels we’ve heard from any iPod FM transmitter - but a fair bit more when it was turned to Stereo mode. Most people will prefer to keep the iTrip in mono mode for this reason.
More importantly, however, Griffin has made some interesting tweaks to improve the accuracy of the sound that comes off of your iPod, and the results are impressive: as with iTrip Auto, iTrip for iPod nano now rivals Kensington’s Digital FM Transmitter and Auto Charger in overall sound balance, with a stronger, more dynamic signal that has a little more bass than Kensington’s, at the expense of a little treble. When the static level is low, we’d characterize the iTrip’s sound balance as excellent overall.
As with iTrip with LCD, there’s also a simple trick to help ensure that the static level is as low as possible. Other than playing with iTrip’s rear antenna, which we again wouldn’t recommend, you can connect a USB cable - such as a car charger - to the device’s bottom, which immediately results in a significant signal boost. With and without the cable attached, our static and FM levels at various distances were virtually the same as the results posted in our previous FM Transmitter Shootout table, which is to say very low on a non-challenging station such as 87.9, but moderate and disruptive on challenging stations such as 103.3FM. iTrip for iPod nano’s performance is therefore in line with the best portable FM transmitters we’ve tested on static level.
One last factor worth noting is the unit’s battery drain. Given that most of the portable FM transmitters we’ve tested use the iPod’s battery rather than their own, and especially given that iPods (and their batteries) have been shrinking, we’ve been following battery drain more closely in recent months than before. Previously, we’ve noted that XtremeMac’s AirPlay2 delivered only four hours and 20 minutes of continuous playback when attached to a fully-charged iPod nano, which isn’t great. By comparison, iTrip for iPod nano ran for slightly over and slightly under six hours in two tests we ran - a marked improvement over AirPlay2 - and we expect that most users will see performance closer to the over six hour mark.
Value and Conclusions
Overall, there is a lot to like about iTrip for iPod nano: in so many ways, its physical design makes practical sense for nano users, and its tuning system is both highly readable and generally very easy to use. Though we remain less than thrilled that it sells for $50 - an increase over the price of last year’s iTrip mini, as just one example - it’s still cheaper by $10 than AirPlay2 even if you don’t shop around, comes with a good carrying case, and represents the biggest iPod FM transmitter interface breakthrough we’ve seen since the original iTrip. We were also seriously impressed by the balance and quality of its sound - a nice jump over last year’s iTrips, for certain. For all of these reasons, it merits our high recommendation, and is the best iPod nano FM transmitter available today.
That said, there are ways (other than price) in which iTrip for iPod nano could improve further. Though users throughout most of the United States (and, for that matter, the world) will easily find empty stations that it will overwhelm with clean, powerful audio, regions with congested radio stations could benefit from even stronger FM performance on challenging stations. To this end, the benefits of attaching a mini USB cable to iTrip - even without a car charger at the other end - are so considerable that one could come in every unit’s box, but even then, iTrip can’t totally unseat an existing radio signal. Few transmitters can. And of course, some users may also gripe that the new iTrip could be be thinner or smaller. In our judgment, however, the nano has demanded some serious engineering tricks and compromises, and Griffin’s done almost as good a job of possible of addressing them with this product. We look forward to seeing someone do better, but expect that it won’t happen for quite some time.
iTrip for the Second-Generation iPod nano
The March, 2007 update to iTrip for iPod nano is described by Griffin as almost entirely cosmetic, with slight changes in shape and movement of the built-in headphone plug to accommodate the second-generation iPod nano. This new version preserves the red broadcasting light and three-way controller of its predecessor, as well as the pass-through USB port at the bottom, and still comes with a cloth carrying case.
What’s new is the omission of the adhesive pad found in the first iTrip - the new design doesn’t need the pad for stability - and an updated version of the iTrip firmware. Version 1.3 eliminates Japan as an option in the International settings menu.