Review: Griffin Technology iTrip with Dock Connector for iPod (White/Black)
Pros: A portable FM transmitter that broadcasts iPod music to your stereo with comparatively low levels of static, with a great LCD screen. Consumes less battery power than most portable FM transmitters; includes a mini-USB port on its bottom to permit simultaneous use and charging - if you have a compatible USB charger. Now available in white and black versions.
Cons: Aesthetic design has taken a few steps down from top-mounting iTrip predecessor, including uneven mounting on iPod’s bottom, and new switch-based control is no longer as easy on the fingers or the eyes as the previous chrome dial. Hard to use with most existing car mounts, including Griffin’s own iSqueez, and won’t work with most iPod cases - an issue that’s not Griffin’s fault, but unavoidable. Price is disproportionate to its performance relative to both its predecessor, and non-FM transmitter options; comes close to price of combined FM transmitters and car chargers. Like other portable transmitters, is challenged and produces higher static levels when tuned to “tough” stations. Achieves greatest transmitting power when connected to home or car charging cable, which is not included.
Editor’s Note: Originally posted November 17, 2005, updated December 7, 2005 with iTrip Black section at bottom, and added “pro” above.
“Sloppy” is not a word we typically associate with Griffin Technology, which most frequently turns out iPod accessories that are polished, smart, and impressive. But like most other iPod accessory manufacturers, Griffin recently found itself forced to release new bottom-connecting versions of its old accessories, including its highly popular FM transmitter iTrip. Thus, only two months after the release of iTrip (with LCD) (iLounge rating: A/A-), we have iTrip with Dock Connector for iPod ($50), a highly unfortunate rarity - a step up in price and down in design quality from its highly-rated predecessor.
As a brief primer for new iTrip and iPod users, each past iTrip has been a mostly white plastic plug-in that mounts on top of an iPod, broadcasting its tracks to a selected station on any nearby FM radio. You pick the station on the iTrip, then set your radio to it, press play, and voila - you’re hearing iPod music. The downside: sound quality from any FM transmitter is not as high as with a cabled connection - largely because of static - but for people whose car stereos lack audio input ports or cassette tape decks that can interface with inexpensive iPod adapters, iTrip and competing FM transmitters have been the best available alternatives.
But the FM transmitter world was turned upside down with the September and October releases of iPod nano and the iPod 5G (with video). Apple removed the top-mounting accessory port from all iPods, requiring companies to create new accessories that connect only to the iPod’s bottom, a less convenient location for a number of reasons. These new accessories will generally work with all Dock Connecting iPods (3G-5G, mini and nano).
As a consequence, the iTrip has been transformed from a top-mounting tube to a bottom-mounting nub roughly the size of an old Griffin iTalk, and still mostly glossy white plastic, but with a matte gray stripe running through a hole in its back shell, a thicker chrome accent stripe around its outer edge, and a small light gray switch on its right side. In terms of functionality, the new version is virtually identical to its predecessor: you select the broadcasting FM station using a backlit LCD screen and a three-position controller on iTrip’s right side. Press up on the switch to tune upwards, down tunes downwards, and “in” selects a station.
Tuning is available across both US (88.1-107.9) and “International” (76.0-90.0) FM stations, and the unit defaults in International mode, allowing you to tune in frequently empty station 87.9FM - our preferred choice - without much effort. Again, by holding “in” the switch for a few seconds, you can toggle between DX (monaural) and LX (stereo) modes, the former with lower static and no stereo separation, the latter with more static but true stereo broadcasting.
While both modes work well, DX mode sounds better under most practical circumstances, and helps iTrip’s performance rival an in-car cassette adapter under the right conditions. As we noted in our earlier review, “iTrip does best when it’s close to a radio, handling good stations wonderfully and challenging stations better than its competitors. For portable purposes, we tested on 87.9FM, a station that’s empty almost everywhere in the United States, and even at a disance of fifteen feet found music on monaural mode to be completely audible with only light static. Stereo mode was a little better than the old iTrip, which is to say that static was still noticeable, but music dominated. Moving closer - as most users will - virtually eliminated the static. We also tested on a tougher local station (103.3FM) at a distance of 3 feet away, finding the comparative static level very low in monaural mode, and comparable to the old iTrip in stereo mode. During playback, audio sounded clean and full, possessing a good level of bass and as much detail as one can reasonable expect from a well-made FM transmitter.” While this is all good, the unit’s performance varies in cars - largely based on the location of the car’s antenna - and also when you try to use other, more crowded FM stations. You can enhance its performance by connecting a cable to your iPod, which acts as an added broadcasting antenna.
Full performance details, including the unit’s relatively low battery drain, are basically the same as those described in our earlier review. The only change is that you no longer have a need - or, some might say, ability - to adjust the iPod’s volume level with the new iTrip attached - the level is set and unchangeable when it comes out of the iPod’s bottom Dock Connector port. We strongly prefer this as-is, but people used to adjusting volume through the iPod rather than their car stereos might be surprised by the change.
So all of this is positive, right? Generally, yes. The new iTrip remains a capable performer on audio by portable FM transmitter standards. But there are other differences between models which conspire to make it far less than an ideal solution - the “sloppy” ones we noted at the start of the review. For starters, there’s the control switch on the right, which is not as easy to use nor as visually pleasing as the ratcheting chrome dial on the previous iTrip. Griffin got it right last time: the new switch is a pain to toggle in the car, and sometimes doesn’t sense channel selections as precisely as we’d prefer. It would be hard to overstate how much we’d like to see Griffin ditch this switch.
Then there’s the obvious fact that the iTrip mounts on an iPod’s bottom, and the not-as-obvious fact that it does so unevenly. In other words, you put iTrip on the bottom of an iPod and it sags rather than stays straight. Griffin tells us that not all of the shipping iTrips have this problem, but concedes that some of them - including our samples - do. It’s visualy unimpressive, and the first of what we expect will be a number of issues affecting cable-less Dock Connecting accessories for the new iPods in the months to come. Combined with the fact that you can’t prop your iPod up on its bottom edge - something that could be done with past iPods and minis with iTrip installed - and the fact that the new iTrip doesn’t match the thickness of current iPod models, this is a far less than optimally designed bottom-mounting accessory on aesthetics and convenience.
Griffin has anticipated one of the biggest potential problems, however, adding a mini-USB port to the bottom of every iTrip so that you needn’t sacrifice iPod charging while you’re using the FM transmitter. Unfortunately, at least as of the date of this review, iTrip doesn’t include a cable to let you take advantage of this feature. Griffin presumes you’ll use a USB car charger such as its PowerJolt, find a mini-USB to full-sized USB cable (not included with PowerJolt, either), and connect them if you want power. Using our own cable, we tested the iTrip with PowerJolt, as well as detachable-cable USB chargers from Capdase and SendStation. All three chargers worked without an incident, properly charging the attached iPod. Just bear in mind that this won’t work with any USB car charger that doesn’t use a detachable cable.
Worse yet, you may find that the iTrip doesn’t mount properly (or work as well) in most existing “universal” iPod car mounts, whether it’s Griffin’s iSqueez or Nyko’s Universal Car Mount. It did work without problems using ProClip’s Padded Adjustable Mount, our top mounting pick, but there are few other mounts that accommodate something that needs to connect to the iPod’s bottom port and hang off by an extra inch. This also creates problems with many iPod cases, which don’t have physical space to accommodate a peripheral that dangles in this way. Largely because of Apple’s decision to remove the top port, but also because of Griffin’s choice to build the new iTrip in this way, consumers are losing out relative to what they got only months ago.
We’re mixed on the new iTrip’s rear design, which now uses an external antenna wire, similar to the modestly covered part on the iPod mini-specific iTrip mini. Though we don’t recommend it, this wire can be pried loose of the case’s back to boost iTrip’s broadcasting performance by a factor of two or three times its norm - a violation of FCC regulations - and as with iTrip mini, some people will be thrilled by this fact alone. Others will find the look of the rear antenna a bit disappointing, and it’s clear from the sloppiness of its edges that it wasn’t a typical Griffin design choice.
Value and Conclusions
Last but certainly not least, there’s the issue of price. The MSRP on iTrip has creeped upwards over the last year, evolving from $35 to $40 to $50 in almost the blink of an eye - a fact which causes us great discomfort, as there are many simple FM transmitters available for lower prices. On this score, Griffin points to the fact that retailers such as Amazon are selling the past $40 iTrip for only $30, and suggests that this one will not universally be available for $50 - only at certain (prominent) retailers. As with most things, those who shop more aggressively will pay less, but the majority of buyers will see a $50 asking price - maybe more. If you’re thinking of buying this iTrip, we’d advise you to shop around.
But should you buy it at all? From what we’ve seen, it takes a really good FM transmitter to be worth more than twice the price of a cassette adapter ($20 or below), since the latter option will almost invariably sound better and be easier to use. True, some people won’t have the option of using a cassette adapter, and are therefore hostage to FM transmitters unless they’re willing to perform a more serious modification to their cars. Unless FM transmitter prices become more reasonable, we’d recommend that readers start using cabled connections wherever possible indoors, and look into either hybrid FM transmitters and auto chargers, or simple line-quality audio input solutions for their cars. The audio quality benefits will be considerable, and your dollars better spent.
This new iTrip is a pricey rush job, and by Griffin standards, not an especially impressive one - in our view, it would have been easier to swallow the design deficits at a lower price. If we were planning to use an FM transmitter only with the iPod nano, we’d hold off for the nano-specific version of iTrip that’s coming soon, which has every appearance of being better designed. For the 5G iPod, we’d recommend that car-only users look at excellent hybrid options such as Kensington’s Digital FM Transmitter and Auto Charger, and that those requiring a portable transmitter wait for either an improved revision of this iTrip, a new competitor, or consider equally less than ideal current solutions such as Belkin’s TuneCast II and Tekkeon’s myPowerFM. Since it may take time for the dust to settle before a really excellent wireless solution for 5G iPods and nanos comes out, we’d recommend you invest in higher-quality wired solutions first.
Following in the tradition of its earlier LCD-less iTrip, Griffin has produced a special black version of iTrip with Dock Connector to match the bodies of black fifth-generation iPods and nanos. The company has also straightened the Dock Connector plugs on its latest revision of iTrip; otherwise, the units are functionally the same as the ones we reviewed in November, and priced the same as well.