Review: Griffin Technology TuneFlex nano Auto Charger and Flexible Docking Cradle
Pros: An attractive black accessory that combines a car charger, gooseneck, and iPod nano cradle into a single component, providing charging, mounting, and audio-out. The lowest priced such option we’ve seen for iPod nano. Cradle is compatible with numerous bottom-mounting iPod accessories, including Griffin’s iTrip with Dock Connector, AirClick, and SmartDeck. Gooseneck and charger offer very good in-car stability; audio output from unit is especially good in cars with line-in ports.
Cons: Two-position audio output switch doesn’t attenuate properly for common cassette tape adapters, resulting in slightly distorted bass, like many (but not the best) in-car solutions we’ve tested. Not compatible with Griffin’s superior iTrip for iPod nano.
With the release of TEN Technology’s flexDock for iPod mini (iLounge rating: A-) one year ago, it was apparent that the gooseneck was the future of hybrid iPod car charging, mounting, and audio output solutions: the flexible metal pipe enables you to position your iPod on virtually any angle, at your preferred height from your car’s cigarette lighter port, which charges your iPod as you drive. Since then, other goosenecks have emerged - most notably TEN’s even better iPod-agnostic FlexibleDock (iLounge rating: A) - but none has been tailored to the iPod nano until now. Griffin Technology and XtremeMac have just released highly similar alternatives; XtremeMac’s MicroFlex Car (iLounge rating: B) is reviewed separately.
Like MicroFlex Car, TuneFlex (rebranded subsequently as TuneFlex nano, $40) combines three key components into a single car accessory: a nano-sized docking cradle, a gooseneck pipe, and a charger that plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter. In a coloring decision that will please many but not all iPod nano owners, each of these elements on TuneFlex is entirely black, save the charger bulb, which has dark gray grip dimples on its sides - a look that’s intended to match black nanos and dark car interiors, rather than white iPods. Griffin’s design of these components is otherwise generally sleek and thoughtful, yet only truly innovative because of one feature.
MicroFlex Car was designed to optionally hold XtremeMac’s AirPlay2 FM transmitter inside its specially-shaped shell, thereby adding FM transmission to the existing charger and mount in a piecemeal, but visually unified way. Griffin’s comparatively minimalist iPod dock instead hides a pass-through Dock Connector port on its bottom - a more universally compatible physical location and electronic part, which together duplicate the bottom side of most iPods. Consequently, this bottom connector lets you use Griffin’s iTrip with Dock Connector (iLounge rating: B-) if you want to add FM transmission to TuneFlex, just as AirPlay2 works with MicroFlex. We’re not big fans of either transmitter, but they’re both better than adequate. Griffin’s ace-in-the-hole is that TuneFlex can also attach to additional iPod accessories, such as the company’s AirClick wireless remote control or SmartDeck cassette adapter, as well as many others. They won’t match TuneFlex’s black coloration, but are electronically compatible, a bonus if you want to let someone in your back seat act as a DJ with a wireless remote control.
That’s one of two major points in TuneFlex’s favor. The other one is the location of Griffin’s audio output port, which (like TEN’s devices but unlike MicroFlex) sits at the front bottom of the charging bulb rather than on the side of the cradle, a decision which reduces cable clutter and just looks nicer. Griffin has also guaranteed that its blue power light will be easier to see, creating a glowing, always visible ring around the joint between the charger and the gooseneck. By contrast, MicroFlex Car’s smaller blue light flashes to let you know it’s charging the iPod’s battery, an indication which is a nice idea, but not as visually pleasant as a different solid-colored light would have been. Because you can easily see charging status on the nano’s screen, and because charging now works so predictably (and properly) on quality iPod car accessories, Griffin’s omission of a TuneFlex-mounted charging indicator is fine by us.
A minor but nice feature of TuneFlex is one that’s becoming increasingly common in iPod car accessories - an auto-pause mechanism that activates when your car turns off, preventing your iPod’s battery from draining on continuous playback if you leave it connected. MicroFlex Car doesn’t have this feature, but TEN’s FlexibleDock does. To Griffin and TEN’s credit, no matter how small the feature may be, you do become used to having it and miss its absence.
But TuneFlex also has some irritating issues. Throughout our testing of many iPod car audio solutions, we’ve found that the best designed accessories - like flexDock and FlexibleDock - use a two-position audio output switch to guarantee that the iPod’s strong Dock Connector audio output sounds right when connected to cassette tape adapters and the line-in audio ports found in newer cars. Griffin includes an audio output switch with “low” and “high” settings - unmarked on our boxed review unit - but they barely changed anything about the audio in our testing, a major contrast with the properly attenuated sound of TEN’s goosenecks. As a result, TuneFlex sounded great in our line-in-equipped test car, but distorted the bass in our tape adapter-equipped car. XtremeMac’s MicroFlex Car had the same problem, minus the switch, which as we noted in its separate review is more noticeable and annoying when you’ve heard the appropriate output level from a device like TEN’s.
It’s also worth mentioning that TuneFlex’s gooseneck isn’t quite as flexible as XtremeMac’s: you can generally change TuneFlex’s position without a problem, but the rubber-covered metal neck does nowhere near as good a job of preserving the precise angle you’ve selected. On a more positive note, we found TuneFlex as a whole to be very stable during actual driving - a little more so than MicroFlex - though as with all pipe-mounted car accessories, this will vary from vehicle to vehicle.
Finally, we have to mention one major bummer about TuneFlex’s FM transmitter compatibility. On one hand, Griffin’s optional combination of TuneFlex and iTrip with Dock Connector is considerably less expensive ($90) than doing the same thing with XtremeMac’s MicroFlex Car and AirPlay2 ($110), a fact which we generally appreciate. But unfortunately, Griffin’s decidedly superior, nano-specific version of iTrip (iLounge rating: A-) - the one we highly recommend to iPod nano owners - doesn’t work with TuneFlex at all. In other words, if you need both in-home and in-car FM transmission, you’ll have to step down to get the not-as-good iTrip that works with both devices, or buy both iTrips, which few people would be willing to consider. Once you’re spending $100 or so on an in-car integration system, there are better mounting and audio solutions - ones reviewed by us as “highly recommended” - that you should be considering.
In sum, TuneFlex looks nice and performs pretty well as a combination of car mount and charger, but it’s not ideal. As with MicroFlex Car and Belkin’s earlier TuneBase gooseneck mounts, it’s a better accessory for people with line-in ports than those who depend upon cassette adapters or FM transmission - a limitation that’s strictly the fault of the unit’s weak two-position audio switch and its optional use with the underwhelming iTrip with Dock Connector, though average users mightn’t mind as much. Other than its otherwise versatile pass-through Dock Connector port, a feature we’ve not seen on any competing product, TuneFlex’s major saving grace is its lower-than-average price. At $40, it is the least expensive gooseneck accessory we’ve seen that mounts, charges, and draws audio output from the bottom of your nano. Though we prefer TEN’s FlexibleDock as a similar, but more iPod- and vehicle-agnostic solution, TuneFlex offers a cheaper alternative with looks and features that may better suit some iPod nano owners, and is still a solidly recommendable option.