Review: New Potato Technologies TuneLink Auto for iPad, iPhone + iPod touch
App-enhanced accessories are poised to become a really big deal in 2011, as the once arcane art of enabling electronic plug-ins to display controls on an iPod's screen has rapidly become mainstream, thanks to the releases of iOS 3 and 4 for iPod touches, iPhones, and iPads. Less than a year ago, New Potato Technologies jumped into the App Store with the first of what it calls "appcessories," the iOS-based universal remote control FLPR, followed by a simple iPod touch and iPhone slot machine called Jackpot Slots, so there's some precedent for the company's latest product: TuneLink Auto ($100), an app-assisted premium car accessory for iOS 4.0 or higher devices. TuneLink Auto is one of the most ambitious car kits we've yet seen for an Apple device, but it's also glitchy and expensive, so it's unclear as to whether most people will want to pay such a steep price for what it does.
The key piece of TuneLink Auto is a surprisingly unassuming black plastic bulb designed to work solely in a car’s cigarette lighter power ports. Plug it in and a blue light around its front surface will illuminate, ringing an auxiliary audio out port and a USB connector, neither of which actually needs to be filled with anything. When it’s used in fully wireless mode, TuneLink Auto can take music that’s being streamed over Bluetooth from your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad and rebroadcast it using an integrated FM transmitter to your car stereo. Alternately, an included 3.5mm cable lets it pump the wireless Bluetooth signal directly into the aux-in audio ports found in most recent cars. Then, if you attach the included USB to Dock Connector cable, you can simultaneously use TuneLink Auto and charge a connected iPod, iPhone, or iPad at full speed—yes, it has a 2.1-Amp charger just for the iPad. In other words, carry it alone or with cables, and it can work somehow in pretty much any car to let you hear music from your iOS 4 device.
It needs to be said at this point that New Potato’s approach with TuneLink Auto represents a 45-degree departure from iPod and iPhone car kits that were released before. In the past, wired connections weren’t just an option—they were mandatory. Pull the Dock Connector from the bottom of a device and your audio, charging, and app functionality completely disappear, only “partially disappearing” at the point when Apple released new versions of iOS to enable stereo Bluetooth streaming and limited wireless app interaction over Bluetooth. TuneLink Auto leverages Apple’s latest iOS additions in the most radical ways we’ve yet seen, not only continuing to stream audio and work as an FM transmitter controller without requiring any physical connection, but also automatically activating its own application whenever you return to your car, and starting music playback on its own. These are akin to the “wait, you can do that?” tricks that Griffin used to pull off in earlier versions of its iTrip FM transmitters, until Apple signaled its disapproval by stopping them from working in later iPods.
Most of New Potato’s mojo is found in a free application called TuneLink that can be downloaded from the App Store. TuneLink includes a dial-based tuner for the FM transmitter, complete with an automatic clear station database similar to the ones Griffin, Belkin, and others have drawn upon for their FM broadcasting devices, with saved favorites. It also has its own built-in version of the Music/iPod application found on iOS devices, enabling you to change tracks and built playlists without even leaving the app. While this integrated app adds very little to what Apple has already developed, it appears to be there as an interesting little hack: because there’s a music player built in, TuneLink can continue to run in the background.
What TuneLink does as a background application feels like black magic today, but a year or less from now, it may be commonplace—and hopefully, better executed. TuneLink’s settings menu includes three on-off switches called Auto Connect, Auto Play, and Auto Run App, which collectively enable your iOS device to instantly pair with TuneLink Auto as soon as you turn on your car, start music playback, and bring the app to the foreground without any special user interaction. While it’s easy to gloss over the last sentence when you’re just reading it, we need to emphasize that watching those things happen automatically for the first time was enough to make writing about them a little exciting—and surprisingly, somewhat off-putting. Whether New Potato pulled off these feats with Apple’s permission or purely on its own initiative, they alter the paradigm of accessory connection in a manner that is both mostly correct for the future of iOS devices and initially startling if you’re familiar with the way Apple’s handled accessory interactions in the past.
Previously, you didn’t even have an option to auto-load the app side of an accessory if you wanted to use the app every time you made a connection. TuneLink Auto not only does this instantly, but it all happens wirelessly, so the iPhone in your pocket can start playing music in your car and have its app open without even asking you. This and other app-linked accessories should be required to present you with at least a “auto-load: yes/no” dialogue box, if not a brief settings screen, to give you the choice to activate the app and features in the future without further consent. It would be even better to have more granular control over the feature, too. Instead, New Potato has wirelessly enabled so much here that everything just happens without much screwing around. The prompt to download the TuneLink app comes the first time you make a wireless connection; TuneLink similarly has a “share” feature that lets one iOS device in a car hand off TuneLink Auto control to another device running the same app—a novel use of multi-device Bluetooth pairing that can let kids and parents share a single car stereo. A year or two from now, this sort of in-car automated wireless interaction may be common, but right now, it feels progressive and occasionally almost revolutionary.
While TuneLink Auto’s sound quality isn’t up to the marketing promises on the company’s web site (“performance that will dazzle and delight even the most discriminating audiophile”), it’s good by contemporary FM transmitter standards. When Auto finds a fairly clear station, it broadcasts strongly enough to be almost suspiciously clear, with only modest pops and frequency compression serving as infrequent reminders that you’re not listening to a direct wired connection to your stereo. Stations with existing programming don’t fare as well—a problem that all transmitters deal with—and additional distortion can be introduced with an in-app volume control feature that has low, medium, and high output settings. if you’ve set the application’s volume to high, you can expect to hear obvious cramping of the highest and lowest frequencies. Using the app on low or medium volume, particularly with stereo separation turned off, provides a cleaner sonic experience.
Performance with the 3.5mm output is another story. Even if you connect the included USB cable, there’s no option to pull audio directly from an iOS device’s Dock Connector port—something that almost every serious iPod/iPhone/iPad car audio kit does as a first step rather than as an afterthought—so all of the iOS output is handled over Bluetooth. Consequently, audiophiles will almost certainly notice the frequency compression associated with stereo Bluetooth streaming, though it is more obvious when TuneLink Auto is using aux-in than with the FM transmitter. What you’re getting here is a compromise: the ease of instant-on wireless Bluetooth audio without the audio fidelity of wired Dock Connector output. It also needs to be mentioned that TuneLink Auto has no microphone functionality, so despite all of its other capabilities, it can’t handle incoming or outgoing iPhone telephone calls. We’re guessing that New Potato is brainstorming some ingenious way to handle this for a future sequel.
The dark side of the TuneLink app’s performance are a couple of things we hadn’t expected at all: lag and some really odd bugs. After running TuneLink on an iPhone 4 and exiting the application, we realized that it was continuing to run in the background so that it could constantly check for the accessory—something that appeared to be draining the battery, and certainly began to slow down the iPhone’s performance when doing things as simple as navigating between Home Screens. Since the iPhone 4 is no slouch from a hardware standpoint, we can only guess at the sort of speed issues that might be evident on older devices, and pray that whatever’s gumming up the works can be fixed in a software update. The other part was what appeared to be an iOS bug, but might have been a result of New Potato trying a hack: we kept getting an unusual “Cannot Use Accessory” error message even when TuneLink Auto wasn’t turned on or in range, telling us that “only one accessory can be used at a time” when we’d go to plug the iPhone into a charger or speaker dock. This suggested that the TuneLink application was somehow telling the iPhone that it was still connected to TuneLink Auto even when it wasn’t, possibly so that it could pull off its auto-loading trick. Only time will tell whether this is a bug that New Potato can fix, or a hack that Apple will see fit to disable in future iOS releases. It would benefit everyone if there was a way to make auto app-booting work without bugs, rather than just shutting it down.
For the time being, TuneLink Auto is a truly unique and occasionally very impressive car accessory for iPod touches, iPhones, and iPads—a next-generation version of a product that we’ve seen and reviewed many times before, executing on most of its features in ways that most people wouldn’t have expected. It surpasses common chargers by offering full iPad support, typical FM transmitters by offering app-assisted volume and sharing features, and past audio kits by operating in a completely wireless or semi-wired mode as you prefer. TuneLink Auto’s small size and ability to be used completely without cables makes it impressively pocketable, while the included wires expand its abilities to rival the features of past car kits. On the other hand, our editors agreed that it was not worthy of a general recommendation despite our admiration for what New Potato has accomplished here. The slowdowns, bugs, high price, and complete dependence on Bluetooth for audio input all detract from an otherwise impressive experience; the former two issues will annoy mainstream users and likely only be tolerable by some tech-savvy early adopters. If the kinks get worked out of TuneLink Auto and the price falls, it could quickly make New Potato into a surprisingly important player in the iOS car accessory market; if not, this inspired little accessory will just serve as a tantalizing glimpse at what the future of iPod, iPhone, and iPad car kits could and should be.