We weren’t sure what to expect from Harman Kardon’s Drive + Play Car Kit ($199.99), but with an early production unit in hand, we’re generally liking what we’re seeing. As with most of the premium car kits we’ve looked at, Drive + Play gives you – actually, a professional installer – the tools necessary to connect your iPod directly into your car’s speakers, eliminating the noise and interference associated with FM transmitters and cassette adapters. But as the pictures suggest, it’s much more than that, too.
Designed to eliminate your need to fidget uncomfortably with your iPod in a car, Drive + Play includes its own backlit 128 x 64 pixel LCD screen, a highly attractive metallic control knob, and a breakout box that connects these devices to your iPod and car. The complete kit also includes extra cabling (for cigarette lighter or direct car power, and audio input), and an auxiliary input port to let you connect one non-iPod device with RCA-style left and right audio ports.
The most interesting part of Drive + Play is its screen. You mount this part in your field of vision, and use it instead of the iPod’s display.
The included iPod controller is a knob with five buttons and a blue glowing light. You mount this near your free hand, turn it like you’re touching a Click Wheel, and use the four silver buttons like the iPod’s menu, back, forward, and play/pause buttons. The center surface is also a button.
Those two parts are connected to this breakout box, along with a cigarette lighter adapter and a black cable that connects to your iPod. Additional ports on the box’s back are for audio out and an antenna; an auxiliary input’s on its side.
Once installed, the display is highly versatile. You can, for example, pick from two font sizes – either very readable. Regular has a four-line display. The Large font size gives you three lines of huge, thick characters, and you can enable line scrolling so that menus and song details aren’t abbreviated.
You can also invert the screen if you prefer the way that it looks. All menus and screens then have a black background with white text.
There are many additional settings, including ones for the yes, surprise – integrated FM transmitter. If you don’t want to have a professional installer connect the system directly into your car’s stereo system – an option that guarantees superb audio quality – you can tune the FM transmitter from 88.1 to 107.9FM. Remember the antenna port, above? That’s there so you can wire the transmitter in-line with your car’s antenna, so that you are guaranteed to really overwhelm any station you pick. One issue: the wire for this is sold separately. This mightn’t sound as good as a professional, direct connection, but in quick testing, the FM transmitter seems quite robust.
Used normally, the unit does a good job of replicating the iPod’s standard screens, pulling the details from your iPod while it’s connected. The screens aren’t quite as nice as they are on the iPod, but this is a significant visual step up from the confusing and otherwise challenging car integration solutions that many auto manufacturers have been developing.
Our only major potential issue with Drive + Play at the moment is practicality. In addition to the fact that we’re finding it difficult to mount in our primary test vehicle – a fact attributable almost entirely to the vehicle’s interior layout rather than Drive + Play – we aren’t 100% sure that a second screen and second controller are more useful than just mounting the iPod at a visible and generally hand-accessible level. We’ll be testing and mulling, and have more to say on the subject in our complete review. Click here for more information.