For years, Griffin’s original iTrip portable FM transmitter designs for iPods and iPod minis reigned supreme, with smart aesthetic design touches that appealed strongly to early iPod adopters. Users chose an FM station through the iPod’s screen, using a special playlist full of different channels. Once the station was selected, the iPod’s music played through nearby car and home stereos without any need for wires.

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In January, accessory maker XtremeMac threw down a gauntlet, and marketed its newer AirPlay as an iTrip killer. AirPlay featured a smaller-than-iTrip (if not as attractive) profile that fit neatly on top of any iPod or iPod mini, and an integrated, backlit LCD screen of its own that made it even easier to tune channels.

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Now Griffin is coming out swinging with a replacement for the iTrip that’s designed to leapfrog the AirPlay. With the same attractive, compact profile of the company’s prior all-white tube design, there’s now a large backlit LCD screen on the front left, and a ratcheting chrome dial on the right. Our pre-production preview unit is missing only one visual element – the iTripLCD name will appear on its front between the screen and dial.

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iTripLCD’s dial feels good in your hand, turning decisively from channel to channel because of its ratcheting design. It can also be pressed inwards to serve as a button. One press selects a channel you’ve found, and holding the button down activates two hidden features. When held down for two seconds, the button toggles between LX and DX broadcasting modes, one monaural with a promised noise level even lower than cassette tape adapters, and one stereo with a promised noise level comparable to cassette tape adapters.

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Held down for five seconds, the button toggles between US and INTL (international) tuning modes, offering an expanded range of FM frequencies to tune with. Between the two modes, iTripLCD is capable of tuning all the way down to 76.0FM in .1 increments.

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Our prototype unit’s LCD screen is clear, well backlit, and very impressive overall. We’re going to hold off on judging its FM performance until we receive a final, reviewable unit, but will say that under the right circumstances, the prototype does in fact compare favorably to a cassette adapter in overall sound quality. However, we’re going to have to wait to see whether those circumstances will be practically achievable under typical use and testing conditions.

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There’s one other interesting feature built-in, too. Turn the volume all the way up and the iTripLCD will automatically lower it to an optimal level for low-distortion FM broadcasting – a nice touch. Griffin says that the new iTrip is due out in August, 2005 at a price around $40. We’re looking forward to testing a final, reviewable unit.