Though we’ve reviewed hundreds of iPhone-compatible accessories since last June, there has not been a complete, turnkey solution for in-car iPhone integration that average users can go out and purchase with ease. The reason is simple: though the iPhone is supposed to be Apple’s “best iPod ever,” it actually doesn’t work properly with many of the iPod’s best previous car accessories, and the iPhone accessory development process has proved unusually difficult for even the best engineers out there.
Today, the major problem is that there’s no single accessory that charges, mounts, and performs all audio from an iPhone, so unless you want to hand-hold your iPhone while you drive—which is against the law in many places—you can’t just connect one cable and expect to safely use both its music and phone features. This is largely due to Apple-imposed software limitations, but also certain technical hurdles developers need to overcome. So for now, in-car use of an iPhone requires a number of different parts, and we’ve created this Complete Guide to iPhone Car Integration to help you choose the ones that are best for your vehicle and personal needs.
The Budget Solution
What’s the least expensive way to integrate your iPhone into your car? Unless you’ve recently purchased a new car, it’s this one: the Budget Solution combination of an iPhone mount, a single cable that charges the iPhone and broadcasts its music to your FM radio, and a wired headset. This solution will cost you as little as $90—less if you shop aggressively—but can run up to $325 depending on the parts you select.
Let’s start with the car mount. Though you can conceivably toss the iPhone into your lap or a cupholder and skip this part entirely, we’ve found that having the iPhone’s touchscreen handy for dialing and music navigation is a must for safe in-car use. The mount shown here is the best we’ve tested to date, ProClip’s Padded Holder with Tilt Swivel for iPhone, which sells for $65 including the cost of the iPhone holder and a mount that’s made to fit your specific make, model, and year of car. This mount adjusts to your preferred angle, and can even be tilted to let your passenger control the phone or use Cover Flow mode. But many companies offer cheap mounts that use suction cups, vent mounts, or other inexpensive ways to attach your iPhone to your windshield or dashboard; some may not be legal where you live. Our accessory guide includes other iPhone and device-agnostic Car Mount options; one of the cheapest we’ve seen is Griffin’s iSqueez, which sells for $10, and is about to be updated with a new version.
Next, there’s the Car Charger, which is sold with or without an integrated FM Transmitter. This part is necessary to keep your iPhone’s battery juiced up on the road, and enable you to hear its audio through most car stereos. The FM transmitter broadcasts whatever music is playing on the iPhone onto a radio station of your choice, but again, it doesn’t do anything with phone call audio.
(If you’re lucky enough to have a car with a line-in/aux-in port on its stereo, you can skip the integrated FM transmitter portion and go with a simple $20 iPhone charger such as XtremeMac’s InCharge Auto or Griffin’s PowerJolt for iPod and iPhone (shown). You’ll also need to connect a $10-20 iPhone-to-car audio cable such as Belkin’s Mini-Stereo Link Cable or Monster’s iCable for Car (iPod/iPhone) to the iPhone’s headphone port for audio, then adjust the volume on both the iPhone and your car.)
So far, there are only two FM transmitter and charger combinations we know to be really iPhone-ready. Belkin’s new version of TuneCast Auto (shown) is set to be the first official “Works With iPhone” FM transmitter and car charger, and sells for $80. For the same price, Griffin’s iTrip Auto with SmartScan (shown) currently lacks the Works With iPhone certification, but still works with the iPhone anyway; a fully iPhone-shielded version is forthcoming early this year. Worth noting: though Apple’s iPhone certification program tries to prevent cell phone interference from junking up connected accessories, it can’t stop the same interference from leaking into your car’s stereo and speaker systems, so you may notice beeps mid-music no matter what you buy. That said, these cables, and others that are Works With iPhone certified, will do better than most at shielding out those noises.
The final piece in our budget solution is a wired iPhone headset. This is the least expensive way to take phone calls without holding the phone up to your head, or using speakerphone mode, which has its own issues. We call it a budget item because Apple includes one for free with every iPhone, called the iPhone Stereo Headset (shown) and sells replacements for $29, but there are now iPhone-specific options ranging up to $179, all reviewed here, notably including Etymotic’s hf2 and V-Moda’s Vibe Duo (shown).
The Obvious Solution
The next solution we look at here is called “Obvious” because it’s not the cheapest around, but is extremely common for users of Bluetooth cell phones such as the iPhone. It offers one advantage over the Budget Solution: phone calls come directly into your wireless earpiece without forcing you to keep a wire dangling down to the iPhone’s headphone port. But it also has two consequences: you really need to keep your Bluetooth headset and the iPhone charged.
We’ve reviewed a number of Bluetooth headsets for the iPhone over the last six months, including the $100 Plantronics Voyager 520 and $150 Discovery 665 shown here. They both do well both indoors and outdoors, though a noise-filtering headset such as Aliph’s Jawbone will sound the best to your callers if you’re in noisy environments such as a sportscar or older, less noise-dampened vehicle. Many other headsets we’ve reviewed can be found here.
Pairing a Bluetooth headset with your iPhone is relatively easy. You go into the Settings menu, pick General, then pick Bluetooth. Turn Bluetooth on, then follow the instructions that come with your headset to initiate Bluetooth pairing mode. The iPhone will generally discover the device instantly at that point, and require you to enter a PIN number found in the headset’s manual. Once that’s done, the devices are paired. If you’ve purchased a Bluetooth 2.0 headset, the iPhone will typically find it immediately when you turn both the headset and iPhone Bluetooth feature on; otherwise you may need to press a button on the headset to let the iPhone know it’s there. But both devices will drain battery power more quickly when Bluetooth is on and being used for calls, so look for a headset with a convenient included charger, and make sure whatever iPhone charger you’re using is guaranteed to fully power the iPhone when Bluetooth and phone features are being used. The picks we’ve mentioned above feature that guarantee; other chargers do not.
The Tape Deck Solution
The Tape Deck Solution is different from the Obvious Solution in two ways: your iPod is connecting to an in-car tape deck rather than the FM radio, and so you need to supply a cable and/or adapter that will work with the iPhone. This unwieldy connection of parts requires the most work to assemble, but will sound better than an FM transmitter cable in your car when you’re listening to music from your iPhone, and will still enable you to charge the iPhone and take calls wirelessly from a Bluetooth headset. The total cost of the tape adapter and iPhone adapter cable will be under $25.
Our top-rated adapters, Philips’ PH2050W, and Sony’s CPA-9C still sell for under $15 and are the best around, but neither has an iPhone-compatible headphone port plug. Monster’s iCarPlay Cassette Adapter has the right plug, but doesn’t sound as good. So you’ll need a headphone port adapter: we’d recommend ifrogz’ Fitz, which sells for $8.
The Optimal Solution
The biggest problem with the solutions above? They require you to connect a lot of cables and create a mess in the process. That’s why we’re excited about the Optimal Solution, which is cleaner, simpler, and offers the best phone calling experience, too. It replaces the Bluetooth and wired headset options with a relatively new type of car accessory that mounts on your car’s visor. And it uses a single bottom connection to charge the iPhone and output its music to your car stereo. The only issue? This solution can be expensive.
For the Optimal Solution, you’ll need the Bluetrek/Contour Design SurfaceSound Compact, which adds a Bluetooth 2.0-enabled microphone and flat panel NXT speaker combination to your car visor. Contour plans to sell it for $100, but stores are already showing a street price for the SurfaceSound Compact through Bluetrek of $65. In our testing, the system does a superb job of automatically connecting to the iPhone when both are turned on, screening out in-car noise while you’re driving, and enabling both you and your passenger to hear and talk with callers. Pairing works just like the Bluetooth headset instructions above, and SurfaceSound Compact runs for 15 hours of talk time—21 days on standby. It comes with a car charger and cable to let you recharge the battery when you’re on the go. Using SurfaceSound Compact makes the calling part of using an iPhone substantially better in your vehicle.
As “optimal” as the solution above may be, it’s not “ideal”—we’re still waiting for end-to-end, single-connection accessories that will enable most iPhone users to enjoy music, telephone calls, and charging without having to cobble together parts. For that to happen, Apple will need to give iPhone the power to wirelessly stream both phone calls and music through Bluetooth, or handle phone calls through its Dock Connector, or both. Until then, iPhone car integration will require most users to purchase each of the parts we’ve mentioned above separately, choosing the ones that are best-suited to their existing cars’ needs. We’re continuing to watch for better iPhone mounting, charging, and audio options, and of course, you’ll see them on iLounge as soon as they arrive.
Postscript: Closed Comments
On January 30, 2008, we closed all comments to this article based on repeated attempts at advertising, and posts of misleading information that will confuse readers. We re-emphasize here that—unfortunately—“iPod-compatible” car kits do not necessarily provide proper charging or AV connectivity for iPhones, and that Apple firmware changes have created tremendous uncertainty as to whether a given iPod accessory will or will not fully work with the iPhone at a certain point in time. Additionally, as noted on all of our comment pages, we expressly prohibit advertising in our comments.