The Complete Guide to iPhone Car Integration

The Complete Guide to iPhone Car Integration 1

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.

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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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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 V-Moda’s Vibe Duo (shown).

The Obvious Solution

 

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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.

 

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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

 

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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

 

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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.

 

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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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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  1. I replaced the factory head unit in my ’97 S-class Mercedes with a Sony unit I bought from Crutchfield for $200.00.
    It came with a mic, but I was able to use the built-in mic in my car.
    It has bluetooth and a USB port, so I can use either bluetooth streaming for music and calls, or I can plug the iPhone dock connector into the USB port for best quality music, and the phone works great.
    For short trips and commuting, I use bluetooth streaming, for long trips I use the USB port which also charges the iPhone. I can leave the iPhone in my pocket when I get in the car, when I start the car, the Sony head unit finds the iPhone, and all calls are automatically received through my car’s speakers. I simply have to press one button to answer calls, music or radio stops until the call is done, then automatically starts. I rarely make calls when I drive but it’s easy enough to keep the phone in one of the reachable compartments in the car.
    So my solution was to simply replace the head unit, total cost was $200.00 and it works great.

  2. Hello, I have a Monsoon radio in a 2001 VW Beetle with a tape deck. What can I do to get the correct car kit for my car… Would love connect and play through the stereo and have a remote control so that I don’t have to pick up the phone to dial or change the songs on my iPhone 3G. Thanks for the suggestions in advance.

  3. I experimented with the Monster Sonitalk after reading post 46. I purchased a 20ft 4-conductor 3.5mm extension cable from MCM Electronics to extend the reach of the Sonitalk mic, and also bought a long male/male stereo extension to get the output back to the aux jack in my car. The sound output was really great, as was the function of the Sonitalk’s button, which stops and resumes music, in addition to answering and hanging up calls. But I was told that now and then there was a lot echo on the other end of the line. I tested all the cables independently, and lost nothing in that department. I think the result is that the Monster mic was conceived to work with headphones, and not designed to deal with exposure to the other end of the phone call. That’s as technical as I get. I had hoped to have a sweet handfree setup for $30, but it didn’t pan out. Maybe a different mic would help, if that exists.

  4. Out of the few tech stuff of my environment, that all works more or less well, I’m 100% impressed with the BT Audio system fitted in my car.
    This is the only one where all works like a breeze with the Iphone: in/outgoing quality calls / itunes music / address book voice activation.
    I have no clue who is the audio manufacturer, but that would be worth the $ to integrate/replace into an existing car audio.
    (For the car you’ll need a 2009/10 Renault Clio Exception. Europe only ;-)))

  5. I have an Alpine CDA 9887 with an interface cord that connects to my iPhone 3G. I have had to purchase an adapter to convert the voltage to support the iPhone but to date it has worked fine. I now have to comply with a hands free law in my state of residence and purchased a Bluetooth headset. I am experiencing a problem now with the iPhone sending the music output to the Bluetooth device rather than through the cable to my head unit. I have been unable to find a way to direct the phone to Bluetooth and music through the interface cable. Anyone have any suggestions?

  6. I just bought the Bluetrek/Contour Design Surface Sound Compact. My car has an optional accessory that gives you hands free with voice commands, but the price is around $800 to $1,000 installed. The Bluetrek/Contour Design gives me an excellent service with very clear sound, no loss of bluetooth connection, the persons to whom I talk hear me perfectly well, and all for less than $100. I like this product and will buy two more for my other two cars (one is my wife’s). I hope more manufacturers of iPhone accessories learn from this excellent product.

  7. How about a bluetooth car stereo supporting A2DP and an universal charging mount? That solution cost me about 120 Swiss Francs and works extremely well..

    I can play iPhone music through my car radio and pickup calls by pressing a button on my car radio, the voice is heard through my car.

  8. What are your thoughts on the Tom Tom GPS Solution? It appears to have integrated charging, GPS and Hands free blutooth, and with the method of choice you can (tape adapter, FM trans or Aux plug) play music through your stereo. It seems it allows you to leave it all hooked up and ready to go after a one time bluetooth sinc and dropping the phone in the cradle. I looked but have not seen any reviews on the site. Apple has it the least expensive I have found for 119.99. I would like to get your opinion before purchasing.

    Thanks

  9. on the 8 to 1 iphone fm adapter
    the adapter twistered off and could not find the parts to put back together for it to work could you please send to:Ron Doctor 1 heighe st bel air ,md21014
    thank you recommended several customers to you really like

  10. I JUST INSTALLED A CLARION VX709 IS THE BEST YET CAR STEREO I HAD, NICE 7″ TOUCHSCREEN, EXCELENT DVD PLAYBACK AND LOADED OF FEATURES, WORKS PERFECT WITH IPHONE AND IPOD’S, VIA BLUETOOTH IT PLAYS BOTH AUDIO AND VIDEO PROM IPHONE AND USING THE VOICE ACTIVATED FROM YOUR PHONE YOU CAN PLACE CALLS OR USE THE TOUCH SCREEN DIALS IT ALSO HAVE A USB CABLE AND CAN PLAY MOST FORMATS FOR AUDIO AND VIDEO.

  11. This could be far beyond easyer if Apple unblock them all bluetooth capabilities of Iphones. I’m right about this issue?

    It’s true that this issue will be corrected at the end of this year?

  12. I have the same problem but dont understand the solutions, my iphone work perfectly as a phone through my bluetooth carkit, however the ipod on iphone does not play. I tried a bluetooth transmitter but as carkit is already bonded to phone it will not connect to a different device as well. NB tried debonding and just using transmitter but still no luck, is there no simple solution?

  13. I wish I had the money for the clean bluetooth install, but I had to go the FM way. I really wanted a dashboard mount though since I drive stick and does mounts in the cigarette adapter get in the way. I ended up getting the bluerock musiktalk and so far its been working great. Thanks for the great guide! Can anyone suggest the best custom bluetooth install?

  14. This is NOT well thought out advice. Use of an FM transmitter is incredibly redundant. The best solution would involve a preamplifier of some kind to impedance match between the ipod and the car audio amplifier. I think the best solution would be a head unit that would interface with the iphone and allow you to mount the iphone horizontally just like a traditional ‘face’ of a head unit. The iphone could just route audio then directly through to the amplifier… makes sense? yes?

  15. I used an EgoTalk by Funkwerk.
    It allowed A2DP, which the iPhone supports… allowing me to leave my iPhone in my pocket whilst streaming music and answering phone calls.

  16. To let you know that I think Toyota have done it. I have a new yaris with built in Bluetooth and a Toyota dock. I am able to stream phone calls voice dial number or name end calls last number redial through steering wheel controls. I use tom-tom and can ply music at the same time or call (although this is more to do with apple and multitasking) I am able to play music and use steering wheel controls for music I can mute and stop playing music too. The dock charges except when you hve headlights on (hey it can’t all be perfect). Tomtom and music have varying music levels according to instructions. Sometimes though I get messages saying that this accessory is not optimised for iPhone but to be honest if this isn’t optimised God knows what is. It’s expensive though about 500 quid as an extra when I bought the car but it is a great investment. If u r a new car buyer add this as an extra or see if the manufacturers of your car will add their own system in because it’s well worth it.

    Just my tuppence

    Raf

  17. I have a 1997 Lexus with a built in phone
    with controls on the steering wheel
    The built in phone has a regular wall jack outlet.
    Can I connect my IPhone to the jack and use my I phone thru the cars phone system?

  18. Bought Venturi mini works great with my iphone 3Gs.Charges the phone while , uses A2dp to stream the music and good quality hands free . Would recommend the product for any one looking to buy handsfree car kit for their iphone.

  19. Addition to above post – it connects to the iPhone dock connector via a 6’ cable – very handy. It also has a stereo RCA input (switchable on the head unit) for other audio sources.

  20. hi guys

    i’ve been working on a solution to control my iphone from an external touch screen monitor (specifically for use in my car), i found this thread and thought i’d post my youtube video here. As far as i can see nobody has achieved anything like this before

    please search for ‘Control your iPhone/iPod from another touch screen monitor’ on youtube and my video will be top

    please be aware that this is my first test and is in preliminary stages. my next video will be when i have this set up in my car.

    if you have any questions please comment on the video or leave a message on this comments board and i’ll get back to you

    thanks guys! Simon

  21. Seems like a lot of work, effort and expense when there is a much simpler solution out there.

    I have two words for you…Jabra Freeway ($129). Outstanding bluetooth device that does EVERYTHING and more that you describe in your “Optimal Solution”, and yes allows you to stream music from your iPhone through your car speakers too. If you want to add cradle/charger for your iPhone as well, so you have “head’s up” iPhone navigation, then simply purchase the Griffin Tune Flex, holds your iPhone securely and plugs right into your cigarette lighter port. Simple, clean, no wires, and you get three speaker sound quality from the Jabra Freeway.

    Might want to broaden your tech scope if you’re offering “expert advice” here on the web. Just my humble opinion.

  22. B Smith, you do realize that the Jabra Freeway was introduced 8 months ago, while this article was written close to 4 years ago, right? Pardon the writer for not being able to see into the future.

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