I bought an iTrip mini this week, which is an FM Radio transmitter for the iPod mini. I was originally just going to get a cassette adapter, but using the mini as a personal pirate radio station makes the device a bit more portable for multi-car use. Besides, the geek appeal of going wireless is much too high, and the iTrip product design is fantastic — it fits perfectly over the iPod and looks good doing it. (Well, in reality, it doesn’t fit as perfectly flush as the pictures [it's about two pixels off on the side with the Hold switch], and the seams on the top picked up some fuzz from my fleece jacket pocket, but overall it does look quite nice.)
Unlike some units, the iTrip allows you to set which frequency it runs on, but doing so is an interesting hack. Griffin provides a CD with short audio clips that are coded in such a way that the iTrip picks up the instruction and changes it’s frequency based on it. You’re supposed to make a playlist containing these special tracks and use them when needed. The catch, of course, is that if you leave the tracks on your iPod all the time, they will occasionally show up in the play-list rotation (which is bad.) The Griffin solution is to manage your iPod listening with smart-lists instead of standard playlists, but that’s asking a bit too much in my opinion. Instead, I simply found a frequency that stays clean during my commute and stuck to it. Road trips will require an alternate solution.
I’ve tried using low-power FM broadcasters in the past and have been disappointed with the audio quality. The iTrip didn’t change my opinion much. The first thing I noticed when firing up the iTrip is that the audio signal was really quiet. It certainly helps if you turn the iPod volume up more, but going too high will distort lower frequencies. Turning up the receiver’s volume higher then normal will help, but if you must do this, you’ll be in for a shock if your choosen frequency doesn’t stay free.
To address sound quality, I found that using a different EQ setting helped. Small headphones generally need a low-frequency boost, but modern car audio typically doesn’t. In fact, turning the iPod’s EQ off all together helped a lot.
The next major issue is that the iTrip made it very apparent that my tracks aren’t balanced for volume. Some are much louder then others. I tend not to notice this on my home system or headphones, but the iTrip emphasizes it.
Most interestingly, my biggest find when using the iTrip was that I finally groked the Podcast movement. Podcasting hit the scene just recently, and up until now, I really didn’t see a need for it. The reason: up until now, I’ve been using my iPod primarily in the gym — a use for which I have little desire to hear someone talking politics. But in the car… that’s a different story. I often try to arrange my commute to catch the Diane Rehm Show on NPR. Sometimes my schedule works out, sometimes not. For those times when I miss the show, it would sure be nice if the digital archive was automagically pre-installed on my iPod for the drive back to the city!