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iPod My Ride

iPod My Ride

Consumers have a load of options to consider when connecting their iPod to their car stereo system. There's the less expensive route, which includes buying an FM tansmitter for about $30; then there are the high-end options, which can run you several hundred dollars.

Not to point out the obvious -- but the iPod has revolutionized the way we consume music. We buy music a la carte and play songs in the order we want -- not the order dictated by some record producer. We also listen to our music anywhere we please now thanks to a world of new products that range from ear buds that are customized to the shape of our ears to the most sophisticated home entertainment systems. Then when it's time to hit the road, we snap our devices into place inside our cars and zoom off, music blaring.

Well, not quite. Until recently, this connectivity feat was cumbersome for many iPod users, depending on their device's -- and car's -- model.

That hasn't stopped consumers from acquiring the devices, though. Over the next 12 months, 27 percent of U.S. drivers will spend money on portable devices they can use in a car, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The mean purchase will total around US$350, Steve Koenig, director, industry analysis, at the Consumer Electronics Association, told MacNewsWorld. In the aggregate, that comes to $23 billion in consumer spending over the next year -- a healthy uptick from the previous year's estimate of $20.1 billion.

Fortunately, a new wave of connectivity and command-and-control car accessory products -- not to mention some new model cars -- are becoming available to maximize sound and sound quality while in the car.

Moderate Budgets

A big investment is not necessary either -- unless you want to spend at the higher end, Koenig pointed out. "It's a very flexible and populated market. You don't have to spend a lot to get good sound in the car."

There are a number of good, cheap and effective accessories to connect an iPod to a car's sound system, said Will Castro, CEO and founder of Unique Auto Sports and star of the show "Unique Whips" on Speed TV for the past three years.

"FM transmitters, which you can purchase for as little as $30, will allow you to send the audio signal from your iPod to the car radio tuner. These tend to only work well in markets where there is not heavy radio station congestion," he told MacNewsWorld.

There are products from companies including DEI and PAC that can convert the factory radio CD input into a line input, allowing the iPod to plug in. "These run from $100 to $300, depending on the car. Companies such as NAV-TV take this a step further and allow you to use the factory radio screen to control the iPod," Castro noted.

However, these products are only available for select vehicles, he continued, noting that this solution is rather expensive -- to the tune of $600 installed.

One mid-range option Koenig points to a Bluetooth transmitter and receiver, which would retail at about $200. "That will give you a wireless connection that is easy to use and consumes power at a lower level. Also, the sound is cleaner."

High-End Gear

At the upper end, Castro said, there are more and more aftermarket car stereo head units becoming available with on-board or option iPod control. Some, such as those supplied by Alpine, have no CD transport and offer just radio and iPod control, he adds, which gives consumers even more options.

One product feature to look for is the command-and-control users have over the iPod in these more expensive head units. That varies by brand, Castro pointed out. "Some offer full browsing capability and some only simple control such as track up, track down, skip, etc."

Voice-Activated Tech

The more advanced products are beginning to offer voice control. Pioneer's Navigation AVIC-F Series, which will begin shipping next month, are voice-controlled , Chris Kehring, brand manager for Pioneer's mobile business group, told MacNewsWorld.

Ford Motor is also developing factory-installed voice activated systems to control iPods as well as other music players, Mark Schirmer, communications manager for Sync, the company's communications and entertainment system, told MacNewsWorld.

So far, the system has only been offered in certain models, with 100,000 or so cars on the road. It has become such a popular feature, he said, that the company expects there will be 1 million more Sync-equipped vehicles on the road by next year.

"When people walk into dealerships, this is what they are asking for -- a car that works well with the iPod and other music players," Schirmer commented.

Cars equipped with Sync have a USB (Universal Serial Bus) port next to the radio interface into which the player is plugged. Voice commands can then control it, both from the radio interface and from the steering wheel, he said. There is also a button for selecting artists and changing tracks.

The system integrates with a wireless phone, so when a call comes in, the music stops playing. It also works with a navigation system, with the music shutting down for long enough for the system to issue a direction.

The option is currently priced at $395, and is standard on most of Ford's luxury models.

Other car manufactures are either providing full iPod control, or at least a direct audio input to the system that allows connection of the device, Castro noted.

"In these cases, consumers still need to use their iPod for control, but the audio quality is far better since it is not being transmitted by FM," he said.

"Companies including Harman Kardon with their Drive + Play 2 and Alpine offer terrific alternatives to controlling the iPod," Castro continued. "These put a separate display screen on top of the dash, and provide control versus a wireless knob or remote. They also provide a far superior level of control versus the best offered by the car companies."

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