Just as summer inexorably follows spring, it's only natural to evolve from toting your iPod purely à la pocket, to unleashing its hippest treasures inside the car. There's no finer way to pimp your ride in the Noughties than educating anybody wise enough to cadge a lift home with your very hottest playlists, yet without having to fish around in the glove compartment for a fistful of CD-Rs, most of which probably bear the slothful legend 'car music' scrawled in marker pen.
Clearly, there is nothing new about mating your iPod's audio line-out with your car's head unit. The real challenge is to be able to access any music stashed on your 'pod without crudely stabbing a finger at the cradle-mounted beast as you negotiate a roundabout in rush hour.
There's a new generation of kit that allows you to do exactly that, but before we really get down to it, let's waft our noses at some more 'conventional' in-car iPod options to be sure we aren't missing a trick. Assuming your head unit doesn't have an easily accessible line input on the facia, the weapon of choice has long been a spaghetti junction of fag-lighter chargers and the once-ubiquitous cassette adaptor. This baby has just been given a final kiss of life by the far-too-clever-for-their-own-good folks at Griffin (www.griffintechnology.com), who recently unveiled the SmartDeck cassette-shaped adaptor that not only acts as an audio connection, but recognises basic user controls from the tape deck (i.e. rewind, pause etc) onto your 'pod. It's a nice bit of kit for less than twenty notes, but frankly, who has a tape deck in their car?
Of course, Griffin also makes the infamous iTrip FM transmitter, a kind of chipolata-sized widget that broadcasts whatever your iPod is playing over a short range, which you can then tune an FM radio into to create a wireless audio connection. Clever stuff, but tragically there are two holes beneath the waterline for this - technically illegal in the UK - techno toy, which now comes in 'U2 black', as well as classic iPod white. First, the lack of bandwidth means rather shonky audio quality, by in-car standards. Even more annoying is that the cluttered FM spectrum in our green and pleasant land dictates that unless you live somewhere fairly rural, you'll struggle to find an empty slot to tune into. In London, where the FM airwaves are particularly chock-full of pirate radio stations of a weekend, it's a non-starter. Shame, really.
Kenwood briefly experimented with licensing a boot-based hard drive music unit from the US called PhatNoize, before twigging that what most of us were aching for was a way to plug our 'Pods in properly. Thankfully, it's just released a dedicated interface, the snappily-named KCA-iP500 for about £70, and was kind enough to send me the very first UK unit to test. This innocuous looking black box connects the iPod's docking port (3G iPods onwards) to the CD changer input on the rear of most Kenwood head units from the past three years, although the latest models can now play non-DRM AAC files from CD, as well as MP3, for anyone who never reset the default iTunes encoder.
In plain English, this means you can stash your 'Pod in the glove compartment and access all your tunes - via an OEM steering wheel remote - while Apple's featherweight battery gets recharged. Nice! There are two additional benefits in that your iPod is tucked out of sight when you park and you won't concuss any passengers should you brake too suddenly. Hell, it's almost worth springing for an old 3G 'spare' to park up permanently in the car.
The snag is that the Kenwood user interface is currently quite crude, which makes it nigh on impossible to swiftly scroll through playlists or albums on the head unit. In fact, you're better off selecting your musical weaponry on the iPod before plonking it safely in the glove compartment, which kind of defeats the point. Luckily, there are other options. Alpine rolled by to show off its own box of tricks, for pretty much the same price. Although twice the size of Kenwood's - which is only a slight niggle as you can bury it in the bowels of your dashboard - Alpine's user interface was much better, letting you browse an iPod by playlist, artist, and so on. It even recognised ID3 tags rather than just file names. Rock AND roll. Unfortunately, the Alpine version is currently only compatible with one head unit, the rather low rent CDA-9847R, although the company insists that other models will be added very shortly. So watch this space.
There is another alternative though, from third party accessories manufacturer Dension which is punting an iPod adaptor for about £100 (plus installation) nattily dubbed ice>Link Plus. The exact cost depends on your car model and whether you prefer a dedicated cradle, or just a cable connector for your iPod. Dension didn't supply its review unit in time for this round-up, but the company has a good reputation for this kind of kit. The spec of the interface lets you map your five top playlists to the head unit buttons, although you can only browse by playlist, rather than album or artist. On the upside, you have more flexibility over your choice of head unit. In fact, in most cases, you won't need to change your equipment at all. This is great news for people who've bought after market stereos - but as these days that's generally restricted to teenagers and minicab drivers, the key issue is how easy is it to integrate your iPod into an existing car manufacturer's audio system.
The problem here is that if your motor is high-spec and built in the last two years, it's fairly likely to be fitted with a fibre-optic network technology called MOST. This system was designed to ensure that all your fancy-pants multi-media kit (ie stereo, DVD screens GPS) will all recognise and 'talk' to each other. It also has the side benefit of making it not worth stealing any of it. The trouble is that it also severely restricts your ability to add third party kit, be that a new stereo, or an iPod interface - a fact that has not gone down well with the likes of Kenwood and Alpine.
The Dension adaptor will work with a large number of cars (check the Web site for details), but if you have MOST technology, then you'll need a more sophisticated interface, costing around £300. Rats. The upside is that Apple has been making lots of noise about working closely with manufacturers to overcome this problem. It seems that everyone from Volvo to Ferrari wants a piece of the action. In fact, you can even buy a Mercedes Benz Smart Car specifically designed around an iPod. Scary stuff.
So far, the only major car manufacturer to hit the ground running in the UK with an iPod interface is BMW www.ipodyourbmw.com. Naturally, it also includes Mini Cooper, although there is no fancy Web site for this yet. BMW claims that the interface kit, which costs "around £100", offers full iPod access directly from the steering wheel on 1 Series, 3 Series and the X5, as long as your car has the “auxiliary connector”. It would be wise to double-check the specifics of how this solution works before plumping for it over the other options mentioned.
For anybody who has been itching to use their iPod en voiture, the hour has most definitely arrived. There's a wide selection of iPod interface kit for under a ton now, unless you own a brand new, high spec car - in which case, you're unlikely to be fussed about paying a little more. Just don't forget to invest in a proper cradle and avoid drilling into the dashboard, unless you're intending to sell it with your 'Pod still attached.