A few years ago, around 2008, I bought my first in-car FM transmitter, a Belkin device, unfortunately I no longer remember it's model but it looks like this.
This device has served me faithfully up until around 2010 when a couple of things happened, I got a new iPhone and the cable wouldn't charge it and it also stopped coming on, it wasn't getting any power from the cars cigarette lighter. So with some reluctance I went looking for a new cable, I found the Griffin iTrip AutoPilot, I think I mainly bought it because at the time, the local suppliers didn't have anything from Belkin and I was about to leave on a long trip.
Unfortunately for me however, the AutoPilot turned out to be a disappointment, as it's transmitter seemed weaker than the old Belkin, so on my commute it was always losing signal or being overwhelmed with static, no matter which stations the clearscan told me to use. It got so bad that I gave it up and pulled the old Belkin out again to see if I could do something with it.
After taking it apart, I managed to fix the power issue by padding some silver aluminium foil between the contact nib and contact point inside the device and putting it back together again. It didn't charge my iPhone but at least it played without any interference. Then on a business trip to London, I used the opportunity to pick up a Scoshe converter which plugs between the cable and the iPhone and fixes it so that it charges again.
This worked great, except I always got the message that this device is not optimised for the iphone which was annoying. Unfortunately the entire thing died on me right before our holiday a week or so ago and with no time to do anything about it and being unable to repair it, I pulled the AutoPilot out of retirement and gave it a try. To my surprise it worked brilliantly and we used it the whole journey to and from our holiday without any problems at all. It also had the added bonus that my iPhone no longer displayed the annoying message.
Monday came along, I jumped in the car to take my daughter to school, started driving, started the iPhone playing and for five minutes ok, then static, I tried moving it around a bit in the car but nothing, so I switched it off. Dropped my daughter off, played with the cable again on the car park and couldn't get anything, just static. Tried it a few minutes again later on the motorway, once I was out of the city and the same thing, same on the commute back. Not sure what happened or why it worked and then didn't but I have a long commute, so I decided to get a new cable.
I tried doing some research on the various types available from Griffin and Belkin but I was leaning more towards Belkin based on my prior experience with them, so I started to look at what both companies had to offer. In the end what limited my decision was the lack of availability of a lot of the companies products here and also the lack of local reviews comparing the quality of the transmission. So with the lack of information I had, I decided to make a leap of faith and just return the product later if I couldn't use it and so I bought the Belkin TuneBase FM with handsfree.
The TuneBase is compromised of a base unit that plugs into the cigarette lighter in the car and has the controls mounted on it for adjusting the frequency, presets and sound settings, from this base unit, a semi-rigid cable projects upwards, you use this cable to position the phone where you need it to be, before finishing in a grip, which consists of a dock connector with a button on the bottom and a catch on the top. The good part about this grip is that its adjustable, so there is no need to take your case off the iPhone when using it, you just adjust it so that it fits and plug it in. The grip can also be rotated allowing your iPhone to be in portrait or landscape orientation, which is an advantage when using the GPS mainly. Next to the catch at the top, there is a small audio jack that plugs into the top of your iPhone and that carries the audio out to the car, I have no idea why they didn't go through the dock connector but it works, so I'm not complaining. The base unit plugs quite firmly into the lighter socket and has a rubber washer on the end, that provides the necessary resistance in order to keep the whole unit and the iPhone upright. If the default washer doesn't work for you, a second is included in the box that you can cut as desired to fit and is slightly thicker. For my car, an ageing Mazda 3, the default washer was enough.
Once plugged in, I tuned it to the same frequency that I used to use on my old Belkin, did the same on the car radio and started it playing, at first the sound came through really weak and muffled, even with the car volume up high, then I remembered that the Belkin manual stated that the iPhones volume needed to be up as well, so I turned that up to full which helped and as a final adjustment, there is a sound preset toggle button on the base unit, labelled PRO, that has presets for music, spoken voice and so on. I set this to spoken voice and that also helped, the sound was now coming through nice and clear.
The next day, I took my daughter to school and gave the TuneBase it's first big test and am happy to say that it passed very well indeed, the audio came through clear and strong for most of the journey, there was some interference in a couple of the more heavier populated area's but the podcast was still perfectly audible, it just had a hiss to it. Once I was on the motorway though and driving into Prague, it worked fine, the same was true for the return journey. So all in all a successful pilot flight.
The following day, I repeated the process except this time after dropping my daughter off, my wife called me and so gave me an opportunity to test the handsfree part, there is a button on the base of the dock connector, pressing it answers or hangs up a call and while the iPod is playing, a press can play/pause, two presses skips forward and three presses skips backwards. The microphone is also located here, near to the button. So I accepted the call and spoke to my wife for a while and she commented that the audio coming through was clear and perfectly understandable, she thought that I had just answered the phone and was talking on it, not through the handsfree. From my side, the audio coming over the car's speakers was also fine. Once the call finished then my podcast automatically started playing again.
I have been using the TuneBase for a week now and have not had any issues with it so far, it's transmitter seemed to be much stronger than the AutoPilot but not as strong as the original Belkin, however I blame the EU for that, it is plenty for what I need for my commute though and will enable the old Belkin to finally go into the retirement that it has earned.
There are a couple of things that I don't like though, with both of the previous units as they had cables, I had the iPhone mounted on my windshield which made it easier to monitor the GPS and drive at the same time as it only required a slight eye movement instead of a head movement. With the TuneBase the iPhone is now located by the console in the car, so I have to glance away from the road and towards the console to watch the GPS when I need to. I don't think it's ideal and perhaps I will get used to it but I would feel happier having a longer cable or different mounting options. The other niggle is that the cable in order to be rigid isn't very long and so this means that the phone blocks off part of the console now, I have to move it out of the way sometimes and my hand sometimes catches the bottom of the dock connector after I have changed gear. Ive fixed this by bending the cable more to the side which has helped but it still makes me a little self-concious when changing gear as I now find myself looking to make sure that I don't hit my phone. That being said though, the grip really does hold the phone tightly, so I don't think it would fall out.
Overall I am happy with the TuneBase, it does what I need it to, the transmitter is strong and puts out a good signal, with some occasional hiss to it in some areas but its the best Ive heard so far. The controls on the base unit are easy to use and understand and the display is illuminated which makes it easy to use in the car. The grip at the end of the cable seems a little flimsy but has stood up to my son playing with it and holds the iPhone tightly, yet it is easy to put the iPhone into and out of. The button next to the dock connector doesn't have a lot of travel or at least my unit doesn't, so it doesn't always feel like you have pressed it but it registers, so it really is just the feel of the button, for me a little more travel or feedback would allow my brain to register that I have pressed it, without having to take my eyes off the road to look at it.
So for me, this will be my main cable now going forward, despite the niggles that I have, the main win for me is that here in the Czech Republic, between towns, in towns and in Prague, the audio still comes through clearly and doesn't cut out. I will just have to get used to the niggles I guess.