Walt Mossberg

Behind the Wheel With an iPod

Millions of people listen to music in their cars, and millions of people listen to music on Apple Computer’s popular iPod music players. But the two don’t mix easily. In fact, it is a real challenge to safely use an iPod in a car, keeping your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel while navigating through your music.

There are scores of products that attempt to solve this problem, ranging from simple in-car iPod mounting kits to more elaborate gadgets that recharge the iPod and connect it to a car’s audio system via a cassette adapter, or an FM transmitter that routes the music through a vacant radio-station setting. Some of these devices also can use a cable that plugs the iPod directly into a built-in audio input jack, if your car is in the small minority of models that have such a jack, or if you have had an installer add one.

he $199 Drive + Play by Harman Kardon. For more information: www.driveandplay.com.
he $199 Drive + Play by Harman Kardon. For more information: www.driveandplay.com.

However, almost all of these options still force you to rely on the iPod itself for navigating your song list, requiring you to look down at its screen and reach for its scroll wheel while you should be focusing on driving. The principal options to avoid this distraction are expensive: factory-designed iPod connector kits that transfer the iPod display to your dashboard’s screens, and in some cases, enable you to control the iPod with buttons built into the steering wheel. But these are only available in a limited number of mostly high-end cars. There are a few add-on kits with auxiliary screens and controls, but these are costly, and require professional installation.

This week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested a new, modestly priced, supposedly simple, iPod auto accessory that just might ease the iPod distraction problem. It is the $199 Drive + Play by Harman Kardon, a division of Harman International Industries Inc.

Unlike most of the iPod automotive accessories, this product uses its own screen and controller. These enable you to put your iPod away in the glove compartment, while still seeing the player’s menus and song info on a larger screen that sticks onto your dashboard, in your line of sight. The separate controller, sort of a gearshift for music, can be placed anywhere that is comfortable and safe. It is a small, circular unit with a movable outer ring that emulates the iPod click wheel using Play/Pause, Menu, and Seek buttons in the same positions as the iPod’s click wheel buttons.

In our tests, the Drive + Play worked without a hitch and freed us from relying on the iPod’s display and buttons. Still, the unit has a rat’s nest of cables, and installing it while hiding these cords would be tough, especially if you put the screen and controller in the least distracting locations, right near the driver. We suspect this task is beyond the skill of most people, so we believe the gadget would require hiring an installer, at considerable extra cost.

Also, while the Drive + Play eases the eyes-on-the-road problem, it doesn’t really help with the hands-on-the-wheel dilemma. You still must remove a hand from the wheel to fiddle with song selections, just as if you were controlling the iPod directly.

The Drive + Play consists of three basic parts: the screen, the controller and the “brain” — a gray box to which those two attach using rather ugly black cords. Two more cords also plug into the brain, one that attaches to the base of any dockable iPod and another that connects to your car’s cigarette lighter for power.

There are three ways to operate your Drive + Play, and Katie and I tested two of them by driving around downtown Washington, D.C., and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, in my car. Setting up the brain and wire-attached devices was simple, but once the four wires were attached to the screen, controller, iPod connector and power outlet, the brain resembled a bomb. The snaky black wires running from it weren’t easy to hide, either, and even if you hid the brain and iPod in your glove compartment, you still would have at least three more wires to deal with.

The display screen for the Drive + Play can be mounted on the dashboard, while the gadget's controller can be placed within comfortable reach of the driver.
The display screen for the Drive + Play can be mounted on the dashboard, while the gadget’s controller can be placed within comfortable reach of the driver.

The display screen and controller come with adhesive so you can stick them wherever you want to in your car, but keep in mind that you will have to cleverly disguise their corresponding wires, too. We set up the screen and controller, plugged in the power adapter and attached my iPod mini to the iPod connector.

The cheapest and easiest way to use your Drive + Play is with its built-in FM transmitter. We did this by tuning my car’s FM radio to 88.1, selecting a song using the controller and pressing the “Play” button, located in the lower center of the controller’s circular face, right where the same button is on an iPod.

The wheel on the Drive + Play’s controller is a little tough to get used to, but it soon became more familiar. Instead of turning around completely, the controller’s ring is set on springs to turn just a little right or left before springing back into its resting position. A short turn scrolls up or down through your display’s menus, holding the ring a little longer fast-forwards or rewinds through an individual song and holding it even longer skips to the next or previous song. A glowing blue circle surrounds the large, center “select” button.

The Drive + Play backlit display legibly shows menus that mirror those on the iPod — minus the “Shuffle Songs” shortcut in the main menu. Shuffle and other options, including a font-enlarging alternative, can be adjusted within a “Settings” menu. Each song’s title, artist and duration showed on our display, and the title can be set to scroll across your screen, like on the iPod.

We listened to individual songs, as well as a few playlists on my iPod mini. Using the controller to navigate tunes was simple because it worked like an iPod.

The built-in FM transmitter, while easy to set up, was plagued by static, and we found that we had to move the iPod mini around more than once to get better reception. This would make driving even more dangerous.

For better results without tapping into your car’s audio system, you can buy a wired FM transmitter adapter from Harman Kardon for $29, though we didn’t test this method.

The third and most expensive method unsurprisingly returned the best results in our tests. This involved using a preinstalled auxiliary jack in my car’s glove compartment that connected the brain directly to my car’s audio system. Very few cars come with such a jack. Harman Kardon estimates that this basic installation would cost about $70.

We turned off the FM transmitter and attached the auxiliary cable to a connector on the brain, adding yet another cord to the four already in place. A few seconds later, static-free music came through my car’s audio system.

The Drive + Play works, but it doesn’t eliminate all driver distraction. And those wires are a real challenge.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret


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