The summer driving season is upon us, and with it comes hours after hours of weary road trips, complete with back-seat bickering about which local FM station to tune into.
But, wait, it doesn't have to be this way. With the right tech in your car, the miles and the hours will just fly by as you listen to your digital-audio libraries or watch videos on portable devices or rear-seat entertainment screens. Here is our roundup of in-car gadgets that will get you there quicker.
The Drive + Play 2 can be used to select and play music from iPods and USB-enabled devices through the car's audio system. It features a 3.5-inch full color screen hooked up to a small digital-audio hub. The device transfers all iPod information (including album art) to the display, where it is presented in crisply rendered and intuitively designed menus. All controls are made via a sleek wireless knob. The Drive + Play 2 relies on an FM signal (either via a wireless transmitter or a car's wired antenna) or a line-in connection to play audio via a car's speakers.
As a true child of the digital age, the Alpine iDA-X001 in-car device doesn't even come with a CD slot. The in-dash system is for those who want to take their iPods on the road. Its digital USB connection enables playback of compressed and lossless files and displays iPod album art via its full color screen. The Alpine iDA-X001 was designed with input from Apple, and so its iPod navigation menu system is intuitive and easy to understand.
The Nokia 330 Auto Navigation might be primarily a GPS device, but it also offers several multimedia capabilities. It has a built-in music and video player and a picture viewer with support for a number of formats, including MP3, WMA, WMV, MPEG4, AVI, and JPEG files. They're nice extras, but we've always been a bit skeptical of having this functionality on a GPS device, since we don't see many people using portable nav systems as a multimedia gadget.
Though you can't watch movies on the in-dash Clarion DFZ675MC, you can listen to an impressive range of audio formats, including AM/FM and satellite radio; CDs; MP3 and WMA discs; SD card audio files; iPods (with the required add-on interface); and generic MP3 players via the auxiliary input jack. As well as playing music, the DFZ675MC can also record tracks from regular CDs via its Music Catcher II function.
The Sony CDX-GT610UI has a built-in generic USB port, enabling drivers to take their digital music on the road without the need for a separate MP3 player. It also comes with a built-in iPod dock connector and a generic auxiliary-input jack, making it one of the most adaptable single-DIN in-car stereo receivers currently on the market. The CDX-GT610UI plays a range of disc-based digital audio formats, including MP3, WMA, and ATRAC discs, as well as regular Red Book CDs. And, of course, it picks up AM and FM radio signals.
The JVC KD-NX5000 does just about everything you could expect from your car stereo. As well as its GPS navigation duties, the device can play audio and video files from CDs and DVDs as well as video, DivX-encoded video (MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 formats), JPEGs, and MP3, WMA, and WAV audio files from recordable/rewritable CDs. Movies play in full 16:9 screen configuration on the device's 3.5-inch color LCD screen.
The KD-NX5000's built-in hard drive enables drivers to compile their own media libraries, eliminating the need to bring stacks of CDs on the road. JVC estimates that the KD-NX5000 has enough capacity for 6,000 songs.
The Archos 404 is primarily a portably video player. It natively supports WMV, protected WMV, and MPEG-4 (AVI) up to 720x480 at 30 frames per second, with optional plug-ins for MPEG-4 AAC/H.2643 (MP4 QuickTime files), MPEG-2, and VOB playback. The device also plays MP3, WAV, and protected WMA files. It includes playlist support, a voice recorder, audio equalizers (weak and rather confusing), a PDF document reader, a built-in speaker, and an excellent photo viewer. If you need any more media options than that, you'd better stay home.
The gigantic Blue Raven MediaMate portable media player measures 8 inches wide, 4.5 inches tall, and 1 inch deep and sports a screen that measures 7 inches diagonally. Along with its considerable size comes nearly 1.5 pounds of weight. Though the MediaMate stretches well beyond pocket-size, it has all the makings of a decent road trip PMP, with an affordable price tag of $379 (40GB) or $429 (80GB).
As well as being an in-dash GPS device, the AVIC-Z1 is a formidable multimedia player. It can play MP3 and WMA discs, has an integrated 30GB hard drive for ripping a digital audio library, and can be used to control iPods. With the car's parking brake engaged, the Z1 can play DVD video on its 7-inch display. The system also has RCA connections for a rear-video display and external media players.
The plug-and-play XM Mini-Tuner is a convenient way to carry your satellite radio subscription on the road with you. Users assign a single subscription ($13 a month) to the tuner, allowing them to get satellite radio reception when it's plugged into any compatible XM-ready receiver. The Mini-Tuner can be docked with XM-ready car stereo receivers from a range of vendors including Sony, Pioneer, and Audiovox.