The first Drive + Play from Harman Kardon gave drivers a useful, basic means of controlling their iPods while on the road. With its limited range of features, monochrome display, and clunky electronics box, however, the original device was beginning to look dated, and it was only a matter of time before it was updated with something a bit snazzier.
The Drive + Play 2 picks up where its predecessor left off, adding a stylish interface and a host of new features into the bargain. Gone is the black-on-gray screen of the previous model, replaced by 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.
In contrast to its predecessor, the Drive + Play 2 is a good-looking piece of gadgetry. Black lacquer-effect plastic and matte silver trim for the hub and the control knob give them a high-tech feel, while the theme (i.e., color) of the display menus can be configured to one of five bright hues. For those who really want to personalize their Drive + Play 2, screensavers can be downloaded from the Harman Kardon Web site.
The Drive + Play 2's digital-audio/expansion hub is the brains of the device's operations, and connects the iPod (or other storage device), the display, and the power source. The hub can be either plugged into a cigarette lighter adapter, or hardwired into the car's 12-volt circuit. Despite the relatively small size of its components, with the hub stuck into the cigarette lighter port, the three-piece Drive + Play 2 can dominate most of the available surface area in a car. With the hub hardwired and hidden away, the screen and the control knob can be positioned according to the driver's preference, taking up less space and displaying only the system's essential components.
For affixing the display module to a car's dashboard (or A-pillar), Harman provides a mounting plate and a hex screw mechanism that requires users to twist the module into place each time they get in the car. We found this system surprisingly hard to use, and we found ourselves twisting and jimmying the screen module around for a while before we could get it to lock into place on the base. With practice, this might be accomplished more easily, but our first impressions were not wholly satisfactory.
The Drive + Play 2's wireless control knob was designed around the theme of the iPod control wheel, and while this is not unusual--many car stereo interfaces have attempted a similar thing--the Drive + Play 2 actually succeeds in transferring much of the legendary iPod functionality to the driver. Each of the four buttons around the rim of the control knob corresponds to the buttons on the iPod faceplate and the central dome can be pressed in to make a selection.
The Drive + Play 2 is primarily an iPod interface. Right down to the fonts used for its menus, the system mimics the experience of an iPod, with menu structures and categories (playlists, artists, albums, songs, podcasts, etc.) exactly the same as those found on the player itself.
Similar to newer iPod models, the Drive + Play 2 features an alphabet search function that enables users to quickly navigate their digital music libraries. The function is enabled when searching alphabetically sorted lists such as artist, album, or track lists by holding down the top button, which opens a box on the screen showing a letter. By turning the ring, clockwise, users can search for entries by letter. We really like this feature, as it gives drivers a quick and easy-to-use option for getting through vast iPod libraries. The Drive + Play 2 even has an option in its settings menu that allows users to calibrate the control knob acceleration, depending on how quickly they like to zip through their iPod menus.
In addition to its advanced iPod compatibility, the Drive + Play 2 also can be used to play tunes from other MP3 players, including the Microsoft Zune, as well as from generic USB storage devices. Even with generic USB devices connected, the Drive + Play 2 indexes audio tracks and presents them in the iPod menu structure, making it very easy to navigate and select music.