The Gizmo Report: Belkin's TuneTalk Stereo for iPod

Peter Glaskowsky reviews the Belkin TuneTalk Stereo for iPod--and a highly questionable legal policy in effect at Apple's retail stores.

Peter Glaskowsky
Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Peter Glaskowsky
5 min read
Belkin TuneTalk Stereo Belkin

On Monday evening, I posted my first impressions of my new iPod classic 160GB. The first accessory I needed for my new iPod was a microphone so I can record conferences, meetings, and voice memos.

Right after receiving the iPod, I looked around online and found a comparative review of three iPod microphones by Mark Nelson on the O'Reilly Digital Media site. The review helped me settle on the Belkin TuneTalk Stereo for iPod.

I checked the Belkin Web site to make sure this model is compatible with the iPod classic. There's a page on the Belkin site just for that model, and the TuneTalk Stereo is on there--Belkin part number F8Z082-BLK.

I then went to the local Apple Store (at the Valley Fair Mall in Santa Clara, Calif.) since I remembered seeing this gizmo for sale there a couple of months ago. Sure enough, they were still there. In fact, there were two different packages for the same product. I picked the one with a higher code number on the bottom flap (P58122-B) on the theory that if there have been any changes to the gizmo since it was first introduced, I'd rather get the more recent one.

Confusingly, the box was marked "TuneTalk Stereo for iPod with video" but it has that same part number so I'm pretty sure it's the same product. Also, the iPod classic is very similar to the iPod video. I also asked the salesperson at the store if the gizmo I was buying was compatible with the iPod classic, and he said yes, so I figured I was OK.

But...I think perhaps this version of the product isn't recent enough.

It does make recordings, but of all its supposed features, that's one of only two that work.

The TuneTalk documentation says that when you connect the TuneTalk to the iPod, the iPod should go straight to the voice-memo recording menu, ready to go. My old fourth-generation iPod with its old Belkin Voice Recorder for iPod works that way.

This new setup doesn't work that way. When you click the TuneTalk into the iPod, the Voice Memo entry gets added to the main menu, but that's it.

The TuneTalk also has a "Quick Memo" button that's supposed to bring the iPod to the recording screen, but that doesn't work either. If the iPod is off, the button wakes it up, but it takes no other action.

There's an LED designed to indicate that recording is in progress. It doesn't. It does blink twice sometimes, like when the Quick Memo button is clicked, but the blinks don't seem to mean anything.

The main reason I selected the Belkin product over the competition from Griffin and XtremeMac was that it alone includes a Mini USB jack that can be used to power the iPod while it's recording.

The iPod classic consumes a lot of power while recording; apparently, Apple hasn't put as much effort into power management during recording as it has for video playback. For example, unless the backlight is set to be always off, the iPod backlight stays on while recording; that can't be good for battery life. (If the backlight is set to be always off, on the other hand, the menus are very difficult to view, and since the Quick Memo button doesn't work, it's hard to get the iPod to start recording.)

My fourth-gen iPod would record for about three hours, turning the backlight off automatically during the process. This new one, with the Belkin TuneTalk, is pretty similar. I ran two tests; the first ran about 2 hours and 15 minutes with the backlight on; the second ran 2:47 with the backlight off. It's possible that after the battery has been exercised another time or two, it might eke out a few more minutes.

Incidentally, this iPod does something my old one didn't--it automatically breaks recordings up into two-hour segments. I'm not sure I like that, but it's no big deal. I see this behavior is documented on Apple's support site, which also warns that iPods continue to suck power while pausing a recording. That has to be lazy programming.

So that Mini USB jack is important. Fortunately, it does work to charge the iPod. But it's also supposed to support iPod sync operations...and it doesn't. There's no sign that the iPod is aware when it's been connected to a computer via the TuneTalk. Just to be sure Belkin didn't provide a bad Mini USB cable, I tried one of my own that I know is good. That one didn't work either.

When the TuneTalk is doing its primary job--recording audio--it works just fine. The audio quality is acceptable. The sound of the iPod hard disk spinning up and down is audible, but not too bad. (It's quieter than my old fourth-gen iPod with its Belkin microphone.) The reviews say that an external microphone will produce very good results, but I haven't tried that yet.

So, the Belkin TuneTalk Stereo does the two things I need it to do: it records audio and accepts external input power during recording.

But all the other things it's supposed to do simply don't work with the iPod Classic.

I'm pretty sure none of these problems are Belkin's fault, although I do fault Belkin for listing this product as compatible with the iPod Classic when it isn't. I figure Apple changed something in the commands that add-on microphones use to communicate with the iPod, making the TuneTalk instantly obsolete. Belkin should have figured this out and updated its Web site.

I'll try to get in touch with Belkin and see if they can shed any light on the situation here; maybe there's a way to upgrade the firmware on this TuneTalk, or maybe they'll swap it out for me. If not, I'll have to see if I can return it to the Apple Store.

If they'll take it back, that is. Although I'd never had cause to look into this issue before, I see on the Apple Web site that non-Apple products sold in Apple stores are sold "as is," which means the seller (Apple) can stick the buyer (me) with the sale even if the product was defective when it was sold.

This policy doesn't mean that Apple will try to screw me on this sale, but it does mean they could. Did anyone else know about this? I find this fairly astonishing, really. How many retailers impose an "as is" policy via a page on a Web site? Wow.

Update: I've been contacted by Belkin's public-relations department, which confirms my observations, admits that the TuneTalk Stereo is not fully compatible with the iPod classic, and says it was listed that way on the Belkin website by mistake. I'll have further updates when I get more information.