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Detroit's new song: Have iPod, will travel

Electronics companies are devising better ways to link Apple's audio player to a vehicle's stereo.

DETROIT--Plugging an iPod into your car is now easier than ever.

Electronics companies demonstrated new products at a conference here this week that offer better ways to link Apple Computer's audio player to a vehicle's stereo, replacing the problematic and low-quality methods of radio transmitters and cassette adapters.

A Lynbrook, N.Y.-based company called Multi Technology Equipment is selling a box the size of a cigarette pack that lets almost any car stereo control an iPod, with the controls for changing tracks on CDs now able to skip through playlists. The company's Ipod2car adapter also charges an iPod, which would typically be mounted on a dashboard.

The $190 Ipod2car adapter is manufactured by Peripheral Electronics, a veteran supplier of aftermarket audio accessories for cars. Ron Freeman, Peripheral's chief operating officer, said that his engineers had to reverse-engineer Apple's iPod communications protocol to make the device work.

Texas Instruments, meanwhile, demonstrated what's essentially a tiny custom PC--complete with hard drive--that can rip CDs that are inserted into the dashboard and control an iPod linked through its USB port.

The unit uses an ARM926 microprocessor for voice recognition and display control, and a digital signal processor for audio encoding, echo cancellation and noise reduction. Texas Instruments says the system, which runs a POSIX-based real-time operating system from QNX, also can support Compact Flash, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS connections.

Texas Instruments and Peripheral are not alone in giving drivers a better way to take iPods on the road. Apple and BMW last month announced a lineup of iPod-compatible cars, and over the summer they released a $150 adapter for other BMW models.

One difference: The initial BMW product didn't show the song names on the stereo's display, something that the units from Texas Instruments and Peripheral are able to do.

Alpine, a large car audio company, began shipping its iPod Interface a few weeks ago for $100. It works with most iPods but requires a compatible 2004 Alpine car stereo.

Microsoft's own "Windows Automotive" product--a computer under the back seat running a modified version of Windows CE--boasts a USB connection to let drivers plug in devices with MP3 files and play them on a car stereo.

But unlike the unit from Texas Instruments, it's not designed to work with hardware from Apple. Peter Wengert, a marketing manager for Microsoft's Automotive Business Unit, says that whether an iPod will work on a Windows Automotive system is a "question for Apple."