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MP3 Players

FM transmitters: iTrip vs everyone else in our real-world test

FM transmitters -- Griffin's iTrip being the most popular -- are frequently criticised for, well, sucking. We've rounded up four different models for a painful real-world stress test

What do The Smurfs, thrash-metal band Napalm Death and FM transmitters all have in common? You're about to find out.

Like Einstein's original theories of relativity, FM transmitters are often criticised. These ickle add-ons stream your music from your MP3 player to your car's radio, but some folk are sceptical of their usefulness, due to their apparently patchy performance. Is this true? What's the casual bystander to do? Why, ask Crave, of course.

We cornered four FM transmitters -- two from popular brands, two from lesser-known makers -- and forced upon them a vicious real-world test, in testing real-world situations. Using an empty radio frequency, we transmitted music to our car's stereo from an MP3 player while driving through the countryside, through a city and while standing still.

Under close examination today are Belkin's new TuneCast 3, iStuff's iCast, Griffin's iTrip Auto and Doro's RadioStreamer FMT 300. All four conform to UK radio regulations. The iTrip works only with iPods, but the other three sport 3.5mm connections designed to work with iPods, Zunes, Walkmans or even Nokia N95s.

If you're on the lookout for a new FM transmitter or want to see which one sucks beyond the point of belief, clock your viewing spheres on the next few pages of photos, harsh criticism and Smurftastic sadism...

First on our list of torturees was Belkin's brand new TuneCast 3. As the first publication in the UK to get our hands on one, we felt compelled to beat the living Shih Tzu out of it until it cried tears of silicon from its battery compartment.

Cry, it did not. In fact, the TuneCast 3 stood up to us, middle fingers raised and its head tilted back, screaming gut-wrenching expletives from its virtual mouth. We quickly realised we'd accidentally started playing Slipknot, and switched to something more akin to a Granny Knot -- Frank Sinatra.

Mr Sinatra crooned 'New York, New York', although we were actually in Dorking. The TuneCast 3 performed quite well, through both countryside and townside. A very, very mild hiss could be heard in the background when music wasn't playing, but that is to be expected. Sound quality was excellent, with no sound frequency favoured over another. Reception was strong during our journeys and a little sticky mount fixed the TuneCast handily to the dashboard.

Our only complaint was that the colour display was hard to see direct sunlight. Operation was a breeze and it looks nice too. Well done Belkin, you're in first place with this £29.99 bloke. After one round.

Our next victim was iStuff's iCast Autoscan FM, another £29.99 effort. This time, stuff Sinatra; we're all about Metallica. As Sad But True exploded through our car stereo, we felt a sudden urge to drive recklessly and kill pedestrians. Then, all of a sudden, the FM reception dipped and we didn't get to hear the end of James Hetfield's bile-filled line, 'sad but t...'. To summarise, we felt this was just 'sad', performance-wise.

Still, when the very sporadic occasion of signal drop-out wasn't haunting us, the iCast performed quite well. Its position in the car made a distinct difference, and the closer to the car's aerial, the better the performance. Sound quality wasn't as high as Belkin's TuneCast 3, and was slightly dirty in comparison -- a sad sign considering the mutual price point.

Overall, the iCast was acceptable, but sat in second place at this point in the test.

Next up, Griffin's famous iTrip. Would the Griffin perform as well as we expected?

At just £20, the iTrip is already the more attractive option of the three we've looked at so far. However, it only works with iPods and doesn't have the luxury of a battery-operated option, meaning you'll need to jack this into your cigarette lighter. If thishelps you kick the filthy habit, excellent. Sadly, it meant our photo opportunities weren't as beautiful with this model.

After positioning the iTrip and its annoying cable around our handbrake, it was time to pick a new song to start the test with. We chose an all-time favourite for this leg of the test: Cannibal Corpse, and a track off their most recent and ornately romantic album, Kill. Don't let images of macabre horror distract your mind, this very serious choice of music was fitting for our very serious test.

We must concede that while the iTrip's cable was bothersome, its performance was nothing below superb. It was arguably as clear as Belkin's TuneCast and signal strength was fantastic. There was no drop in performance in either country or city, and it had the lowest amount of hiss when no music was playing.

Its low cost and excellent performance put it in first place so far, above the TuneCast. However, its irritating cable and incompatibility with anything but an iPod threatened to push it down a place. In fairness, we agreed the iTrip and TuneCast 3 were in joint first place.

Finally, we move to our last contender for eternal Cravian glory, Doro's RadioStreamer FMT 300.

The Doro RadioStreamer's compact design was refreshing after the iTrip's cable-related rubbishness. To celebrate, we adjourned to a more melodious choice of music. No, not the extraneous brutality of Napalm Death, nor the complex musical intricacies of our beloved Dream Theater...

For the final leg of this journey, we chose The Smurfs. Their eclectic and clever choice of cover versions don't emphasise strongly enough the intelligence behind the fusion of Papa Smurf with the previous success of original pop artists. One would be forgiven for thinking this was a form of musical irony.

Anyway, the RadioStreamer immediately enraged us by cutting out some of the finest moments of I Want A Little Puppy, by dropping its signal frequently. Moving the transmitter closer to the car's aerial helped, though this got steadily tedious once we'd moved into the classic Mr Smurftastic -- a childhood favourite, not to mention an auditory work of genius on the blue midgets' part.

Its patchy signal was only part of the problem though; sound quality itself was quite poor, and the buttons were a pain in the smurfing backside to use. All this for £29.99? We'd rather not.

The Doro RadioStreamer FMT 300 stands in a sorry last place, though it earned points for looking cute and for having a pleasant backlit display.

It's been an emotional ride, one we won't soon forget. For us, the picks of the bunch were the iTrip and the TuneCast 3. While the iTrip offers a significant financial saving -- something that earned it a lot of points -- the simplicity and wider compatibility of the TuneCast won our hearts in equal measure. You'll need to make a choice between cost and usefulness, as both devices performed equally well.

For those naysayers out there, you've maybe had some bad luck in the past. We've discovered that good FM transmitters are out there, and we stand behind the iTrip and the TuneCast 3 all the way.

Until next time, radio nerds... -Nate Lanxon