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Preview: Belkin TuneCast 3 FM transmitter

The Belkin TuneCast 3 may be suitable for rural users and long, desolate road trips, but it doesn't quite cut it in a big city.

Belkin TuneCast 3

In brief: The Belkin TuneCast 3 is a simple, attractive FM transmitter that may be suitable for rural users and long, desolate road trips, but it just doesn't quite cut it in a big city.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit disappointed. In general, I shun the use of FM transmitters: The audio quality is not up to par with direct line-in or cassette adapters, and searching for an open signal is often a crap shoot. I was one of the fortunate MP3-player users to have both a CD changer and an "old-school" tape deck in my car (in case you were wondering, that's the reward you get for driving a 15-year-old vehicle). However, the cassette player started making this obnoxious clicking noise when presented with any tape, so I found myself on the hunt for a decent, not made for iPod FM transmitter for use with my Creative Zen V Plus. In fact, many of the iPod-ready devices offer auxiliary inputs for use with other MP3 players. I was considering the best-in-class DLO TransPod FM, but do you see how bulky that thing is? It dwarfs the poor Zen V, which would no doubt bounce around precariously in the iPod slot (damaging the dock adapter while it's at it).

Enter the Belkin TuneCast 3. It's compact, it's understated, and it has an ample, tactile control pad (with up/down tuner keys and two preset buttons) and a crisp, illuminated digital display. Nifty. The TuneCast 3's design is what initially attracted me to the device. The body is black and charcoal gray (matches my car's interior quite nicely), and at 2.8x1.7x0.8 inches, the transmitter--along with the Zen V--fit perfectly in my ashtray (which, naturally, is not a place for cigarette butts). Of course, if your ashtray is otherwise engaged, Belkin includes a handy mounting clip that you can affix to your dash. The TuneCast 3 attaches to your MP3 player's headphone jack via a 20-inch 3.5mm cable that can be wrapped around an indentation in the device for shortening or storage. Another plus is that the transmitter doesn't pull juice from your player: It can be powered from two AA batteries or a cigarette lighter adapter (both included). And all this for a street price of about $40. So what's the catch?

Unfortunately, it's a big one--or it is if you live in an urban area, at least. I took the TuneCast 3 out to my car, fired it up, and began searching (with a note of desperation) for an open station. In fact, we have a couple of unused frequencies in San Francisco, and I was able to tune into one with moderate success. The static stopped, the music began, and I was happy--until I started moving. Some spurts of static began to invade my tune. Hmm. As I made my first turn, my music dropped out entirely and was interrupted by some very loud static (you have to turn your volume up a lot when using the TuneCast, which is common for FM transmitters). I frantically tuned my stereo and the TuneCast in alternating movements, all the while trying to keep my eyes on the road and my hands on the wheel.* Alas, my attempts were in vain--attempts at tuning, that is. (Neither autos nor humans were harmed in the making of this blog, which isn't a stretch when you're going 5mph.)

Although I found several clear stations that would pick up the music from the transmitter, my songs were interspersed with persistent static, usually keeping time with the bass. Then, of course, there is the "dangerous driver" factor--if your FM transmitter cannot pick a station and stay with it for the majority of the drive, you shouldn't be using it. (At least, not without a passenger in the car to do the tuning.) It's possible that the TuneCast 3 will perform significantly better when taken outside the city limits (test to come), so it could be a decent option for rural users and road trippers. City dwellers, however, should steer clear.

*Note: Do not attempt

Belkin TuneCast 3 FM Transmitter