When Belkin released the early last year, we figured they'd pretty much sewn up the FM radio space; the Tunecast 3 was a small, easy to use radio transmitter for iPods (and other MP3 players) that came with its own snap-on car holder and was exceptionally easy to use. So when the TuneCast Auto turned up, we were curious to see what Belkin could do to make an already good thing better.
One thing that has changed from the Tunecast 3 is the physical dimensions. The Tunecast 3 is small enough to pop into a pocket, but the Auto is rather large. In essence, it's a length of cable that just happens to have a car cigarette charger at one end, iPod dock at the other and controls in the middle. As such, it's not as easy to stow away, which presents a problem in itself, as the temptation to simply leave it plugged in is rather high. That's a bad idea in the current climate, however, as it represents a very easy theft target. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that opportunistic car thieves are on the lookout for cars with items plugged into the cigarette adaptor, as it proves that the owners have high tech gear in their cars on a regular basis.
The other thing that the Tunecast 3 had that the Auto omits is a holding cradle; you're essentially expected to trail the cable into a comfortable position where it won't interfere with the drive. It never looks particularly aesthetically pleasing to have cables trailing around your gearstick, not to mention the safety concerns this could raise.
Like Belkin's previous Tunecast models, the Auto is, in essence, a short-range FM transmitter that allows you to send audio from your iPod through to your car stereo. Like previous models, it'll let you store two pre-set channel IDs, which is useful if you've got a spare save slot on your car radio dial. Where the Auto changes things is in the addition of an FM scanning utility, which Belkin calls "ClearScan". This checks the FM band and searches out a frequency with little to no interference. Using ClearScan is pretty simple; you hit the big "C" button on the Auto's face, and it goes to work trying to find a frequency for you that's clear enough for musical playback.