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Gogroove Smartmini BT review: Wireless receiver connects new phones to old cars

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I know what you're thinking, because I'm thinking it too. "It's 2013 -- are FM transmitters even still relevant?"

Gogroove Smartmini
6.3

Gogroove Smartmini BT

The Good

The <b>Gogroove Smartmini BT</b> exceeded my expectations for FM transmitter clarity when tested via San Francisco's crowded airwaves. A powered USB port keeps devices charged, and 3.5mm input and output connections give users more options.

The Bad

Sound quality of calls and music is limited by the relatively poor FM band connection. Microphone quality is highly dependent on the placement of the host car's power point.

The Bottom Line

The Gogroove Smartmini BT is a multifunction audio bridge and hands-free calling device that performs only one of those functions particularly well: FM transmission.

Well, yes...kind of. Cars have a much longer shelf life than your average consumer electronic product, so there are still thousands of cars on the road that lack the 3.5mm analog auxiliary input or Bluetooth wireless connection that we here at Car Tech have come to know as ubiquitous. For drivers of these cars, the only way to get their increasingly digital music library on the road is to either replace their car stereo or pick up an inexpensive FM transmitter like the Gogroove Smartmini BT.

Design
In design, the Smartmini is similar to the Gogroove FlexSmart X2 that we've reviewed previously. It uses a similar control scheme consisting of a control knob that can be twisted and pressed like a button. Around this controller are buttons for Play/Pause, Skip Forward, and Skip Backward. To the right of the knob is a simple red LED display for readouts, on either side of which you'll find a phone button, one red, one blue, which we'll address in a bit.

You mount a Smartmini in your car by plugging its arm directly into a 12-volt power point. You can orient the device different ways by twisting this connection 360 degrees within the circular power point, and it has a few degrees of tilt adjustment via a hinge where the arm, which is short, connects to the body of the device.

Many ways to connect (inputs)
Along one edge of the device, you'll find a pair of 3.5mm analog auxiliary audio connections, one for input and another for output. Along the other edge, you'll find a powered USB port with labeled output of 5 volts and 1A. That's enough current to charge most smartphones on the market, but likely not enough power to charge most tablets that I've encountered. So, those looking to use an iPad's large screen to navigate with the Smartmini will be disappointed.

Gogroove Smartmini
With a 1A-powered USB port, the Smartmini is equipped to keep a smartphone charged. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The remaining connections are of the invisible sort: FM radio and Bluetooth.

The Gogroove Smartmini can make a wireless, one-way audio connection by broadcasting to an empty frequency on the FM radio spectrum, which you can then listen to by tuning a nearby radio (preferably the one in your car's dashboard) to the same frequency.

The device also features a Bluetooth 2.1 connection that enables it to receive hands-free calls and A2DP stereo audio streaming. Pairing is simple and didn't even require a PIN for my Samsung Galaxy Nexus running Android 4.2.x.

The Smartmini's primary function is to act as a bridge between your high-tech mobile device and a low-tech car stereo radio. It can do this in a number of ways. Bluetooth-to-FM transmission is the primary advertised mode, but there's also Bluetooth-to-auxiliary input for cars with a 3.5mm connection, and headphone-jack-output-to-FM transmission for devices without Bluetooth. You could probably even go from headphone jack to audio input to audio output to auxiliary input if you were feeling needlessly complex, but I don't advise it.

Automatic FM tuning
Because the broadcasting strength is limited by the FCC, the effectiveness of any FM tuner is mostly dependent on your ability to find a clear frequency that is not otherwise occupied by a local radio station. In some areas, this is relatively easy to do. In other areas, like the San Francisco Bay Area, it's nearly impossible.

You can manually select a blank FM station by twisting the control knob on the Smartmini's face until your chosen frequency is displayed, but the easiest way to get a clear signal is to let the device do it for you. Press and hold the control knob like a button for 2 to 3 seconds, and it will automatically seek the nearest empty channel. Then it's just up to you to tune your car's radio to match.

Interestingly, the Gogroove is able to tune even as well as odd decimal frequencies (88.4, 88.5, 88.6), whereas most American car stereos that I've encountered can only tune to odd increments (88.5, 88.7, 88.9). This means that occasionally the Smartmini will return a frequency like 104.4FM that your car won't be able to match. Sometimes twisting the knob to jump up or down one decimal place will help. Other times, I just had to try autotuning again.

It took a few tries, but I was surprised to find that the Smartmini was able to find an open station that worked for most of my testing, though most other FM transmitters that I've tested, including the FlexSmart X2, required a retune every once and again. Whatever Gogroove is doing with this new generation (stronger transmission? more sensitive seeking? fairy dust?), it is working much better than I expected.

When streaming Bluetooth audio from a connected device, the Smartmini gains a bit of control in the form of the Play/Pause and Skip buttons on the unit's face.

Gogroove Smartmini
Using the line output in a car that can accept it will greatly improve audio quality. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

That said, FM broadcast audio quality is still poor. That's not the fault of Gogroove or its Smartmini hardware, but par for the course when you're talking about FM transmission. The best that you can hope for is FM radio quality, which isn't great to begin with. Add interference from nearby stations and the transmitter's relatively low strength and the Smartmini is fighting an uphill battle for audio quality.

Hands-free calling
You can answer incoming calls by tapping the blue phone button or reject the call by tapping the red phone button. Tapping the red phone button will also end a call in progress. If no call is incoming or in progress, holding the blue phone button for about 3 seconds will redial the last-dialed number.

And that's about it. No voice initiation of calls, no caller ID, and no fancy tricks. It's just a basic speakerphone.

Audio output quality depends largely on the quality of your car's speakers, the strength of the FM transmitter relative to your local airwaves, and the phone via which you're making the call.

Audio input quality, the bit that the person on the other end of the call hears, depends on the location of your car's 12-volt power source. For example, a vehicle with a power point located high on the dashboard (like the Ford Mustang) will position the Smartmini and its integral microphone closer to the driver's head, hence mouth, for clearer calls. A car that places its power point low on the dashboard won't sound as good. A car that places its power point inside the center console (as many of them do these days) will unusable for hands-free calling -- although it may still be good for FM transmission or a Bluetooth-to-aux-in connection.

In sum
The Gogroove Smartmini is a strong performer for people who need FM transmission to connect to an aging car stereo system. Of the transmitters that I've tested in San Francisco's crowded airwaves, few maintained as clear a signal as this product did. If it works well here, it should work well anywhere. The Smartmini is a simple product that does this one thing very well.

Gogroove Smartmini
The Gogroove Smartmini is a great FM transmitter, but only a so-so Bluetooth hands-free calling device. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

However, the Smartmini doesn't do just one thing; it also tries to perform as a Bluetooth hands-free calling device, which is where it falls short. With only the most basic answer, end, and redial controls, I'd still have to reach for my phone to -- for example -- quickly call home if that number weren't the last dialed. Additionally, its reliance on your car's power point position can put the Gogroove Smartmini at a call-quality disadvantage compared with visor-mounted speakerphones that also feature FM transmission, such as the Jabra Freeway.

The Smartmini wins points back with the flexible, multiple audio-connection options enabled by its physical inputs and outputs, as well as for its ability to keep a connected device charged with its powered USB port.

Gogroove Smartmini
6.3

Gogroove Smartmini BT

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 7Performance 7