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A Wi-Fi-enabled USB drive seems like an odd idea, yet the Automatica serves an excellent purpose in the car. Inrete, maker of the Automatica, sets up the device to automatically update content such as music or podcasts.
There are some limitations, however; for example, the Automatica only works if you have a USB port in your car. It may be useful in some other settings, as well, but in a car seems the most likely.
The Automatica would make the most sense for drivers who park their cars within reach of a home Wi-Fi network. Every time the Automatica makes its Wi-Fi connection, it automatically updates its content, downloading the latest podcast to which the driver has subscribed, for example. When the driver gets back in the car, the updated content will be ready for the morning commute.
The device measures about 3.5 inches long and 1.25 inches wide, and has ports for USB and HDMI in its sides. It plugs into a car through its Mini-USB-to-USB adapter cable.
There is also a red LED that shines through a pinhole in the case and shows when the Automatica is charging. The device lacks any switches or other controls, and is, quite literally, a black box.
Log in, select content
To use the Automatica, I first had to set up an account on Inrete's Automatica site and associate the device with my account. The process for adding podcasts was very simple, letting me enter the podcast URL or choose among the podcasts Inrete suggested. However, I did find that some podcasts do not use MP3 format, in which case they will probably not play in a car.
For other audio content, such as music, Inrete provides an easy connection to online storage services Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and Microsoft SkyDrive. I created a music folder in Dropbox, then pointed the Automatica Web site at it.
Setting up the Wi-Fi connection with the Automatica proved a little trickier. The device includes its own installer, software that works with PC or Mac. When I launched it on my computer at work, it popped up a Wi-Fi configuration screen that found all the available networks.
I selected CNET's public network, but the Automatica could not make a connection due to the network's Terms of Service agreement. As is typical with many public networks, CNET's requires potential users to accept the Terms of Service, which would normally appear as a Web page on a computer or smartphone. The Automatica wasn't set up to transmit this acceptance, so it couldn't make the connection.
The Wi-Fi configuration screen did, however, offer a password field, so I was able to make it connect to my home network.
Inrete also offers an Android app that tethers the Automatica to the phone, letting it update through the Android phone's data connection.
With the device configured and content selected on the Web site, my podcasts and music automatically updated whenever I brought it within range of my network. Its 2GB storage capacity is enough for most podcasts, but you will have to be more judicious with music selections.
I was not able to get a precise idea of when the device updated when I brought it within my network. I checked it periodically for 2 hours, but didn't see an update. However, within 4 hours new content had downloaded to the device.
When I plugged the Automatica into a car's USB port, all of the MP3 content showed up and was playable through the car's stereo interface.
No better than a smartphone
The Automatica's niche is somewhat limited, but for commuters with a car and home Wi-Fi network, it eliminates the need to load new content onto a USB drive, then bring it down to the car every morning.
Its biggest rival will be the smartphone, which accomplishes the same tasks as the Automatica with more versatility. In that contest, my money is on the smartphone.