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Essential iPhone and iPod gadgets for your car

Need to take your shiny new iPhone or iPod on the road? Instead of stashing it away in the glovebox, try wiring it up to your car with these handy gadgets.

Need to take your shiny new iPhone or iPod on the road? Instead of stashing it away in the glovebox, try wiring it up to your car with these handy gadgets.

The popularity of Apple's iPhone and iPod means there is a plethora of gadgets and accessories available. Just a few months after the July launch of the 3G iPhone, there's literally hundreds of add-ons on the market.

The 3G iPhone's functionality allows for some car integration options that you won't find with other gadgets. The handset can be used to blast your music through your stereo, act as a GPS navigation device (albeit one without turn-by-turn directions and automatic re-routing), and can easily be used as a hands-free phone.

Unfortunately, the quality of iPhone car accessories varies greatly so we've hand-picked some of the more useful products on the market to enhance your motoring life.

Hooking up your iPhone to a car stereo
With either 8 or 16GB of storage available on the 3G iPhone there's plenty of space for your music and videos. The good news is that you can hook up just about any car stereo system to your car. The bad news is that there are many ways to do this and the sound quality can vary from car to car depending on the make of the vehicle, the stereo system installed, and the connection types available.

Wired options
For audiophiles who must listen to music in pristine quality, the best solution is a wired one. Many new cars on sale today have sound systems with an in-dash auxiliary port. Usually this will be a 3.5mm audio cable port on the face of the stereo unit, in the centre tunnel or in the glovebox. For tighter integration with the iPods and iPhones, some brand-name stereo makers, as well as some car manufacturers, like BMW, have entertainment systems fitted with Apple's proprietary iPhone/iPod connector. If you have one of these systems, you'll be able to browse your song, album and playlists straight from your car's stereo head unit.

Kensington's LiquidAUX Deluxe isn't pretty but it is effective
Photo credit: Kensington

If you can't see an iPod cord, an iPod dock, or a headphone-sized port then it's still possible your stereo has auxiliary inputs hidden around the back of the unit. Consult your car's manual, car maker or dealership, or local stereo professional to see what you can do with your existing stereo before ripping the dashboard apart.

Should your car already have an iPod dock or iPod cable in your cable — or it's an optional extra — then you're ready to rock and roll, or R'n'B, jazz, or whatever takes your fancy. If you've found a 3.5mm auxiliary jack lurking somewhere in your ride, then our favourite solution is the Kensington LiquidAUX Deluxe. This gadget features a wireless remote control that can be attached to your steering wheel to save you from fidgeting with the iPhone while driving. It also has an adjustable dock that will fit the iPhone and just about every iPod model (except the Shuffle), as well as a car charger and a flexible cradle to allow for a variety of different positions on a range of car dashboards.

Cassette adaptors
If you're running around in a retro car — such as one of our test cars, the Datsun 180B — you're likely to have a tape deck instead of an external auxiliary port or even a CD player. Cassette adaptors for iPods and other MP3 players have been around for quite a few years now and they will work with your iPhone. To use these devices you simply put the cassette adaptor in the deck and plug the 3.5mm stereo plug into your iPhone. The nice part about exploiting the technology of yesteryear is that it requires no external power nor batteries to run. We tested Avico's cassette adaptor and found it played music just fine, and at around AU$25 it's a relatively cheap option.

FM transmitters, like Griffin's iTrip Autopilot are nicely portable solutions
Photo credit: Griffin

FM transmitters
If your stereo isn't wired for iPod or MP3 player integration, but you don't want to spend a lot of money on modifications to upgrade your stereo system, one of the most common gadgets for your woes is the plug-in FM transmitter. These devices pipe the music stored on your MP3 player to your car stereo via a low-power FM transmitter.

For this feature we tested three products: Cygnett's Groove Transporter II, Griffin's iTrip Autopilot, and DLO's Transdock. All three worked with the iPhone as promised and took no longer than a few minutes to set up. In our tests the music quality was pretty much the same for each of these devices, but neither as clear nor reliable as wired solutions.

The problem with FM transmitters is that you may get interference from any number of sources, including surrounding buildings and atmospheric conditions. And if you're setting off on a road trip you may have to change which FM frequency you're using, as you could run into interference from regional radio stations. At around AU$100, though, FM transmitters are a cheap and easy way to hook your iPhone up to your stereo with minimal hassle.

The Cygnett's Groove Transporter II is the gadget with the best features, including a USB charger, a sturdy cradle, easy-to-configure buttons, and a wired remote control for playback. With the cradle directly attached to the cigarette charger, though, the Groove Transporter II is ill-suited to cars where the cigarette lighter port is next to either the gear lever or handbrake.

The Transdock by DLO is a fair FM transmitter which features a nice flexible dock, an Auxiliary-in port, and an AV-out port. However, it does not have a remote control and we found the dock holds the iPhone in place much less securely than other cradles we tested. Though we weren't driving like Luke or Bo from The Dukes of Hazzard, the iPhone got unplugged after turning a bend and almost fell out of the cradle.

The last device we tested was the Griffin iTrip AutoPilot. This minimalist FM tuner will easily hook up to your stereo but lacks a cradle to hold your iPhone or iPod in place. That aside we found the controls, which are placed on the cigarette charger, to be practical, especially while driving. The tuner was also the only FM transmitter we tested with support for the Radio Data System (RDS) protocol, which shows song and artist information from the iPhone on your car stereo — if the stereo supports RDS, that is.

The Cygnett GrooveTooth Talk is simple to use behind the wheel
Photo credit: Cygnett

Look ma I'm talking with no hands
Phone junkies will be glad to know that the iPhone is compatible with Bluetooth, the industry standard for car hands-free kits. This means most existing hands-free sets on the market are compatible with your iPhone. Before trying to set up your device you'll need to enable Bluetooth on the iPhone, via the Settings menu, and pair the two devices.

We trialled Cygnett's GrooveTooth Talk hands-free car kit. With just four buttons — power, volume up and down, and call/receive — this device is easy to operate when behind the wheel. The GrooveTooth Talk has a magnetic clip that allows users to easily affix the device to the sun visor or even air-conditioning vents. During our two weeks with the GrooveTooth Talk we didn't need to recharge it once. Motormouths will be pleased to hear that Cygnett claims around seven hours of talk time. A car charger is included, and the device is resonably priced at AU$99.

Ventmount for iPhone allows for 360 degrees of rotation
Photo credit: DLO

A GPS cradle
With Google Maps integrated to the iPhone, the handset can be used as a GPS guidance device, although you'll have to do without turn-by-turn instructions and automatic re-routing. Unless you have a navigator sitting next to you, it can be hard to follow the map. What you need is a sort of stable cradle to hold the iPhone up where you can safely view it without taking your eyes off the road for too long.

While the Cygnett Groove Transporter II and DLO's Transdock could double up as cradles for this purpose, they both lack the ability to easily rotate the iPhone from portrait to landscape mode, which is preferable for navigation. This is where VentMount for iPhone steps in. The Ventmount's cradle clips on to a car's air vents and allows for 360 degrees of rotation. If you're wary of using your car's vents as a docking station, the VentMount comes with a clip which allows you to attach it to other parts of your car. Its makers claim that the VentMount can be used as a belt clip, but we found clipping the device to a pair of pants to be both unstable and, worse, very unfashionable. While it's a handy device, we would have liked to see it ship with a car charger.

Add some juice and some ugly to your iPhone
Photo credit: Dexim

Extra battery life for road warriors
Road warriors with an iPhone will notice that battery life isn't one of the handset's strongpoints. In fact, it's terrible if you're constantly utilising Wi-Fi, 3G, or GPS features. While most of the gadgets mentioned above come with a car charger, sometimes you might need extra juice on the run.

The Dexim BluePack is an add-on battery pack that will give your iPhone up to 3.5 hours of additional talk time. This rechargeable lithium-ion battery snaps into the iPhone's proprietary socket easily enough, but is rather ugly. The gadget is about the same width as the iPhone but adds around 4cm to its length. The Dexim BluePack ships with a USB cable so you can recharge the battery from your PC, but we would have liked to see a cigarette charger, too. If looks don't matter to you, this device will give you the extra battery life you're after.

What you be without skin?
Photo credit: People Like Us Style

Use protection
The iPhone is a weighty device with a delicate screen that looks like it could get scratched or crack if not protected properly. If you're planning to hook the iPhone up to your car then it's bound to get knocked about by accidental drops, in-car food incidents, pet mishaps and clumsy kids. Skins that cover the whole iPhone offer good protection and while there are a plenty of companies that offer them, we liked the individual look and feel of the skins made by People Like Us Style.

For all-out protection we recommend a case that gives a rubber-like support on the back and has a film to protect the touch screen against scratches. The best protective device we saw in our tests was the Capsule Rebel made by SwitchEasy. The silicon cover is much more stylish than others in this category and comes in a variety of styles. As a bonus the case comes with a stand to rest your iPhone on.

All in one?
Seeing as there are so many uses for the features on the iPhone, it's a pity that we couldn't find a good all-in-one add-on for your car that would hook up your iPhone to the car stereo, act as a Bluetooth receiver, and be adequate as a cradle for GPS navigation. With this in mind it's important to know what sort of integration you'd like for your iPhone in the car, and make sure the device will fit your car's configuration properly.

Over time we'll add new products to this feature so feel free to tell us about your favourite iPhone car gadget in the car in the comments section below.