Here at CNET Car Tech, we spend a lot of time in brand-new cars with brand-new tech, so I was honestly a little surprised to learn that FM transmitters are still around, and that there are new models hitting the market. However, for drivers of older cars that don't feature USB, Bluetooth, or an auxiliary input, the MPOW Streambot Y could be a simple and easy method for getting calls and audio from their phone routed to their car's speakers.
FM transmitters: Still around
The Streambot Y features a two-part design that is connected by a flexible, articulating arm.
The plug portion is at the base of the device and where the product connects to your car's 12-volt power point. The base is where you'll find a 1-amp USB charging port, which should be enough to keep most smartphones juiced while streaming. Surrounding the USB port is an illuminated, translucent blue ring that indicates that it's getting power from the car.
The mounting arm is permanently connected to the base, shooting away from the body at a slight angle and giving the Streambot Y its "Y" shape.
The upper, main portion connects to the end of the mounting arm with a magnetic click and can be rotated to a variety of angles to meet your car's mounting needs. This removable bit contains the electronics and radios for the Bluetooth receiver and FM transmitter. The magnetic connection makes adjustment and setup easy, but care must be taken when adjusting the arm not to momentarily disconnect the transmitter from the power. Holding the arm, and not the body, helps with this.
One end of the main section is a rotating knob that controls the Streambot Y's output volume and surrounds an illuminated multifunction button on the device's tip. Tap this button to toggle between play and pause when listening to Bluetooth media, or to answer or end an incoming Bluetooth call. It can also be double-tapped to reject an incoming call.
In the middle of the body is an illuminated red LED display that shows the currently transmitting FM station or the volume level (0 to 30) when twisting the aforementioned knob. Next to the display, you'll find a tiny pinhole microphone for hands-free calling, as well as Previous and Next buttons that skip forward and back on the paired Bluetooth device. The last bit of interface is a knurled metal knob for selecting the transmitting FM frequency.
What it does well
What I liked about the Streambot Y was its easy setup. You just plug it in, pair your phone, and twist the knob to an open FM station. There are no hidden features, because there aren't many of them to begin with. Everything is there on the surface, and you don't even really need to look at the instruction sheet to get going with this thing.
I also like its solid construction. The plastic bits don't feel chintzy, and I was pleased to see what appeared to be real metal used for the knobs and buttons. The volume knob on my example rattled just a bit when shaken (or when the car rolled over bumps) but not so loudly that it annoyed me. With the music playing and road noise, I didn't even notice.
I also liked that the Streambot Y FM transmission seemed pretty solid. When I'd found a clear station, the audio quality was about as good as could be expected from an FM transmitter.
What it's missing
For a few users, the Streambot Y's simplicity is a bit of a double-edged sword. Unlike some FM transmitters that I've tested, the Y doesn't have a 3.5mm analog auxiliary input option. This may not be a huge deal for drivers who intend to leave their phone paired with the 'Bot via Bluetooth, but I like to keep an auxiliary input cable in my glove box for passengers to quickly connect to when I'm giving them a lift.
The Streambot Y's user also has to manually search for an open station to cast to using their car's stereo. This can be pretty tedious in areas where the airwaves are crowded. Other FM transmitters that I've tested have an automatic-tuning option that will find an open channel with the touch of a button, which makes it easy to change frequencies while driving. The Streambot Y's lack of an automatic-tuning function will be a deal-breaker for drivers in larger metro areas.
The last thing to consider is the location of your car's 12-volt power point. The pinhole microphone's sensitivity and call clarity will depend on where the Streambot Y is positioned in your car. If the power point is too low in the cabin of a loud car (or tucked into the center console), you may experience issues with callers hearing you.
For the $36.99 price that the MPOW Streambot Y can be found at around the Web, it's not a bad deal. The construction is good, and the FM transmission is clear. However, the competition from Belkin and GoGroove have automatic FM tuners, which take a lot of the guess-and-check out of finding a clear station that works for the locale where you drive.