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Taking Your iPod on the Road

There's no denying the popularity of Apple Computer's iPod. In big cities and college campuses everywhere, the white earbud headphones that signify iPod ownership are popping up in increasing numbers. But the iPod isn't just a fashion accessory for the tragically hip. For commuters around the world, this handy and elegant little device is the ultimate way to listen to your favorite music, hear a new audio book, or catch up with the latest podcast.

If you're on the go, iPod usage is fairly straightforward: Pick the appropriate carrying case and headphones for your expensive new toy and hit the street. But there's one crucial area in which the iPod, to date, has been failing commuters. Although millions of people head to work or school by car each day, the necessary accessories to transmit music from an iPod to a car stereo have been notably lacking.

Until recently, I had been using a cassette adapter to play audio from my iPod in my car. That's a handy if somewhat sonically challenged solution if you happen to have a cassette player. But more and more new vehicles are shipping without these suddenly old-fashioned devices. And cassette adapters can't charge an iPod, so you need a separate charger anyway, or you must constantly return the iPod to your house to charge it.

I've also tested devices that wirelessly transmit audio from the iPod to the car stereo, using unutilized FM radio stations. Here's how these devices typically work: You plug the transmitter into the iPod and set it to an FM frequency that isn't used in your area (e.g., 97.9). Then, you tune your radio to the same frequency and, if the electronic gods are feeling benevolent, you'll hear sound.

All too often, however, these devices have underperformed. The sound quality has been lackluster, and because FM stations fade in and out as you drive around, the iPod is often interrupted by suddenly emerging signals or weird bursts of static. And like cassette adapters, these devices have never been able to charge an iPod, therefore requiring a separate charger. I tested two such devices earlier this year and came away unimpressed.

Then came MacWorld Boston last week, and an impromptu meeting with the good folks at Digital Lifestyle Outfitters (DLO). At the show, DLO announced a new FM transmitter for iPods called TransPod for iPod shuffle. Don't be confused by the name: The TransPod works fine with virtually any iPod (or other MP3 player), although it works especially well with Apple's smallest player.

Here's why it's different. The TransPod is a small black box with a DC power adapter out the back and a USB input port on top. The power adapter, naturally, plugs into your car's power port/cigarette lighter. You can use the USB port to mount an iPod shuffle to the TransPod, or you can use a standard USB cable to plug in any other iPod. This means you can charge the iPod while it's connected—a huge plus.

On the front of the TransPod is a blue display from which you choose the FM frequency you'll use. Unlike other FM-based devices, this one worked for me on the first try, and although the sound-output level is indeed a bit lower than that of my cassette adapter, it's better than other similar gadgets. But DLO takes things a step further by offering two somewhat unique additions. The TransPod also includes ports for a cassette adapter and a line-in jack, so you can utilize those if you have them. In other words, it's the only iPod connection you'll ever need for a car.

The TransPod's unique design puts the iPod shuffle front and center, but in some vehicles the power port is low on the dash, so DLO is working on a flexible extender arm that will both power the shuffle and raise it higher. Although that accessory would be a nice addition, the TransPod is almost perfect as it is. And at just $60, it's a relatively inexpensive purchase, given its multi-use functionality. (DLO also sells TransPod models for other iPods, if you'd like a more integrated solution). I highly recommend checking out the TransPod.

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