The iPod Mobile Challenge
Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 4
Column Tag: Programming
The iPod Mobile Challenge
by Jesse Friedman
How hard is it to get an iPod to sound great in a car?
I'm going to admit something, but appreciate it if you kept it just between you and me: I've never owned an iPod, until now. I've helped a few dozen people buy them, but I've never actually seen my name laser-inscribed on the back. I know, I know, it's heresy to the highest degree, but I just never had a need for one: I don't do much jogging, my gym lets me plug into TV sets while I work out, and I've never been one to walk around with the outside world disconnected. In fact, there are only two places where I actively listen to a lot of music: at home, and in my car. At home I'm taken care of: my whole collection has been digitized into MP3s and ACCs, and it's connected to my stereo at all times. My whole home is set. As for my car? It only has a CD slot, which created a requisite pattern where every time I was going on a long trip, I would sit down at iTunes and burn six CDs to fill my changer, all of which would stay there for weeks on end, until my next long car trip. The iPod had no place in this paradigm: I didn't need one at home, and couldn't effectively use it in my car. I don't own a new BMW, which supports the iPod out of the box, so I'm out of luck there.
The iTrip Delimma
The first response I received when I opened up this closet full of iPod skeletons from everyone was, "Get an FM Transmitter, like an iTrip." Now, I might be alone in this feeling, but I have been consistently under whelmed by the iTrip and its ilk. But before I dismiss the iTrip, I want to say some nice things about it, because they are very impressive: they are small engineering marvels, and many companies have created elegant interfaces for using them that are sleek and in keeping with the legendary iPod ease of use. I am constantly amazed how easy they are to start using, their almost nonsexist learning curve, and ability to bring ipod-auto integration to the masses. In the careful balancing act of simplicity and ease of use against quality, FM transmitters are tipped in favor of simplicity. This is great for a lot of people, such as my technically challenged mother, but not for me. In my experience I constantly get bits of interference and other radio breaking into my iPod's signal. A large portion of this is my fault - I live in a densely populated area, where FM transmitters are competing with more than typical interference. FM transmitters might work great in the middle of Montana with no interference, but here in downtown LA, they're less impressive. Plus, all of my perfectly encoded MP3s loose a portion of their fidelity. Again, this is me being picky - I want perfect sound - and with that requirement I lose the simplicity offered by FM Transmitters. It seemed that I didn't have many options. Why more OEM car stereos don't have line-in plug in the front in the first place is a mystery to me. Some aftermarket products do, but Mazda spending the fifteen cents to add one would certainly make my life earlier. Plus, with no tape deck to use a tape adapter through, I was back to square one.
Or so it seemed. At MacWorld, the introduction of Monster's iCruze (http://www.monstercables.com/iCruze/) renewed my interest in the possibility: could I simply hardwire an iPod into my car? Without a mess of ten thousand wires everywhere? Could it be done?
Researching Adapters, Or, "How My Wallet Became $135 Lighter"
Not today, at least not with the iCruze. It isn't out yet, (as of late January when this is being written.) and I want mobile music now. In addition, once it is out, it won't support my car, a 2004 Mazda3 (a great car... but that's a discussion for another magazine). So what is one to do?
Luckily for me, my car is particularly popular with another subculture, one that has nearly the religious zeal of my friends at MacWorld. A quick Google search revealed a whole underground of aftermarket up-graders, who turn their cars inside out with additions and alterations in a constant game of one upsmanship. You've seen them race past you in Honda Civic Si's and Subaru Imprezas, at 3 am, and they've made you wonder how one fits so many blue LEDs in one small car. They've even had movies made about them, such as one of my favorite guilty pleasures "The Fast and the Furious." It's not Oliver Stone, but it's good old fashion movie fun. It even puts "The Pirates of Silicon Valley" to shame. Plus, this underground community also has more in common with the MacTech community than either would care to admit.
Like the MacTech community, car upgraders are active bloggers and discussion board junkies, posting bragging rights and stats of their cars in .sig files. Also, like the Mac community, they are inherently helpful and excited to bring newbies into the fold. Through Mazda3forums.com, I found a thousand or so posts discussing the possibility of doing just what I was doing: wiring an iPod into my car, gracefully and easily. I won't hesitate to pop open the side of my G4 to poke around inside, but popping the hood of my car is always an adventure. I know where the oil is, and pretty sure I know where the transmission fluid goes, but that's about it. But as far as removing interior panels and going after the electronics themselves? Forget about it.
Now, I was lucky: volumes have been written about my particular car, complete with step by step illustrated instructions and hyperlinks to everything I'd ever need. What if you don't have my car you ask? The answer is it depends: with almost any recent Japanese car, you'd most likely be in good shape. Same for similarly styled American cars (think Ford Focus). Drop your car's make and model into Google along with "iPod" and someone, somewhere will have most likely tried and shared their experiences somewhere on the web. What if you still drive the '84 Oldsmobile dad gave you? You might be out of luck if it still has the stock stereo, a new deck might cost more than the car is worth, and, if you're doing that, you might as well get one with an aux line-in, or an MP3 decoder.
Back in my car, I found a solution for my car: provided by a company called P.I.E. (http://www.pie.net) there are a series adapters that can take a proprietary CD-changer port on the back of my stereo, and provide my with my AUX line-in. Most of these plugs, hidden in the back of the machine, are designed to work only with CD changers from whoever manufactured your car stereo. P.I.E. adapters break open this closed model, and provided me a window to get my iPod wired into my car. (I'm going to ignore the palpable irony of opening a closed system to shoehorn in an iPod, the case study of closed systems.) I promptly placed an order for my particular adapter, designed specifically for my car (it cost $85). It converts the plug from a Mazda CD-Changer plug, to an Alpine CD Changer plug. (Why Alpine? It's seems to be the standard of choice), then from that Alpine CD changer plug, I have a wide variety of options, ranging from a simple AUX line-in, to a more complex built in iPod Dock.
Now came the hard decision: how much integration do I want? Ideally, I'd love to be able to control my iPod from the buttons on my steering wheel, which is one of the functions offered by the iCruze. The iCruze relies on the aftermarket standard of Alpine M-Bus, which is what I now have thanks to my adapter. Unfortunately, I still wouldn't get the text display of the songs I'm playing, only the ability to switch songs, and playlists. Plus, it's not available yet. Right now, I have two options: a standard RCA Adapter, which combined with a Y splitter, would give me the headphone mini-jack I've been wanting (all for $20), or a Dension Icelink ($200), which would give me control over the iPod via the built in stereo controls. I'll admit it: I really wanted to be able to switch songs via the steering wheel buttons for both safety concerns and the obvious cool factor. So why, in the end, did I opt for the standard mini-jack? A few reasons: according to people who've tried the Icelink at my new favorite website, Mazda3forums.com, it DOES work, but based on their experience anyway, isn't quite there yet. From what I read, you can switch songs, but not always playlists. It supports text readout on some stereos, a great feature!, but unfortunately not with the stock model Mazda chose for my car. So all I really get for two hundred dollars is the ability to switch songs blindly. In my opinion this is not enough added convenience to make it worth the price. I'd rather reach down and press the button and spend the $200 on my date!, (if I had one that is!) Plus, with the IceLink, I'm locked into the iPod. With a minijack, I can allow a friend who has (ahem) another MP3 player or laptop to plug right in. I also wanted a car charger for the iPod, which I found through Monster. The model I chose, the "Ultra-Low Profile Charger for iPod" provided a great looking charger. It's black, like my car interior, and simply works. Plus, it also features a line out plug on the dock connector that is NOT controlled by the iPod's volume. Thus, there is no fear of blowing out my stereo because I forgot to turn my iPod down. This charger unit is the same people who make the new iCruze. I'm impressed - they seem to really understand both iPods and cars. So I'll go with the charger/minijack combo, bringing the installation cost, including my Alpine adapter to about $135. Not bad.
Now comes the fun part: installing all the wonderful goodies I have collected for my project. Luckily, a poster on mazda3forums has posted step-by-step illustrated instructions for how to get inside my car. You should try to find something similar for your project. This made things a whole lot easier on me! Throwing caution, (and my warranty!) to the wind, I went to work stripping off interior panels. After all the careful prep and planning I'm happy to report just one short hour later, I was done.
I was actually surprised by how easy it was. With two screws out, the stereo slid on internal rails right out, exposing the back ports I needed. I plugged in the adapter and did a quick test run to see how things sounded before I made it permanent. I wanted to make sure the sound quality was worth all of this before I but everything back together. I wanted an escape plan in case all of these components didn't work as expected, and I had to retreat back to a FM transmitter. Ten minutes after removing the first screw I was greeted by U2, sounding perfectly crystal clear. Victory was in sight!
Serenely listening to my iPod over my car stereo, I started to contemplate, "where were these wires going to go?" Luckily for me, I had a plan: below the stock stereo where the environmental controls, and below that, an ashtray. Not being a smoker, (speaks well for me don't ya think? I am looking for that date now that I have that saved $200...) the space was up for grabs. I ran the wire down behind the controls, and drilled a small whole in the back of the ashtray's plastic, and pulled the wire through. And it was done. I couldn't believe it. I had set aside three hours for this project, and twenty minutes into it I had the end in sight. Almost in sight anyway.
The engineers at Mazda did not leave much wiggle room behind the stereo for additional items. After twenty minutes of struggling to get the stereo back in, I returned to mazda3forums to find out what I was doing wrong. It turns out there was a nook of space where a navigation system could be, if I had opted for it when I bought the car (for the sake of this project I'm glad to say I did not). I maneuvered the converter box into the nook, and the stereo slid right back into place. I tightened the few remaining screws, plugged in the iPod charger, wound the wires of the stereo input into the charger, and I was done. When my iPod is in use, it sits conveniently poking out of the ashtray, where I can reach the buttons to skip a rouge song. When I'm done, the wires tuck neatly away into the converted ashtray to disappear entirely. It sounds great, and the finished product looks really elegant.
Is This For Everyone?
So, is an undertaking like this for you? The best answer I have is: Maybe! Unless your much more experienced at this sort of thing than I am, by breaking open a car like this, you're taking all sorts of risks that come with the territory. You might scuff your car's interior (I did), or easily get in over your head with the maze of wires and components just behind the front panel. The interiors of car stereos are not designed to be access by customers, and they reflect that. Plus, I am relying on anonymous information from online discussion boards for my information, not always the best and most complete set of data. Before taking the plunge, look into what electronic support exists for your specific model car stereo, and, if a turnkey solution, like the iCruze, would work for you. Also, unless you're really comfortable with this sort of undertaking, don't get in over your head rewiring inside your car - there are plenty of shops out there happy to take your money do this sort of thing for you. I called a few, and most charged between fifty to a hundred dollars, depending on how complicated the installation is. Mine would fall in the easy category, but many are more complicated, and some have the hook up's in the trunk, rather that in the front dash. And finally, (The Editors, who would very much like me to live to write again, made me write this part!) don't play with your iPod when you should have your eyes on the road, especially if you live in the LA area and are likely to be passing me on the 101. To minimize the need to interact with my iPod while I'm driving, I prefer to set Playlists in iTunes ahead of time, and then start them in my driveway before I ever roll into traffic. It'd be an awful waste of all of this wiring work to have it disappear in an accident because I can't find the David Bowie song I like.
With all of this in mind, and assuming you have yet to find a plug and play solution that satisfies your extremely refined sense of style and taste then hard wiring into your car could be the just the trick for your long road trips.
Jesse Friedman works as a Macintosh Consultant for Mann Consulting in San Francisco. When he isn't working, he finds reasons to sit in SF traffic and put his iPod installation to work. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org