5 iPod Car Accessories

By: Jane McGrath

Car Gadgets Image Gallery The dream that seems to elude so many of us: smooth iPod connectivity with our cars. See more pictures of essential car gadgets.
Photo courtesy Apple Computer, Inc.

Lately, it seems everyone has his or her own iPod. You can't deny how fun and versatile those little gadgets are. They're great for toting along on long runs to energize your exercise or taking with you on a walk to the store. What's more, many stereos sold today are built to be compatible with iPods, so you can rock out to your library of songs at home. Oddly enough, however, it's more difficult to incorporate an iPod into the car for your daily commute or long trips.

The vast majority of Americans spends an average of an hour and a half in their vehicle­s every day, and the ride is usually made more bearable with the radio or some source of music [source: Langer]. Unless you've got one of the latest iPod-compatible cars (or until Apple, the maker of the iPod, designs a car), you'll have to make do and figure out how to adapt your iPod to your vehicle.

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­Your iPod and car may not get along now, but to get you started, we've laid out some of the most popular options and extras that can help you integrate the two. Overall, you'll have to consider three things: sound transfer, power source and placement. First and foremost, we'll start with sound transfer.

5: FM Transmitter

An FM transmitter is one of the easiest and most popular ways to connect an iPod to a car stereo, but its sound quality may leave something to be desired.
An FM transmitter is one of the easiest and most popular ways to connect an iPod to a car stereo, but its sound quality may leave something to be desired.
Photo courtesy Belkin International

Like in any healthy relationship, your car and your iPod need to cultivate good communication. One of the most popular ways of transferring the sound from an iPod to the car radio is to use an FM transmitter. These translate the iPod's information into an analog signal, which the radio then picks up. You can designate a frequency for it -- preferably a weak one, which may be hard to find in a big city. Just tune your radio to that frequency and voila! You're listening to your iPod in your car.

All FM transmitters aren't created equal, however. Some have a feature that seeks a good frequency automatically. What's more, sound quality may depend on the efficiency and length of the transmitter's antenna [source: Kensington]. A few models use the charging cable itself as an antenna for better quality, while other FM transmitters are completely wireless, small and very portable. If this is the case, they'll have poorer-quality antennas. And without a charger, they'll sap power from the iPod itself, shortening the device's battery life.

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For the best sound quality from an FM signal, experts recommend an FM modulator that uses wires to connect the car's antenna and the radio [source: Cabell]. Using one of these involves removing the radio -- a more complicated process than hooking up typical FM transmitters.

While FM transmitters (especially wireless ones) are simple to install and use, beware interference and hissing sounds. For better sound quality, you can try using an adapter, which we'll talk about next.

4: Adapter

A casette adapter is the simplest way to connect an iPod to a car stereo, but not many cars have tape decks anymore,
A casette adapter is the simplest way to connect an iPod to a car stereo, but not many cars have tape decks anymore,
Photo courtesy Belkin International

To avoid the interference that comes with FM transmitters, you can opt for an adapter. This isn't possible with every car stereo, but it may work for yours -- whether you have the factory-installed radio or you ditched that for a replacement stereo.

If you have a factory-installed stereo (the one that came built-in when the car was new) with a CD changer, you can use an adapter to integrate your iPod. This involves removing the radio and connecting an adapter to the CD-changer port and then connecting the adapter to the iPod [source: Cabell]. If you have a brand-name radio that replaced the factory radio, there's a special adapter you can buy to integrate your iPod. Depending on the brand, you might not have to remove the stereo to reach the CD-changer port.

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­A simpler option is using an auxiliary input (AUX-in). Auxiliary inputs are more common on brand-name stereos than factory-installed ones. These connect straight to your iPod through a mini-jack to a mini-jack cable, or a mini-jack to an RCA adapter [source: Cabell]. If the input happens to be on the face of the stereo, you won't even have the hassle of removing it.

­Some of these sound transfer options will charge your iPod while it's playing, but not all of them will. You may have to get a secondary power source to keep your iPod juiced.

3: Power Backup

Many people invest in a power adapter that connects to a car through the cigarette lighter.
Many people invest in a power adapter that connects to a car through the cigarette lighter.
Photo courtesy Belkin International

No matter how it interfaces with the stereo, your iPod is working hard to deliver soun­d to your car. To avoid your iPod cutting off in the middle of a "Free Bird" guitar solo or a compelling podcast, make sure you back up the device with an additional power source beyond its own battery.

One option is to use a battery backup accessory. Battery backups allow you to run the iPod on AA batteries but don't last terribly long -- some run out of power after eight hours, while others claim they'll run for 40 hours. After the iPod's power does run out, you can always replace the batteries. But if you plan on using your iPod in the car frequently, it's probably better to invest in a charger that feeds from your car battery.

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Most people prefer to take power directly from the car instead of using a backup battery. You can do this easily using a charger that connects through your car's cigarette lighter. These chargers are very common and easy to find in stores or online.

2: Mount

A mount can hold your iPod in place, while allowing you to reach and control it easily.
A mount can hold your iPod in place, while allowing you to reach and control it easily.
Photo courtesy ­Belkin International

Mounts serve a few important roles. First, they hold your iPod to protect it from being jolted around in the car. But they can make your iPod easily accessible to control it, too. Without them, you might be groping the seats and floor for the iPod (not to mention taking your eyes off the road).

So in lieu of propping up the iPod in a cup holder -- which isn't very handy when you want to access the controls and might get it tossed aside when a drink needs to take its place -- you can opt for a mount designed to fit in a cup holder and hold the device above it. Other kinds of mounts snap into car vents or screw into the floor of the car and extend upward. Still more use screws, bolts or adhesives to attach to the center console [source: Cabell].

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One popular option is a suction-cup mount. These usually attach to a window, such as the windshield, or the dashboard and extend out with an adjustable arm. You can also get such arms, known as gooseneck arms, on the other kinds of mounts we mentioned above.

Despite all these options, some do-it-yourselfers prefer to fashion their own iPod mounts. The sky's the limit when you have a little creativity and access to a hardware store.

If all this clutter -- the sound transfer, power source and mount -- is already giving you a headache, perhaps the next accessory would be best for you.

1: All-in-one: Car Stereos Made for iPods

According to Apple, more than 90 percent of new cars sold in the United States have an option for iPod connectivity.
According to Apple, more than 90 percent of new cars sold in the United States have an option for iPod connectivity.
Photo courtesy Apple Computer, Inc.

Instead of building its own car stereo, Apple has started working with car companies to make cars with built-in iPod compatibility [source: Stevens]. Some of these ster­eo systems allow you to control the iPod through the stereo's head unit or even through steering wheel buttons. Although you may buy a new stereo to fit your iPod, you may not be able to buy a whole car for that same reason.

Until you can purchase one of the recent generations of iPod-compatible cars, you can settle for a car stereo built with iPod compatibility. A few stereos have emerged that do this. Alpine was the first company to develop iPod-compatible stereos that you can control through the head-unit. You can shuffle through your library using stereo controls and even view album art on the stereo's LCD screen.

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However, some users get frustrated with the Alpine models' lack of a good dock for the iPod itself. To answer these demands, Fusion introduced an iPod-compatible car stereo with a face that opens and provides a hidden dock. This might be the best option for someone who wants to get rid of clutter completely.

No matter what accessories you buy to integrate your beloved iPod with your car, make sure to check their compatibility first. Certain accessories apply to specific generations of iPods only.

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  • Cabell, Todd. "iPod Installation Guide." Crutchfield. June 20, 2008. (Jan. 9, 2009). http://www.crutchfield.com/S-oK0XTdFTr7O/app/learn/article/default.aspx?pp=T&page=All&aid=850&articlegroupid=106
  • Gartner, John. "Pimp Your Ride for IPod." Wired. Sept. 15, 2006. (Jan. 9, 2009). http://www.wired.com/gadgets/mac/news/2006/09/71787
  • Kensington. "All About FM Transmitters for IPod." Kensington. (Jan. 8, 2009).http://us.kensington.com/docs/KCPG_FM_Transmitters_white_paper.pdf
  • Langer, Gary. "Poll: Traffic in the United States." ABC News. Feb 13, 2005. (Jan. 9, 2009). http://abcnews.go.com/technology/traffic/story?id=485098&page=1
  • Stevens, Chris. "Apple: Avoid death -- integrate iPod with your car." CNet. July 17, 2006. (Jan. 9, 2009).http://crave.cnet.co.uk/digitalmusic/0,39029432,49282055,00.htm