Few consumer electronic gadgets are as dominant as Apple's iPod. Sony's Walkman may have pioneered the idea of the portable music player but today about 85 percent of all money spent on portable music players goes to Apple. While no one could have predicted that level of popularity when the iPod was first introduced in October of 2001, it has forever changed the way we buy, access and listen to music — and that seismic shift has altered the way we listen to music in our cars, too.
Order in the Car
According to Apple's Web site, 90 percent of the cars sold in the U.S. have an option for iPod connectivity and it lists 34 automotive brands as having some form of iPod integration. But in reality, most automakers have been slow to adapt. It was nearly three years after the iPod's debut when BMW became the first automaker to offer iPod integration. GM only started offering full iPod integration late last year. Today, almost every car company provides some way to patch an iPod into a vehicle's sound system.
But the term "iPod integration" is vague at best and includes everything from a simple auxiliary (a.k.a. earphone jack) input to full-function, voice-activated control of the device. To help clear things up, here's a rundown on what's currently available.
And even though the iPod is by far the dominant device on the road, we're also including info on how other MP3 players can integrate into a vehicle. Short of CDs and DVDs, the way you carry your digital music into a vehicle will likely fall into one of the hardware categories below.
Many vehicles now come with at least an auxiliary input or "aux-in" jack. You just need an inexpensive cable with a 3.5mm "mini-plug" on each end. Connect one end to the car's aux-in jack and the other to the player and you're ready to rock.
Some automakers such as Acura, Mitsubishi and Nissan, use the larger, color-coded RCA plugs like the ones you've seen on your home stereo equipment. Many include a video cable as well. In this case you'll need an RCA-to-mini-plug cable, which is a bit more cumbersome.
The advantage of an aux-in-only connection is that it's flexible — pretty much any MP3 device will play through this type of connection so you're not just limited to an Apple iPod. Aux-in jacks are becoming standard in more and more vehicles, so the feature doesn't cost extra. The disadvantage is that control of the iPod or MP3 player is restricted to the device itself, which is a dangerous distraction in a moving vehicle. Plus, the sound quality is inferior to that of a digital connection through a proprietary iPod or USB port, and an aux jack does not charge your iPod's battery while it's playing.
An iPod-only connection uses an Apple-specific connector or dock to mate the device to a car's stereo system. The approach varies among automakers, from a direct digital input into the stereo system to a lo-fi FM modulator that routes the iPod's signal through the FM tuner. The downside of this type of connection is that it's typically an extra-cost option and works only with an Apple iPod; the upside is that the device can usually be controlled from the vehicle's radio or steering-wheel-mounted controls. With the exception of the FM solution, another advantage is that the sound quality is better and your iPod's battery is sometimes charged when it's plugged in.
But some applications offer very limited — and often somewhat frustrating — control of an iPod. In the 2008 VW Rabbit, for example, an iPod plugs into a cradle in the center console and control is limited to the radio presets and CD-changer buttons. So if you want to listen to a specific song, you have to scroll through each one till you get to the desired track. Obviously this can be time-consuming and tedious when you have thousands of songs on your iPod. In some ways, a simple aux jack with iPod-based controls is better than this particular type of "iPod integration."
Other iPod-only applications offer expanded control and access to standard menu items such as artists, albums, songs, playlists and even podcasts and audio books. In the 2008 Mercedes C300 Sport, for example, when an iPod is plugged into an optional glovebox-mounted cable and the "Aux" audio setting is selected, menu items are accessed via buttons on the steering wheel. The info is displayed in the instrument cluster, and although the information is somewhat limited, it is much better than just an auxiliary jack.
iPod-Specific and Aux-in Connection
This setup gives you the best of both worlds: You can hook up an iPod to a specific connector, or you can jack any MP3 player into the aux port and use its built-in controls. An example of this is the current Scion xB and xD. Both come standard with side-by-side aux-in and iPod ports in the center console.
Just like other vehicles with iPod-only integration, the amount of control you have over the device through the factory audio system varies. On the Scions, for example, some of the iPod menu items, while being routed to the vehicle's factory display screen, are disabled when the vehicle is in motion. This isn't a problem or weakness with the software but rather a purposeful choice on the part of parent company Toyota. Many of its vehicles have the same lockout feature for the navigation system.
USB Connection With Auxiliary Input
A more recent trend is for car manufacturers to provide both a USB port and aux input. This allows almost any portable music player to be plugged in using the aux-in, while giving you the ability to play music files from a USB jump drive connected to the USB port. Access through the stock audio system is the big advantage here. All of Chrysler's MyGIG head units have this setup, which also allows you to transfer music from a USB drive onto an internal hard drive. However, with this type of setup you can't plug an iPod into the USB port and control it.
Some automakers have also begun to use an aux-in jack/USB port combo for iPod integration. Most 2008 and 2009 BMWs, as well as the new Cadillac CTS, use this setup. But for these you need a special two-pronged cable that's sometimes available as an option, although it's standard on the Cadillac. The unique cable taps into both the USB and aux-in ports on one end and into the iPod's 30-pin connector on the other. With such a system, you get expanded control (access to the iPod's menu items) and the device usually charges while plugged in. (A recent change in Apple's iPod/iPhone design means not all devices charge in all vehicles.)
An even higher level of integration is offered with Ford's Sync system. It also uses an aux-in and a USB port, but it allows you to hook up almost any type of portable music player via the USB port, not just an iPod. Even better, Sync gives you almost complete control over your mobile music library via voice control for safe and easy access to your tunes while on the road. You can even create custom playlists on the fly: If you like the song that's currently playing, you can say, "Similar music" and the system will find more music just like it. Sync is currently the best mobile music player system and is noteworthy because you can randomly access songs, albums or performers simply by pressing a button and saying the name.
Memory Cards and More
Another way to get digital tunes into your stock stereo is via flash-memory cards. A few vehicles come with this feature, including select Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen models. Some use a PC card slot that can accommodate an adapter that holds a CompactFlash or SD card. Nissan and Infiniti vehicles have a dedicated CompactFlash slot. Each of these vehicles also offers iPod integration, an aux-in connection, or both.
In fact, increasingly there are other variations on the four main hardware options detailed above. The '09 Jaguar XF, for example, comes with an iPod-specific connection, aux-in and a USB port in the center console. The 2009 Honda Fit can be ordered with an aux-in jack, a USB port in the upper glovebox that can accommodate an iPod, plus a memory-card slot behind the in-dash monitor when you opt for a navigation system.
Take Your iPod for a Test-Drive
With the various combinations available and with automakers constantly playing catch-up with consumer electronics, it's difficult to keep track of the many ways to integrate your portable music player into the car. So if you're shopping for a new or used car, take your iPod and/or favorite portable media devices along on the test-drive and see how they work together.
You can also click here to see a chart we put together that shows the above four main hardware options, cross-referenced with the general control functions you can expect from each. Use it as a "cheat sheet" when shopping or when you visit a car dealer. Also check out the video we put together that explains the four primary flavors of iPod-integration in a vehicle-specific context.
Music is an essential part of the driving experience for many people, and some car buyers even base their purchasing decision on how easily they can integrate their tunes into a vehicle. By using the info here and doing your homework, you can get the level of iPod or MP3 integration you want in your new car before you plunk down your hard-earned cash.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.