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Writers Workbench: iPod Accessories

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There is a gorilla in the MP3 room, and it's an iPod. Whether it's succeeded to that status because it's the best player around is personal choice, but there's no question that its rise is thanks, in part, to the swarm of accessories that crushes across the land like a Mongol horde. Third-party products for the iPod put it on a level untouched by its competitors. At the high end, carmakers are building iPod connection into their automobiles - at the circus end, there are lamps inexplicably with iPod docks on them.

Though many have a non-iPod media player, the reality is that those who do are growing like weeds. Here's an opening offering of just a very few of those accessories now available. (And as a "bonus," a final, interesting product useful for all MP3 players.)


• DLO Tunestik with Remote
• Monster iEZClick remote control
• Griffin iTalk Pro
• Griffin iClear
• DLO HipCase Nylon
• Griffin Elan Convertible
• Riptopia


To see this column complete with product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," visit the WGA website.


DLO TUNESTIK with REMOTE

All wireless iPod remotes are created similar, just not equal. DLO has a few interesting twists on theirs.

At its heart, it's the same as most others - snap the base on the bottom of an iPod, and control your player up to 25 feet with a small RF remote. The most notable change is that the device includes a wireless FM transmitter: find an empty FM frequency on a radio and set the remote to match it, and you can play your iPod through any radio. Also, the TuneStick has a pass-through dock connector at the bottom: this means that even if you connect your Tunestick to the base of an iPod, you can still attach any other device that requires an iPod 30-pin connection (like an AC charger, for instance). You simply plug it into the bottom of the Tunestick.

The Tunestick also comes with a dock for strapping onto your car's steering wheel so that you can control your iPod remotely without removing your hands from the wheel.

Much of this works very well, though some only in theory.

The FM transmitter allows you to configure four pre-set stations. It worked fairly well on a home radio, allowing for playing your iPod through any stereo system, though the signal wasn't powerful. It was more problematic in the car, where it had great difficulty finding a station to link with strong enough. By comparison, the excellent Kensington FM Transmitter/Auto Charger picked up a station clearly that the Tunestick couldn't get at all. And as a purely portable iPod FM transmitter, the Griffin iTrip runs circles around the Tunestick, as well. However, the remote still has a valid car-use - you can plug any external sound system (like speakers or a cassette adapter) into the iPod, using the earphone jack or even another FM transmitter (like the aforementioned Kensington) via the pass-through connector - and play your iPod through the car stereo, controlling it with the TuneStick.

The steering wheel cradle worked, but I found it problematic. It was somewhat distracting visually (not a good thing in a moving car), most especially when turning the wheel and when placed in the best position for use, on the side. It also got slightly in the way physically. This was all less of an issue when attached at the bottom of the steering wheel, though that's not the ideal spot for using it, but it does work there.

The remote pad is quite small, which is good and bad. If you have large fingers, it might be more difficult to maneuver. But the tactile usage was very good, and its small size was extremely convenient, and it works very well. The two things I missed are that there's no mute button and no clip, so you can't snap it onto a shirt pocket or jacket collar. The latter is understandable, to keep the size small. But a mute button should be added in the next version in place of perhaps the less-useful light switch.

There's one terrific touch for the forgetful among us - it runs off the power of the iPod, so there's no on/off switch that can be left on accidentally and run down the battery.

For all the issues of things it doesn't do as well as one might wish, what it does do it handles extremely well. Even if the FM transmitter doesn't work great, it does work in some conditions and those are quite beneficial. And the pass-through connection can be a boon. And in the end, purely as a wireless remote, it works wonderfully. Overall, depending on your needs, it's a very good device, and at $60 (at the time of writing), it's priced fairly.


MONSTER iEZCLICK

Monster Cable is one of the leading companies for high quality...well, cables. But they branch out in a few other areas, and one of their unexpected products is the iEZClick remote control for iPods. It has a few quibbles, several high points, and one indispensible bonus.

The indispensable first. When Apple released its iPod touch, the earphone jack was moved to the bottom. This rendered many accessories obsolete, since the iPod connector is on the bottom, as well, and full-length devices cover the full base. Among those sent into obsolescence are most remote controls, particularly problematic for the touch since you can't manipulate it if stuck in a pocket. The Monster iEZClick, however, was designed with a small connector which doesn't block the touch's earphone jack. As a result, it's the only high-end remote control I've been able to find available on the market for the iPod touch. (There are a couple very cheap brands I haven't been able to track down.) This alone makes it invaluable. Of course, it works with any iPod, not just the touch.

But, aside from being able to use it...how is it to use? And there, despite a few small quibbles, it shines.

To begin though with one quibble, the controller is a bit bulkier than others. However, this also provides one of its strengths, which greatly outweighs the size. Because it's slightly larger, the buttons are separated and large. For people with chubbier fingers, there's no problem manipulating the controls. And further, if you're in a cold weather area and wearing gloves, you'll still be able to use the buttons. This isn't the case with smaller devices.

You can also make the iEZClick a bit smaller by removing its belt clip, which then lets you use the included Velcro arm strap, for exercising. This brings up a bizarre quibble. For the life of me, I couldn't remove the clip. Since this is necessary to access the long-life battery, it clearly would have to accomplished eventually. Contacting the company, they offered additional tips, which included using a screwdriver as a wedge. It worked, with much effort, but it shouldn't be this problematic.

The iEZClick uses RF (radio frequency.) There is a slight delay after clicking its controls; but it's not an issue, just not as crisply responsive as some. The Pause control didn't always work when I first tested it, but has been fine ever since, almost as if the device had to be "trained" to accept the connection.

The iEZClick retails for $70 at the time of writing. It's extremely solidly made (even weather-resistant), something not always the case with remotes which can be on the light side. The few minor issues aside, the device works wonderfully, and the slightly larger size is actually far more a benefit than minor negative. And ultimately, for those with an iPod touch, there's pretty much no other option out there. But it stands on its own, whatever the competition.


GRIFFIN iTALK PRO

Though most people will use their iPod for playing back music or videos, a hidden ability is to turn your device into a digital recorder. With the iTalk Pro, it works with simplicity. Snap the small device on the bottom of your iPod, click the "Connector" button, and the Recording page the iPod screen pops up instantly, and recording begins.

When you select "Stop and save" from your iPod, the recording is given a date and time. To playback, simply navigate to Extras/ Voice Memos. Or, when you next connect to iTunes, the recording will be transferred and deleted from your iPod to save space. (The default name can be changed when transferred to iTunes.)

Saving space is important because recordings are saved as .wav files which take up a lot of space. (Approximately 600 Megabytes for an hour of high quality, but 125 Megs per hour, if you change the iPod setting to low). High quality - or stereo - does sound better, but not overwhelmingly. It's a touch brighter. If you're crammed for space, low quality (mono) should be fine, though honestly even an hour at high quality is not much more than half a gigabyte. Sound quality will never been wonderful with the iTalk Pro, but it's quite good for personal note taking and close interview situations. Less so the farther the source gets from the dual mics in the device, though a test of a lecture worked respectably well. The iTalk Pro lets you plug in an external microphone for better quality.

The only negatives are minor. You can't connect a power source to the iTalk Pro, so battery power will be eaten up, approximately at the level of if you were playing back video. And there is no built-in speaker on the device. While both features might be nice, their absence is not problematic. The iTalk Pro retails for $50. In the end, while it won't replace a high-end digital recorder, it's is a very good add-on to expand an iPod's capability.


GRIFFIN iCLEAR

Though a simple item, covers for MP3 players have taken on added meaning with the advent of video. A scratched screen can muck up (the technical term) an expensive investment. With an iPod touch, the issue adds a level, since protecting a screen is somewhat at odds with being able to touch it. To be sure, the iPod touch comes with a screen that is supposed to be scratch-proof - I'm just not willing to test the theory. Your mileage may vary. Godspeed.

With any cover for any device, I've never been terribly concerned with protecting against scratches to the back of a player or keeping dust out. Of primary importance is protecting the screen, allowing easy access to controls, adding as little bulk as possible and (unless you specifically want a carrying case) retaining the design lines of the original device.

The iClear is reasonably successful. Made of sturdy, transparent polycarbonate and coming in two pieces, it's fairly light and doesn't overwhelm the sleek lines of the touch, although those lines will be hidden to a degree. Drop your iPod in the base, apply the protective screen (more on that in a moment) and snap the cover on. A small opening at the top is angled slightly towards the back - this makes it easy to click the On/Off-Lock button with an index finger, but if you're holding the iPod in one hand and clicking with the other, the angle will require some maneuvering. A bit more problematic is the Home button at the front - a raised "U" in the protective plastic gives access to it, and this smallish slot could require a bit of effort for those with chubby fingers. It's all fine, just not as smooth as without having the case. The dock connector and earphone jack are fully accessible.

But all of that stands behind protecting the touch screen. And here, pretty much no protection will compare to the thick covering of other MP3 players. It inherently can't - you have to be able to manipulate the screen by touch. The iClear provides a thin adhesive plastic which is not terribly difficult to place on the screen, but may take a few attempts to get it the way you like. It did require a degree of smoothing to get the air bubbles out (and on has remained, though far off to the side, which isn't an issue), but eventually the screen was clear and the feel of the controls was crisp. It's not remotely as much protection as with heavy plastic, but any protection will likely be important to most people.

One thing to note about all hard-plastic covers: when charging an iPod, an encased device will have the heat held in. This tends to overheat the player, and its charging sense may shut off - which will give a "fully charged" notice, even though it's not. Therefore, it's best to remove your iPod before charging. It's easy enough with an hard-plastic cover, though a bother. With the iClear, you twist a coin in a slot, popping the lid, and it will pull off.

The iClear protective cover retails for $20. Though the added, slight bulk might be problematic for some who prefer the impeccable lines of the iPod touch, it does offer a huge benefit - when grabbing an unprotected iPod touch, it's easy for your fingers to unintentionally hit the screen and access features. With the plastic, you'll be able to feel your way far easier and avoid that, no small benefit.


DLO HIPCASE NYLON

A different direction is take by DLO with their HipCase Nylon for the iPod touch. This is a holster-style protector than snaps on your belt horizontally for easy carrying. It's made of sturdy nylon with a flap that covers the device for further protection. A small pocket inside keeps credit cards and such items. There's a wide slot for access to the headphone jack, though you won't be able to plug anything into the iPod dock, which is covered.

This is not a case intended for general protection, but rather for of carrying around when your outdoors. There's no film to protect the screen, and the device is left reasonably-open to the elements, so if you're concerned about dust, that's not the point here. It serves its purpose well as a compact carrying case on your belt, with a notable caveat - because of its construction with a fold-over flap, you're not able to manipulate the iPod touch when it's inside the case. You'll have to take it out each time, which is not the most convenient usage. Note that DLO makes a different model in its HipCase line which is Folio-style (like a notepad) and has a flip-up cover for easy access. Both retail at the time of writing for $30.


GRIFFIN ELAN CONVERTIBLE

Griffin has another entry in the case department for the iPod touch. It's in the same arena as the DLO HipCase, but with several twists that are seriously impressive. The cover is available for the iPod Classic and Nano models, as well (though its attributes appear particularly well-suited for the touch). It's basically a folio-style leather case with a cover that flips over for protection. (A very light magnet keeps the cover from flopping over.) There's also an included static-cling plastic film for added screen protection. Film isn't my favorite form of screen protection, but it's pretty standard for iPod touch cases.

What sets the case apart is that "convertible" in it's name. While the flip-cover gives the best screen protection of all those tested, it adds bulk (though not much) and takes away from seeing the touch's clean lines. If you don't like it - you can simply remove it - it slides out of its pocket. The back of the case has a very convenient belt clip - though again, for all those times you're not wearing the iPod on your belt, its adds bulk. But...once more, you can simply slip the clip off. Put it on whenever you need it. (In fact, there's an additional slot for the clip, so you can wear the ipod on your belt horizontally.) The flip-cover when reversed can also serve as a stand.

One other advantage over hard-plastic cases - it's very simple to slip the iPod out when charging, so you don't overheat the device. All the slots are easily accessible - earphone jack, dock connect, and On/Off sleep button, though folks with large fingers may have a slight squeeze with controls or keys at the far edges. (Also, right-handed folks will have to flip the cover all the way back in order to comfortably access the sleep button if they want to click it with the same hand holding the player.)

For people who want their iPod completely encased (to protect against dust - a desire I don't fully understand, but I know it exists), the Elan Convertible won't be for you. It doesn't hermetically seal the iPod in. Also, I'm not crazy about the rippled design of the flip cover, though that's personal taste. But these quibbles are minor. No case will likely be perfect, but the Elan Convertible is a gem and comes closest. It retails for $25.


RIPTOPIA

Riptopia is a service for both iPods and any MP3 players that will be utterly useless to some, and a godsend to others. It converts your CDs into MP3 files that then allows for easy transfer to you music player.

For those who don't have many CDs to convert, or who are technically adept, Riptopia has pretty much no place. After all, ripping CDs is easy, once you set it up. It only takes a few minutes per CD, so it's convenient. But there are others who have huge CD libraries they're dreaming of transferring to their music player, and the mere sight of the many hundreds is so daunting they never begin. Or there are those whose body simply locks up and the thought of doing anything even this remotely technical, and would rather pay to let someone else do it for them.

The Riptopia process works very easily. On the website order page, enter how many CDs you want converted, and whether you want Standard service or Premium (for exceptionally high-end users). Clicking on, you can have them send you the converted files back to you on a DVD, which you transfer back to your hard disk - or they'll sell you a portable, external hard disk and copy your files directly to it. You just plug the drive in, and you're ready to go. Most people will likely choose the former. And that's basically it.

Riptopia will then send you a shipping kit. This includes a spindle, on which you place all your CDs, and the box for shipping back, packing material, and a pre-paid UPS label. For orders under 500 CDs, the material should be process within 48 hours after receipt.

CDs are converted to MP3 at 192 kps, which is high quality. The company makes extra effort to rip CDs with scratches, using its "PerfectSong" error correction technology, running CDs through the process several times, if need be. My order was returned with a note that one song was unable to be converted. Oddly, when I tried ripping it myself, it converted fine. But everything else came through with flying colors. The cost for Standard service is 99-cents per CD, which includes shipping $10 insurance for each CD.

You receive back your CDs carefully shrink-wrapped in bubble packing, as well as the DVD with all your music files in separate folders per disk. Clear instructions explain how transfer the files to your hard disk. (The website does a good job of "hand-holding" all along the way.) For iTunes, you simply drag-and-drop a folder from the DVD into your iTunes player. Brain-dead easy. (Note - if you later want to have iTunes search for album information, it will only do this for song that have been imported, not copied. You can always import song files from the DVD, but iTunes only does this one song at a time.)

The conversion process work properly, and all songs were ripped and transferred, generally with covert art attached, and generally the correct album/artist information, using the Gracenote service. However - there were some kinds of albums that didn't work well with transferring information. That tended to be cast albums with "various artists." I had to enter all of that manually, a slight bother. For pop, rock and classical CDs, however, that tended to transfer album information just fine. Of course, if you have special preferences on how things should be listed in iTunes, you'll have to configure those manually.

Riptopia is not perfect and not for everyone, but it works easily and basically quite well, and if you need it, it can be a lifesaver.



"The Writers Workbench" appears in full monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, complete with product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here to visit the WGA website.