• Hardware Comparison: New Potato TuneLink Auto vs Belkin AirCast Auto


    Complete integration of your iPhone into your car is the future, but we're not all there yet. For those with older cars, cassette adapters are gone, FM transmitters are on their way out too and many people are left somewhere in the middle with only an aux socket as a basic way to free the music from their iPhone while driving. While an aux input is admirable, it does mean finding the cord each time you get in the car and keeping a separate Dock Connector car charger for topping up the power on longer trips.

    Today weíre going to compare two similar solutions that aim to improve the iPhone in-car experience by allowing you to stream music wirelessly from your iPhone to your car stereo via the Stereo Bluetooth profile A2DP, with the only requirements being a 3.5mm aux input and a 12v power socket. We've got the New Potato TuneLink Auto and the Belkin AirCast Auto.

    Belkin AirCast Auto


    The AirCast Auto is combines Bluetooth streaming with handsfree for calling and is straightforward to setup. In the pack is only the unit itself and an extension cable just in case your 12v socket are 3.5mm socket arenít within about 30cm of each other. To get started, plug the main unit into your 12v outlet (or do you still call it the cigarette lighter?) then run the longer cable with the large button at the end to a spot on your dash thatís easy to reach and suitable for picking up your voice, then connect the much shorter cable finishing with a 3.5mm stereo plug to your aux input, using the extension cable if you need to. The control button, that doubles as the handsfree microphone, holds on to a magnetic disc which is easily attached to a flat surface after peeling back the film on the adhesive tape. While the AirCast has a USB socket for charging your iPhone, you need to BYO cable.


    To pair your iPhone, hold down the button until the ring around the button starts flashing orange, then pair it as you would any other Bluetooth device (Settings > General > Bluetooth) - once connected the light ring turns blue. From here, all the functions of the AirCast are managed in typical Apple style by either clicking or holding the button, this includes clicking to connect your phone, pause and un-pause music and answer and end calls. Surprisingly the ďdouble tap to skip songsĒ didnít work on my iPhone 4 and even the ďpress and hold until voice promptĒ to voice dial didnít work reliably. A hint to the fact that maybe that using the AirCast isnít as simple as the designers intended is that the package includes a small slip with instructional diagrams, a separate Quick Install guide with removable ďTip Sheet for the ButtonĒ and another insert directing you to download a complete user manual from the Belkin site.


    When connected, streaming audio from your iPhone (or iPod touch or iPad if you are so inclined) is achieved by choosing the AirCast through the standard AirPlay interface in the iPod app or other media app of your choice. The quality of streaming audio is clear (music and incoming call audio), to the point where you would be hard pressed to tell the difference with a direct connection, although sadly the feedback I got from the other person on calls was not as positive. Even with the microphone positioned directly in front of my mouth, it supposedly sounded like I was ďinside a wellĒ.


    A few other issues are that the AirCast does not connect automatically each time you start your car. You have to press the button to initiate the connection, then press again to start your music (or start it from your iPhone). Although once youíve made the initial pairing there is less importance to the light ring around the button it is also very difficult to see during the day. At night itís very easy to see and actually quite cool but bright sunlight washes it out to the point where it might as well not be there.

    New Potato TuneLink Auto


    The TuneLink Auto focuses only on music streaming but aims to cover all bases by including an FM transmitter, which means with only the TuneLink itself plugged in you could stream music to it via Bluetooth and then transmit via FM to your radio.


    In the pack is the TuneLink itself (almost twice as long as the AirCast) with its 3.5mm audio & USB sockets, a short 3.5mm plug to 3.5mm plug cable (meaning that your 12v outlet needs to again be within 30cm of your aux input or youíll have to go out an buy a longer cable) and New Potato more generously than Belkin includes a USB to Dock Connector cable for charging. Since the TuneLink USB socket is rated at 2.1 amps, itíll even charge your iPad (or quickly charge your iPhone) and is insulated to eliminate interference. The TuneLink also has a blue light ring on it but itís as simple as a blue light meaning itís powered on.


    Being part of New Potatoís [app]cessory range, after the initial pairing (you donít need to do anything to prepare the TuneLink other than plug it in), head to the App Store to download the TuneLink app. Once passed the ďDO NOT OPERATE THIS APP WHILE DRIVING!Ē warning, you can use the app to play music (including creating playlists), find the best frequency for the FM transmitter and adjusting other settings, including automatically connecting, playing music and launching the app each time you start your car. You canít put a price on the convenience of jumping in the car and your music picking up from where it left off, all while itís still in your pocket.


    Both the unit itself and accompanying app (which is also available for Android) have an air of quality. The audio quality is slightly better than the Belkin via direct connection, delivering a more full sound. Using the FM transmitter does add a slight fuzz to the audio, but this is typical of FM and not a shortcoming of the TuneLink - as the only option for cars with no aux input itís good enough. Compared to the AirCast instructions, the TuneLink includes only a 4 step Quick Start Guide and nothing more. The setup and features controlled through the app are all self explanatory, except for Share Mode. The idea is that with multiple devices in the same car paired to the TuneLink each can take turns streaming songs either freely or by request, but it didnít deliver reliably in my tests with an iPhone 4 and 3GS.

    Conclusion

    Although the Belkin AirCast Auto was made to be simple solution, it doesnít quite deliver as a package. While the audio quality streaming music is good, the outgoing audio on calls isnít up to the same standard and can be frustrating. And while the handsfree operation is meant to be simple through its one button, some of the important functions arenít compatible with the iPhone. As a contrast, the quality of the TuneLink and its app shines through, showing a lot of thought in the design of both. From the fast charge USB port, the auto play and connect settings and FM transmitter control, the TuneLink includes almost everything for the ultimate in-car solution and is my recommendation of the two; with a good quality microphone and handsfree function it would be an absolute smash.

    You can find more info on the Belkin AirCast Auto at the Belkin site here and grab it for RRP $129.95 where ever Belkin products are sold. You can find more info on the TuneLink Auto at its Australian distributor's site, iWorld Australia, here and while you're there find a place to buy it for RRP $149.95.

    What do you think of the AirCast Auto and TuneLink Auto? What are you using in your car? Wired or wireless? Comment away!
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