I joined the ranks of iPod owners last year, motivated by the desire to have enough musical variety to last a five-hour plane trip without having to fiddle with a carrying case full of CDs. About the size of a deck of cards, the white-and-silver iPod can store and play enough music to last several days, thanks to its built-in hard disk--as large as 40 gigabytes, depending on the model.
But I soon discovered that the iPod, made by Apple Computer Inc., Cupertino, Calif., has other uses. In particular, it can double as a removable hard disk. Apart from transferring large files, some technically savvy users boot their home and office computers from their iPods, ensuring that all their files and settings are with them wherever they go. (This trick requires putting a copy of your operating system of choice on the iPod and using a computer that will support booting from a FireWire drive.)
Now, a crop of gadgets aim to make the iPod even handier, so I went looking for some must-have iPod add-ons.
First, I tried out three recorders that let you record sound directly onto the iPod's disk: the Voice Recorder and the Universal Microphone Adapter, both from Belkin Corp. in Compton, Calif., and the iTalk from Griffin Technologies in Nashville, Tenn.
Like many of the gadgets I tested, the recorders are designed for the latest generation of full-scale iPods and do not work with either the new line of iPod Minis or older generations of iPods.
Belkin's Voice Recorder (US $60) comes equipped with a condenser microphone and a tiny loudspeaker. You plug the recorder into the top of the iPod, and Apple's uncluttered and intuitive standard sound-recording interface pops up on the iPod's 41-by-33-millimeter screen. Recordings are automatically labeled with date and time and can be played back through the Voice Recorder's speaker or the iPod's earphones or transferred to a desktop computer.
More than a player
The iPod music player [top center, with screen] can be enhanced with these gizmos: [clockwise from top right] naviPod remote, naviPod adapter, Voice Recorder, Universal Microphone Adapter, iTrip, Media Reader, and iTalk.
The quality of the recording, however, is poor. I wasn't expecting much--at a sample rate of 8 kilohertz, the best recording is going to sound only about as good as a telephone conversation--but even though I tried varying the recorder's distance from me as I spoke, loud crackles pervaded my recordings unless I spoke very softly.
Belkin's Universal Microphone Adapter ($40) fared much better. Although it lacks a speaker for playback, the adapter comes with a three-level volume control and a light-emitting diode that changes color from green through yellow to red in response to recording volume. Since it has no internal condenser microphone, I had to plug in a microphone (one that I use for Web conferencing). The improvement in sound quality over the Voice Recorder was dramatic, especially with the LED's assistance in setting the appropriate volume level.
Griffin's iTalk ($40) comes with both a built-in condenser microphone and a jack for an external microphone, as well as a small speaker. As with the Voice Recorder, the condenser microphone produced a poor recording, but with my own microphone, the sound improved greatly.
The iTalk beats Belkin's recorders on features, but some users might prefer the recording volume control offered by the Universal Microphone Adapter.
Moving beyond sound recorders, Belkin does have a winner on its hands with its Media Reader ($110). This unit can read several types of storage media cards used in digital cameras. Even though these removable cards can often store dozens of high-resolution images, a snap-happy road-tripper can easily run out of space in a day or two.
Using the Media Reader, you can free up that space by copying photographs to your iPod: pop the camera's card into the Media Reader and plug the device into the iPod's dock connector. An easy-to-use interface lets you copy your pictures to the iPod's hard disk. Although you have to transfer the images to a Mac or PC to view them, the Media Reader fills an obvious need and is simple to use. Belkin also wins extra points for including the AAA batteries needed to power the unit.
Griffin offers another gadget that road-trippers will like, which is also available in a version suitable for older iPods: the iTrip ($35). It is a radio transmitter that plugs into an iPod and broadcasts its output as an FM signal on one of 100 frequencies selectable by the user. (Readers in the United Kingdom should be warned, though: because of spectrum licensing, it's illegal to operate the iTrip there.) The range is no more than a few meters, and FM quality isn't as good as the iPod's direct output, but car drivers and passengers should find that the iTrip makes a nice alternative to hunting for an acceptable radio station while on the road.
Of course, iPod owners don't have a purely mobile existence, and with a decent set of speakers, the iPod can make a pretty good home jukebox. Altec Lansing Technologies Inc., in Milford, Pa., offers a portable set (in white, of course) specially designed for the iPod, but I haven't tried it myself--my regular Altec Lansing home desktop speakers work just fine.
Ten Technology, in Pacific Palisades, Calif., also makes a nifty accessory, the $50 naviPod (available for older iPods, too). Once fitted to the iPod, the naviPod lets you control the player with a stylish infrared remote control from the comfort of your couch. The naviPod also comes with a stand that props the iPod upright for those without Apple's own iPod dock.