By: Jonathan Kwan
March 18, 2006
You have two thousand songs on your DAP (digital audio player), but two hundred compact discs sit in your car. Do you see anything wrong in this scenario?
While you are busy thinking, the answer is, "Yes -- there is a problem." Why would you carry around a (car)load of music CDs while having the same songs on your DAP as well (Notice I am avoiding the phrases "MP3 player" or "iPod")? Quality might be an issue, which we'll discuss later in this review.
Anyway, today we'll be taking a look at the Belkin Tunecast II FM Transmitter. This little gadget transmits your audio tracks from your DAP or anything that uses standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack through FM signal into a radio tuner. This can be very useful in many situations, which, of course, includes using it in your car. For those who want to mess around with other people's radios and scare them using this, that's another story... I just want to say I will not be held responsible for the consequences...
Our review unit came in a rather large box with lots of packing peanuts to prevent any damage that may have been caused to the Tunecast II during shipment. In other words, the Tunecast II arrived in excellent shape.
UPS was used for shipping. UPS became favorite shipping company; in fact, it's better than FedEx in my opinion. No -- it's not sarcasm, after lots of experiences with other carriers *cough*DHL*cough*.
Our review unit came in beautiful retail packaging -- very cleanly designed and visually appealing. The outer layer of plastic packaging is relatively easy to open. However, the inner layer requires some ripping and cutting in order to take out the Tunecast II.
I noticed that it mentions or makes reference to the "iPod" many times on the packaging. "5G & Nano Compatible", "For: iPod 4G, mini, photo, shuffle", "Listen to your iPod through FM Radio", "Tunecast II for iPod", "iPod not included" and so on. This doesn't do much justice to other DAPs, but I guess "iPod" has become another word for "digital audio players" nowadays (Kids should use some real DAPs... that's another issue though) just like how "Kleenex" means boxed tissue and "Xerox copy" means photocopy.
Don't be worried about all the "iPod" stuff though -- the Tunecast II is compatible with any device that uses a standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. This is basically any DAP, CD player, tape player, computer or whatever.
Out of the box you'll receive the Tunecast II itself, a cable for an external power source (Adapter not included), quick setup guide and two Duracell batteries.
Before we begin the testing and everything, let's have a quick glance over the features. The information below can be found on Belkin's site; I changed a few things to clarify the information.
• Transmits on FM channels 88.1MHz-107.9MHz
• Memorize up to 4 FM frequencies
• Powers on automatically when signal is detected and idle powers off automatically
• Features low-battery LED indicator
• Includes a Mobile Power Cord for optional battery-free operation - will not charge the batteries
• Operating Range: 10-30 feet (a distance of 10 feet or less will minimize interference and provide the strongest signal)
• Uses 2xAAA batteries
• Radio Frequency Range: 50Hz to 15Khz
Belkin cleverly designed this device so the headphone adapter is hidden at the top and out of sight when not in use. The Tunecast II requires two AAA batteries, and so I'll be using Pure Energy XL rechargeable alkalines for my testing.
Jacqueline over at Belkin told me that this product has a rated battery life of 10 hours. I used it for around a day and it continues on well, so I did not run an 'official' drain test. (Send me an email on your thoughts regarding this) I asked darkorb on the forums who owns the Tunecast II, and he informed me that it's a good idea to buy the car adapter when using it in your vehicle. That's actually a good point, since you'll be draining your single use alkalines pretty darn fast, and you'll eventually use enough money on your batteries that you will be better off buying the car adapter instead. Of course, you can always opt for rechargeable batteries.
There is a low battery LED on the Tunecast II. Personally, an actual battery indicator on the LCD screen would make it excellent. FM signal strength indicator on the screen would also have been an excellent feature.
Do you think that the colors look a bit iPod-ish? What? I never said there was anything wrong with that...
For aesthetics and appearance, I personally think that the design has room for improvement -- it looks a bit chubby in a way. It would be awesome if it has more of a "high tech gadget feel" and streamlined look to it. Some people like their FM transmitter to connect directly to their DAP without an external cable leading out like the Tunecast II, but that is more of a personal preference.
Thickness comparison. From the left: CD jewel case, Belkin Tunecast II, Creative Zen Micro.
There is a fairly faint green backlight for using the FM transmitter in the dark. The backlight lights up when you turn the FM transmitter on, or when you press a button. This feature can be very useful for using the Tunecast II at night in your vehicle, unfortunately the green backlight is almost invisible during the day. You cannot disable it to conserve batteries, however this shouldn't be a big issue -- how often are you going to change the frequency of your radio waves anyway?
One of the features on the Tunecast II is auto power on when signal is detected. This is a good idea, implementation needs a bit of improvement since it turns on once it's plugged into my DAP, even though my DAP is off. If there's no signal, the Tunecast II turns off automatically after a minute, give or take ten seconds. Great for those people who always forget things like me.
You can also turn this device off manually by holding the up/down buttons simultaneously. It takes some skill to press both buttons down at the same time without accidentally changing transmission frequencies. The good news is, however, is that there are four slots for saving your favorite frequency settings, so you can quickly revert back the frequency settings that you've saved.
Even before even opening the box, I asked darkorb of his thoughts and opinions on the Belkin Tunecast II. The first thing he told me was that signal strength wasn't very good -- so of course we'll have to dig into this issue in this review. I tested it in three places, but the latter two aren't exactly the place you'll use a FM transmitter anyway (Audio streaming using WLAN is more preferable for home use).
Minivan - radio tuner - It's nice. I can sit anywhere in the minivan, even at the very back, without any signal issues. I tried hiding the Tunecast II behind a seat as well as inside a compartment and it works just fine. I can also get pretty far away outside the vehicle -- more on this in a second.
Receiver - radio tuner - I have to literally aim the Tunecast II at the antenna for proper signal without any undesired noise. I went as far as the wall will allow me (around eight meters) without any problems, although there is noticeably more static than when I was three meters away.
Audio mini system - radio tuner - Like the receiver's radio tuner, I have to aim at the tip antenna for proper signal. I went as far as the wall will allow me (Three meters or so) without any problems. The signal does pass through the wall -- the transmitter is around three and a half meters away from the audio mini system, including the wall in between, with the antenna of the audio mini system aimed at the Tunecast II. The Tunecast II's signal, which originates from the room next to mine, can be received but there is a noticeable amount of static.
This is as far as I can go without losing signal. Another baby step away means no more music in the van. Notice that the radio antenna is at the front right of the vehicle.
And for the best combination of range and signal, is this far away. Yes, there is a lot of snow...
Like I said before, too bad there isn't a signal strength indicator on the screen to show how strong the signal the Tunecast II is sending, since the signal gets weak at low battery.
It came to my attention that there is an approximate one second delay when switching transmission frequency. For example, when you are changing from 107.4 to 107.5, it takes the Tunecast II around a second before it actually starts transmitting at 107.5MHz.
Audio transmission quality is reasonably good. There is background noise when I used it on my receiver’s radio tuner and mini audio system. I suspect that it is due to the technology of FM radio itself more than the FM transmitter's fault (This isn't designed for use with home audio systems anyway, WLAN audio streaming is recommended for home use). Using it inside the car is a different story; as long as you are at least 75 cm away from a speaker you shouldn't be able to notice too much background noise. Belkin suggests that you should turn your DAP's volume to around 50% and adjust the volume output on the output device when necessary. During my tests, it is more preferable to have your DAP at relatively high volume (around 80% to 85%) and then adjust the volume on the output device to keep background noise as low as possible. Of course, you'll drain your DAP's battery much faster this way.
Here's an interesting thing I found out. I was History class, sitting there very bored, fiddling around with the Tunecast II. When I put the headphone adapter into the DC input jack like the photo above, the FM transmitter turns on! I guess it's mistaking that for audio signal detection.
Belkin's Tunecast II is an excellent FM transmitter and does what it's supposed to do very well. Audio transmission quality is reasonably good and probably as good as FM technology will allow it. Range is also reasonably good, the Tunecast II is excellent for doing its job in your vehicle without problems, if any. The design has room for improvement. When turning off the Tunecast II manually, you might accidentally change transmission frequency; fortunately there are four slots for saving your favorite FM radio frequencies. A battery level indicator and signal transmission strength indicator on the LCD screen would have been excellent if implemented.
Special thanks to Jacqueline over at Belkin for making this review possible.
Note: The number ratings below has been adjusted accordingly to comply with our new Number Rating System.
Rating: 8/10 | APH Recommended
What do these ratings mean?
Well worth your money and does what it's designed to very well. Battery and signal strength indicator on the LCD screen would have been great.