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  • The Last 5 Years (2002 Off-Broadway Cast)

    • 10 out of 10
    • Jason Robert Brown
    • The soundtrack to this moving off-broadway musical is heart moving. The lyrics follow a couple in a relationship for five years, one point of view going forward in time, and the other tracing time fr
  • King James Version

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      Ostensibly a tie-in to her brot

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In-Depth Review

Harman/Kardon’s Drive+Play

Given its brand heritage and robust features, we had high hopes for Harman/Kardon's Drive+Play, quite possibly the fanciest kit for automotive integration on the market. It's the first product we know of that hides the iPod, charges it, and still lets you view and browse songs using the normal iPod interface.

Some writers, including TMO's own Bob "Dr. Mac" Levitus, have written that they really like the Drive+Play. Unfortunately, we found that the D+P suffers from some significant flaws that make it hard to recommend. If you're fed up with FM transmitters for your iPod, then, by all means, take a close look at the D+P. Just make sure you know what it can and cannot do before you invest in one.

The Concept
The D+P has four components: a plug that connects to the iPod's standard docking port, which is how it both charges and communicates with the player; an LCD screen that can mount almost anywhere and reproduces the iPod's visual interface; a knob that roughly reproduces the iPod's clickwheel, complete with a rotating bezel and north-south-east-west and center-dot buttons; and a metal brick into which all the wires run. This "brain" is the piece that connects to the car's stereo and power. It sits behind the dash, out of sight.

The three visible components of the Drive+Play.
The control knob is behind the steering wheel; the display is at center; the iPod (in glove box) and the "brain" (behind dash) remain hidden.

If you don't want to make the installation permanent, the kit includes ways to tape the display and control knob to the dash. But the D+P is clearly made to be installed more securely. Professional installation at a nearby Circuit City ran about US$70. There are also various ways to send the audio from the D+P through your stereo, some of which are better than others.

Lost (and Found!) in Transmission
The D+P ships with a built-in FM transmitter that broadcasts the audio from the iPod over a selectable frequency. There are many (far cheaper) products that can play your iPod music in this fashion, such as the Griffin iTrip. Like other FM transmitters, the audio quality over FM is mediocre, and unacceptably low for a product as expensive as the D+P. The second solution is to purchase a wired FM transmitter, which retails for $29.99. Representatives from Harman/Kardon assured us that they got great fidelity out of this solution but our test unit sounded no better.

After discussing the problem with H/K, we decided to try a third option: a digital audio interface that passed the signal from the D+P into the aux-input of the car's CD player. These digital interfaces cost around $60, and the exact type of adapter depends on the make and model of the car. This solution, thankfully, produced excellent, clear sound at all volumes. Indeed, the quality of the audio was so good that it was limited not by the iPod or the D+P, but by road noise while driving. It's hard to ask for better from an iPod car adapter.

Interface Issues
We were excited about the D+P because of it's clever interface concept, but there, unfortunately, lie most of the D+P's flaws. On the plus side, it does replicate the iPod's click wheel interface. You can search your music by artist, genre, album, and so forth. You can change the size of the onscreen text. And most importantly, the interface for finding and playing music is the best of any car adapter we've seen.

Then there are the quirks. Scrolling through long lists with the bezel is not quite as natural as with the iPod's touch-sensitive scroll wheel. The D+P turns on and starts playing automatically whenever the car is turned on, which can be annoying; it would be nicer if it resumed doing whatever it had been doing when the car was last on (whether playing, paused, or off). If the iPod is plugged in to the D+P when the car is turned off, it will continue to charge, which actually drained our car batter over the holiday vacation; the D+P should have a safeguard to prevent this. Also, the iPod's extra features are not implemented in the D+P interface, so there's no way to view contacts or calendars downloaded to the iPod; we found this oversight particularly irritating, since iPod makes it easy to look up phone numbers.

Perhaps the D+P's biggest shortfall is that the firmware can't be upgraded, so none of these quirks can be corrected without purchasing new hardware. Without any hope of improvement with time, it is almost impossible, no matter how fine the audio quality may be, for us to recommend the D+P.

The Bottom Line
We're still really excited about the Drive+Play's concept. A car adapter that replicates the iPod experience (in a manner conducive to driving) is long overdue. When paired with a $60 digital adapter, we were pleased that the D+P replicates the audio experience of the iPod, but the interface experience still falls short. Future iterations of the D+P may squish its more severe interface quirks—and hopefully, H/K will take the vital step of making its firmware upgradeable. As it is, the D+P is a great piece of audio equipment, and the best way we've found to use the iPod in the car, but it lacks the touches that could have made it a truly great product. For the price, we came away wanting more.

Just The Facts

Drive+Play from Harman/Kardon

MSRP US$199.99

Pros:An iPod car adapter with a good music browsing interface and terrific audio quality.

Cons:Need to by an extra $60 adapter, nonupgradeable firmware, interface quirks, questionable power management, iPod extras (eg, contacts, calendars) not implemented.

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