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Car Entertainment '05

Current low-cost approaches to in-car MP3 and visual systems...

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • The latest in affordable car entertainment
  • Low cost in-car MP3
  • Low cost LCD screens and DVD sysems
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The days of spending several thousands of dollars on any sane in-car audio-visual system are well and truly over.

With the boom in MP3-related equipment and the recent price-drop of LCD screens, you can now enjoy a highly sophisticated in-car entertainment system for very little cost.

Don’t believe us?

Well, come check out some of the latest innovations and prices...

In-Car MP3

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MP3 is quickly becoming an industry standard in the world of car audio.

The biggest advantage of MP3 over a conventional CD is file size; MP3s are typically one-tenth the size, which means you can squeeze ten times more music on a CD. Because of this file compression, MP3s are also much more download-friendly – MP3 has become a standardised file type for internet downloading. And, because they are so readily available for download, many audiophiles spend the time compiling personal MP3 music collections.

It’s no surprise that many new cars (such as Hyundai and Toyota) are sold with MP3-compatible CD players as standard.

But all of this assumes one thing – that you’re willing and able to burn audio to CDs. To avoid the hassle of burning tracks to disc, a much more convenient approach is to bring your portable MP3 storage unit to the car. An MP3 FM transmitter is the ultimate in terms of convenience.

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The Anydrive Car MP3 USB FM transmitter is currently a popular device. It is wonderfully simple to use – fill your USB flash drive with MP3s, plug it in to the Anydrive unit and connect the Anydrive unit into your car cigarette lighter (or 12V supply) socket. Next, you select a FM frequency for the unit to broadcast and tune in your car radio. It couldn’t be easier.

No installation and no wiring.

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The unit is compatible with USB 1.1 and 2.0 configurations, which means you can plug in a flash card, thumb drive, multiple card reader units, iPods, PDAs, etc. There’s also a 3.5mm audio plug for connection to personal CD players, MP3 players and the like. The unit features a selectable transmission frequency (between 87.3 and 107.9MHz), which lets you avoid frequencies on which there are stations. An optional cassette adaptor (which takes signals from the Anydrive into your head unit’s cassette deck) is also available.

Cost for the Anydrive Car MP3 USB Transmitter is typically around AUD$100.

So what’s the downside?

Well, it is a bit clumsy to have a plug-in unit poking out of the dashboard, you need to remember your flash drive every time you go to the car and you need to adjust the radio frequency to tune into MP3. The unit also lacks a display, but it does have forward/back and play/pause buttons. And, like any product of this type, audio quality is below a conventional CD – at best, you’ll have the tonal range of FM frequency (which lacks extreme bass and treble).

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Another similar MP3 FM transmitter is the i-Rocks IR-1100. The IR-1100 unit works in the same way as the Anydrive product – it is compatible with USB 1.1 and 2.0, transmits on selectable frequencies and has a 3.5mm audio input socket. Again, there is no display but there are buttons for skipping forward, back, pause and play. Current retail price is around AUD$75.

Another cheap approach to in-car MP3 is to use a generic FM transmitter together with an MP3 player.

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Simply plug the FM transmitter into the audio output socket of your MP3 player and use the player to scroll through tracks, repeat, etc. Most ‘universal’ FM transmitters have selectable transmitting frequencies, a screen to display the selected frequency and are powered by the car’s cigarette lighter plug or 12V socket.

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The advantage of this approach is you can use the expanded functionality that’s built into the MP3 player (which means there’s track info, repeat and, depending on the unit, compatibility with ‘unripped’ WMA music files). However, you may need to set up a dedicated power supply to the MP3 player (rather than drain its batteries) and devise a method of in-car mounting.

A new MP3 player starts at around AUD$50 (for a basic unit) and a generic FM transmitter costs around AUD$40 – AUD$100.

LCD Screens/DVD Players

Not so long ago the thought of an in-car LCD screen was the height of extravagance. But with a monumental price crash in the last year or so, it seems everyone’s grabbing a screen for their car.

Let’s start off looking at the cheapest approach.

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Portable DVD players, such as this top-loading NextBase unit, are now available from around AUD$90 and come with a remote control, Dolby Digital Decoder and DVD, CD, CD-R, CD-RW and MP3 JPEG playback. At this price you really can’t go wrong – but, of course, you’ll also need a screen to go with it. Fortunately, you can now pick up a new 5 inch LCD monitor (also with remote) from around AUD$230. A 7 inch version is about AUD$100 dearer.

A piece-together DVD and LCD screen system like this shouldn’t cost more than about AUD$500.

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If you scour the market you’ll also find ready-to-go DVD/LCD screen combos or around AUD$300. If you’re happy to forgo high-end brand names in favour of names like Shinco you can find some real bargains.

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For an integrated approach which is designed for in-car use you should look for roof-mount flip-down screens with inbuilt DVD players. The cheapest version we’ve seen (again made by Shinco) incorporates a 7 inch screen, FM frequency audio transmitter, two AV inputs and a single AV output as well as integrated dome lighting (which means you can use it to replace your existing dome light). Price? Well, they're constantly changing but if you budget around AUD$200 – AUD$400 you’ll get one. Connect your own DVD source and you’re away!

Of course, if you feel the need, you are still able spend several grand on an integrated LCD screen/DVD player.

If you feel the need...

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