Now and then I run across a gadget that meets my criteria for cool technology. That means it has to do something useful, and do it better than other gadgets of its ilk. And it has to work right out of the box.
Roadmaster USA's odd-looking VRFM8 makes the cut. It's an elegant package of old FM broadcasting technology and new electronics that solves a real problem for many digital music lovers - how to play that great collection of tunes in the car.
At home, you can hook your iPod or another digital music player to self-powered speakers or your family stereo system. When you're jogging, working out, riding a bike or goofing off at the office, you can use headphones.
But headphones in automobiles are dangerous (not to mention illegal in many places). Worse yet, automakers have traditionally walled off their radios to anyone who's not willing to crawl under the dash and disassemble them.
Some new car radios have jacks that allow you to plug in external audio gadgets, such as MP3 players - but not all. And you can certainly replace your radio with an aftermarket unit that's friendly to digital music. But before you go to that extreme, consider exchanging a couple of $20 bills for a gadget designed to pierce the armor around your car's stereo system.
The best-known example is the cassette adapter, which looks like a cassette tape with a thin cable that attaches to an external player. Slip it into your car's dashboard cassette player, and it transmits music through the radio amplifier to your car's speakers.
Unfortunately, the cassette tape is a dying medium - killed off by the CD. Although you can buy a radio with a cassette player on the aftermarket, fewer and fewer are showing up as original equipment.
The other alternative is a FM modulator and adapter. These gadgets are compact FM transmitters with a maximum range of 20 feet or so. They take a signal from a music player and transmit it to an unused frequency on your car radio's FM dial.
Although the concept is good, the FM adapters I've tried have always been a pain to use.
Usually they consist of a transmitter box and two cords - a power cable to the car's cigarette lighter and an audio cable to the music player.
Roadmaster USA has changed this with its VRFM line of nifty, one-piece gadgets that combine a power adapter with a bulb-shaped transmitter and control knob on a hinged joint. This design makes it easy to read and manipulate no matter where your car's cigarette lighter is located.
For $20, the entry level VRFM6 provides an audio jack and cable for your iPod (or whatever gadget you're using), along with a small LED display that shows the channel you're tuned to, and a button that switches among 15 preset frequencies at the upper and lower ends of the FM radio band. No matter where you are, a couple of these frequencies are likely to be free.
In practice, the system worked as advertised. Just remember that FM broadcasts, especially low-powered transmissions from a $20 gadget, are not going to provide true CD-quality sound.
I tried the adapter in three cars and lost at least some detail on all three radios. But there's so much ambient noise in even the quietest car that it doesn't really matter. By adjusting bass, treble and volume on my radio and the iPod's equalizer, I could tweak the setup into a pleasant listening experience.
One problem I did run into was occasional and unpredictable static. You're unlikely to find a single frequency that remains quiet for hours while you're driving around, particularly in urban areas.
Must change channels
Sooner or later you'll have to change channels until you find one that's relatively quiet. This can be particularly annoying - and distracting - in urban areas where there are lots of FM signals bouncing around.
Now for the nifty digital extras. The upscale $35 VRFM8 model I tested isn't just for external devices - it includes a digital music player of its own, along with a slot for a USB flash memory drive.
Fill the flash drive with MP3 or WMA music files, and the VRFM8 will pump the tunes directly into your radio. You don't need an iPod, or any outside music player, for that matter.
It's cool, and it works, but don't expect frills - this is a bare-bones MP3 player. For example, there are no playlists. You can play tunes in the order you transferred them to the flash drive, or you can "shuffle" them, which means playing them in random order. You can also press a button to play the previous tune or skip to the next. That's it.
Nor will it play songs purchased directly from Apple's iTunes store, which are stored in a proprietary, copy-protected format. To use iTunes tracks (or those from other copy-protected online stores), you'll have to write them to an audio CD and re-import them to your computer as unprotected MP3 files.