I've owned an iPod for two and a half years and owned my MINI for just under that. I've grown to appreciate both the longer I own them. Both illustrate how great design, engineering and marketing can create an iconic product. However, it would seem that neither had much in common beyond great design and rabid fans.
Finally in mid-June BMW/MINI and Apple announced that they had secretly been developing a new device that integrates the iPod into the stereo of BMWs and MINIs. While MotoringFile had mentioned an official product like this in the past we were never able to officially confirm anything.
Before BMW and MINI released it's iPod connector kit there were four ways to connect the iPod to the MINI. The first, the dreaded tape adapter, isn't applicable in 99% of MINIs due to the lack of tape players specced in the cars. The second are portable FM modulators like the iTrip. The major drawbacks to devices like these are less-than-good sound quality and significant interference within cities.
The other BMW approved connector is the dealer installed AUX port. The upside on the AUX port is a direct sound input give the listening good quality for the relatively low price of $45 plus installation. However there are drawbacks. For one, the audio many times has to be adjusted on the iPod not to mention the stereo itself. Secondly, you still can't skip to the next track or for that matter control the player at all from the car itself. And finally, there is no ability to charge from the car itself – one had to rely on an after-market option, and yet another device, in the car.
The fourth, and most flexible, way to connect the iPod up to this point is the ICE-Link from Dension. I won't go into details here on the ICE-Link since I reviewed it in depth six months ago. But the conclusion is that, while pricey, it gives you the most flexible solution out there – especially the new ICE-Link 1.1, which features digital sound and a handy cradle.
A quick note – this review is of the BMW/iPod connector. However the BMW and the MINI units are 99% identical and operate with exactly the same functionality (as seen here). MINI units won't be available until September of this year.
The new BMW/Apple device goes about things a little differently than the ICE-Link, however..The idea behind this new unit, as opposed to the ICE-Link, is that you have no interaction with the iPod itself while in use. Instead, you control the iPod using the existing controls on the radio. While this limits the overall functionality of the iPod, it also reduces the chances of driver distraction – increasingly something that our society won't tolerate.
The BMW/MINI iPod connector retails for $149. Installation should take one to two hours at your local dealer. The process is rather simple for those that are do-it-yourselfers. Just remove the head unit and plug in one end of the connector. From there you just run the other end into the glove box where you'll you're iPod will stored while in use. Not as easy as it sounds, but not rocket science either.
Knauz MINI were nice enough to hand over a Jet Black 2004 325ci with the Apple/BMW connector already installed for MotoringFile testing. The device is incredibly easy to hook-up to an iPod once installed. You simply plug your iPod into the glove box connect and turn your radio on. From there you just select mode and on the second click you'll get to what would be the CD changer – now the iPod. Once that is selected, you can choose one through five on the stereo presets which select playlists BMW1-BMW5 on the iPod as well as the ability to play the entire library.
Initially there was some disappointment in the functionality of the unit. However the way the system works makes sense once you're behind the wheel. The overall effect is very slick. Where you'd have to manually select playlists on the iPod with the ICE-Link, this one allows you to operate the iPod (only 5 playlists mind you) completely through the head unit or the multi-function steering wheel. It makes for a clean and clutter-free solution while sacrificing some usability.
The digital sound of the connection is also first rate. I tested 128kbps AAC files, 160kbps AAC files, and 192kbps MP3 files (all encoded with iTunes). All had depth and clarity that sounded close enough to CD audio that most will never know the difference. .
There is room for improvement, however. First off, the ability for the head unit to display song names would be welcome. Secondly, while it will play CDs with over 99 tracks, the head unit doesn't display any track numbers over 99 – something fairly common with MP3 cds. Finally the kit isn't available for cars with a navigation system, satellite radio, or a CD changer.
However it's my opinion that the ease of use and clean installation overcome these drawbacks. Further, you just can't underestimate how nice it is to be able to use the interface of the radio or multifunction steering wheel to control the iPod. It allows you concentrate on driving instead of selecting what song out of conceivably 12,000 you want to hear. And what you hear is perfect digital bliss.
For more information on functionality specifics see the BMW/iPod FAQ on Apple's site. [LINK]
Note: the review was conducted using a third-generation 40 GB iPod and a 2004 BMW 325ci.