A pricey iPod companion

There’s no denying the cool factor of the Drive + Play 2, Harman-Kardon’s update to its Drive + Play car adapter for iPods and other portable digital audio players. With its 3.5-inch color display mounted on your dash and its 2-inch-diameter scroll-wheel controller, this device will up the tech cred of even the most beat-up clunker.

Even better, the controller and display make navigating through your music collection a much safer experience while driving. It’s too bad you have to pay such a high price for safety, though: At US$400, the Drive + Play 2 costs more than twice as much as similar products, and it’s more than four times the price of low-end competing devices.

The Drive + Play 2 works with any iPod and is also compatible with most USB flash-drive players. The built-in software categorizes your music by genre, and also lists the music by artist, album, track, and other options. Available later this year for an extra charge will be adapters for controlling your Sirius satellite radio and Bluetooth cell phone through the Drive + Play 2.

I used the adhesive pads provided to install the unit’s display on my dash, and its control wheel on the middle console of my car. Although the pads kept these two elements in place as I drove, most people will likely prefer the solidity of a direct mount to their car’s dash and console. (The unit ships with screws and other equipment needed to attach the display and the control wheel directly to the car.) Simple twist-off bases allow you to remove the display and wheel to keep them safe and out of sight when not in use.

I streamed audio files from my 4GB iPod and 2GB Sansa Connect audio players through the car’s stereo via a wireless FM link (you can also make the connection directly via cables that ship with the product). The music came through clearly, though I did hear some background static that a wired link likely would have eliminated. The quality was at least as good as that of local radio stations, and often better; however, the higher quality offered by a direct link to your car stereo may be worth the extra effort (even if it adds the expense of professional installation). Of course, that drives up the Drive + Play 2’s price even more.

Using the scroll wheel to browse through tracks, adjust the volume, and make other changes to settings was a tactile pleasure. You spin your fingers around the edge to move the selection up or down, and you click one of its four buttons (top, bottom, left, and right) to move to the next screen, go back to the previous screen, pause or play the audio file, or perform other operations.

You can do all of this without looking at the controller. Another important safety factor: The display’s big, easy-to-read entries. The combination of the size of the screen and the efficiency of the controller keeps you from fumbling with them as you drive. The added degree of safety that results is one of the top reasons to accept the expense of this device over other in-car media players that lack a clear display, or that rely on the iPod’s own screen.

If you can get past the price tag, the Drive + Play 2 is a great way to bring your audio-player tunes on the road with you, and maybe generate some admiring glances along the way.

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