Let’s face it, MP3s are really convenient. They’re small, they’re mobile, they offer good quality, they don’t skip … all in all, they’re pretty amazing. The problem is they don’t play on normal stereos, and without an MP3 enabled system you’re kind stuck listening to them on your computer. There are lots of car stereos now that are MP3 compatible, but there’s a much cheaper alternative available. Enter the I-Rocks.
For what it does, I-Rocks is incredibly inexpensive and quite amazing. The top of the unit contains a USB port which will accept basically any USB thumb drive. The bottom of the I-Rocks plugs into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter. Without any modification to your car’s stereo, the I-Rocks plays MP3 songs from your thumb drive and broadcasts them over your radio. Just tune to one of four selectable radio stations on your car stereo, and you’ll be jammin’ in no time. Neat!
Well, kind of neat. Before I complain about the product too much I do have to say that for the price, this is a pretty amazing little piece of hardware. Installation is measured in seconds. After plugging in your thumb drive, I-Rocks scans it for MP3s and plays them alphabetically, sorted by folder.
Unfortunately, the unit lacks many useful features. The front of the unit contains five buttons, two of which are reset, and change station. The other three allow you to move forward one track, move backward one track, and pause the player. There is no fast forward or rewind, which would be really useful if you plan on listening to audiobooks or podcasts on the unit. Likewise there’s no way to skip forward more than one track at a time, so putting multiple albums on your memory stick at once can become a pain if you want to jump to the last one.
Another strange feature of the unit is that it’s always on. The play/pause button contains a superbright blue LED which will fill your car’s cabin at night with glowing blue light. When playing the light flashes, which makes it even more annoying. And when you get out of your car you will notice something — the light’s still blinking, and if your thumb drive has a usage LED on it, you’ll see it still flashing as well. Both the power outlet and the cigarette lighter in the front of my vehicle power the unit even after my car keys have been removed. Pausing the player doesn’t kill the power either. After leaving my thumb drive in the car for only a couple of days it was burning hot when I removed it.
The unit comes with a wire antenna that plugs into the side of the unit. You might not think that an antenna would be needed with a device so close to your stereo, but I found that the quality significantly improved when it was connected. But even with the antenna connected the unit’s sound quality never got much better than “good”. Even with high quality MP3 files I found the sound quality to be less than that of most of my regular radio stations. The I-Rocks has a tendency to muddy most songs, squelching highs and blurring bass. It’s still listenable, but the drop in quality is quite noticable.
Within a couple of months, my unit began falling apart. Occasionally it resets itself. I’ve had to take apart and tighten the power adapter portion at least once. I also feel compelled to mention that one of my thumb drives (out of two) quit working altogether while it was in the unit, and after that my computer would no longer recognize it and it had to eventually be thrown away. Coincidence? Who knows. I ended up purchasing a 256 meg USB thumb drive and it works perfectly with the unit — it’s small enough that it scans and begins playing quickly. I have also tested 2 gig and 4 gig drives, both of which worked fine.
It feels wrong to complain too much about the I-Rocks. For only $20 you can easily and quickly add the ability to play MP3s in any car without any technical knowledge. I would happily pay more ($40-$50) for a unit with a few more options (random shuffle, perhaps?) that was built a bit sturdier. I suspect we’ll see these things in the next generation of these devices.