Direct iPod Control

Using an iPod in Your Car

direct iPod control
Direct iPod control is built right into some head units. Image courtesy of osaMu, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Apple revolutionized digital music with the introduction of iTunes and the iPod, and Cupertino’s mighty little music machine has managed to hold on to the lion’s share of the market over the intervening decade. That sort of market share comes with some benefits, one of which is the way that both OEMs and the aftermarket have tried to tap into the iPod market. Direct iPod control is just one example of the sorts of features you can take advantage of if you own one of these devices, but how exactly does it work?

Direct iPod Control

Some head units are specifically designed for use with iPods, iPads, and iPhones, but the exact implementation varies from one device to another. Direct iPod control is the most highly integrated example, and it’s available from some OEMs in addition to the aftermarket.

Direct iPod control work by using a dock connector cable to hook into the head unit. Some head units use the same type of Apple 30-pin to USB cable that you use to connect your iOS device to your computer, and others use proprietary cables. In cases where the head unit has a USB connection, the manufacturer will sometimes try to sell a cable anyway--despite the fact that any old USB dock connector cable will work just fine.

When you plug an iPod into a head unit that supports direct iPod control, your iPod will achieve a bi-directional connection to your car audio system. That means the iPod will be able to send music and song data to the head unit, but the head unit will also be able to send data back to the iPod.

That’s where the “control” in “direct iPod control” comes in. Instead of changing songs on the iPod like any other MP3 player, this functionality allows you to do so right on the head unit.

All That and Video Too

In addition to direct control over your music collection, some head units also support video playback over the same interface.

That makes your iPod a great video source for a multimedia car entertainment system in addition to its normal functionality as a music jukebox.

Direct iPod video controls work the same way regular direct iPod control does, but not all head units support this functionality.

Other Direct iPod Connections

Some head unit manufacturers sell iPod cables for head units that don’t support direct control. This is still more convenient than other methods of using an MP3 player in a car, but you won’t get the added benefit of being able to change songs via the head unit controls. If you’re looking for direct controls, this is a good reason to make sure that a particular head unit supports that functionality before you drop money on a receiver and a cable.

Proprietary cables sometimes hook your iPod into a head unit in place of a CD changer, and others use an auxiliary audio input or a proprietary connection that’s specific to that head unit or manufacturer.

No Direct iPod Control?

Direct iPod control isn’t the sort of functionality that can be added in short of buying a new head unit, which isn’t exactly a cheap or simple proposition. However, there are a number of adequate alternatives if you want to stick with your existing head unit.

There are a lot of different ways to use your iPod in your car without direct control. Some of the best options include:

None of those options allow you to control the iPod with your head unit, which means you’ll have to actually glance down at the screen to change songs or stop playback. However, you can add a wireless steering wheel remote if you want to be able to control the iPod without taking your hands off the wheel. This handy accessory consists of a steering wheel-mounted remote and an RF receiver that plugs into the dock connector on your iOS device.

While the combination of an FM transmitter and a steering wheel remote isn’t as elegant or integrated as direct iPod control, it’s a lot less expensive than buying a new head unit, and it’s also 100 percent wireless.