Technology Tuesday: Automatica – Synced Tunes and Podcasts For Your Car

The Automatica [$99] by Italian technology company Inrete is a USB device designed for your car that keeps your audio content from the cloud and your favorite podcasts automatically synced. There’s no need to plug into a computer to add new content or worry about your stick’s content getting stale. Set up your web services and your albums, playlists, songs, podcasts, audio books or other digital content can be listened to without using your smartphone’s data plan or having to use the often finicky Bluetooth connection. Simply plug into your car radio’s USB connection and use your car’s audio system to access a plethora of audio sources.

The Automatica device syncs your music from the cloud with such services as Box, DropBox, Skydrive, Google Drive and SoundCloud. Additionally, podcasts can also easily be added. The device uses WiFi to pull fresh content and keep a local cache on your device. Tunnels, remote countryside and areas with spotty coverage are no longer an issue so you can drive, listen to tunes and enjoy your content without a data or WiFi connection. While the internal memory is only 2GB, you can add an microSD card increasing capacity up to 64GB for a massive library of thousands of tracks and days of audio. Having just bought my first car with a radio with USB input, I couldn’t be more excited or happy to be using the Automatica. Read on to learn more about this great device.

How does this work? The device is more than just a glorified USB stick. It is actually a full blown mini-computer running an ARM processor with built in flash memory, RAM and a WiFi 802.11 b/g radio. When purchasing, you can begin to set up your device choosing cloud services and podcasts that you want to sync. Your device will come loaded with content and ready to go. Similarly, you can run the setup process from any PC or Mac computer which adds WiFi network information and passwords if you will be connecting from a protected network. Open networks will be connect automatically if you chose. After the initial setup, there’s no need to ever plug your device into a computer again. You can add additional networks from the web interface from any computer and manage all your subscriptions from the cloud.

Once your network information is setup, you can add content from DropBox, Box, Skydrive, Google Drive or SoundCloud. Simply authorize the accounts and designate which folders to monitor and sync. It couldn’t be easier. I have “Music” folders in DropBox and Box that I use, and have my entire Google Drive being synced. So I can drop an album or audio book into one of my folders, or “Like” a SoundCloud song and the next time my device connects, the content will automatically be added.

On the web dashboard, Podcasts can also be added. There are hundreds already listed but you can search by keyword or add manually be entering the podcast’s URL. Once your podcasts are selected, you can choose how many of the most recent episodes to sync or how many days to keep current. I have some podcasts where I sync the last three episodes and others that I sync anything from the last 30 days for example.

[Web Dashboard with Cloud Services Setup]

OK! Great. I have a dozen podcasts and my cloud services authorized. Now what? Plug your device into the USB input of your car radio and access like you would any flash drive device navigating to your top level folders of your podcast subscriptions and cloud service folders. Select and play with your integrated audio controls from your car. Conveniently, many cars have the USB jack in the glove compartment or center console storage area keeping the Automatica tucked away nicely. When your device is within range of the WiFi networks you specified, or an open network, new content will automatically be downloaded. Again, the big benefit is being able to use your car’s audio controls rather than from your phone or MP3 player directly when using the AUX input. This is not only easier but much safer and frees the phone for navigation or other uses.

What types of files can I add? The Automatica is not actually playing or converting your audio of course- it is simply a storage device. So you can add any files your car radio can play. All car systems play MP3s and many can play WMA, AAC and other types. Not many can play lossless like FLAC. So keep in mind that you can add anything you want to sync with your Automatica but it will not be recognized and played unless your player can handle them.

[Automatica in a glove compartment]

What else do I need to be aware of? Should I buy this? Remember, first and foremost, your radio needs USB input. Second, you’ll need decent WiFi to sync your audio files. If you are never near WiFi, it will be a hassle to constantly unplug, bring inside and sync. Ideally, your driveway or curb will be close enough to your home or apartment signal to sync. Other options are of course a portable hotspot (like recently reviewed FreedomPop) or tethering with your mobile phone. Automatica even has a cool Android app to automatically turn on tethering when you are in your car. (You can even manage your content right from the app!) Driving around and catching an open WiFi network will not be enough to keep all your content synced. Likewise, if your USB port does not provide power while your car is off, you will have a tough time keeping your device synced. There is an optional car supply power kit ($19.95) that will keep your device powered all the time and allow sync to happen while parked and your car is off.

Drawbacks There’s a few things that prevent Automatica from being a perfect playback device. First, there is no gapless playback so you’ll get that split-second gap between tracks. This isn’t the end of the world but can be an annoyance when listening to live shows with uninterrupted music between tracks. Fortunately, firmware can be updated “over-the-air” and that may be a feature added in the future. Also, tracks are not always sorted and played back automatically in the correct order by ID tags and track numbers. Again, this is more of an issue inherent with the radio or device connecting to the Automatica but nonetheless affects the core use and functionality. For example, for my radio to play back tracks within a folder sequentially (vs. alphabetically), I have to rename the title with the track number preceding the name. Many of my live albums and digital content is already named like that, but when they are not, it is an additional step prior to uploading to the cloud. The relatively paltry 2GB of internal storage is another minor quibble.

Overall thoughts after using for a week and Bottom Line I simply love the Automatica. I have always been terrible at bringing fresh tapes or CD’s into my car and inevitably listen to the same few albums for months at a time. Bluetooth is great most of the time but taxes my data limit every month when using streaming services or connecting to my home Subsonic server. It can also be a bit flaky with the connection. While Bluetooth has definitely gotten much better, it still compresses the signal and has some degradation in quality. Being able to have a perfect connection of flawless audio with constantly updating content is truly a godsend. I have fresh podcasts that automatically update and albums that I can listen to by simply dropping into a DropBox folder. I love the fact that I can max out my storage space (I’m using a 32GB card) but not need to have to worry about managing the content. Automatica will automatically add the newest content and drop the oldest if you reach your capacity. A warning on the web dashboard will tell you that you are getting close. But most of all, I love the fact that after initial setup: there is nothing to do. No manual syncing and no hassle. Everything happens in the background with nothing to do but ensure your device has a WiFi signal.

Long gone are the days of tape decks in cars. Soon, the same will be said for cars with an archaic CD slot. The future is here. Connected, smart, and powerful car radio is here today. Two big thumbs up for Automatica.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them here, email me, or hit me up on Twitter.

Automatica $99

Winner Last week we reviewed the cool Tylt Capio car mount. Pierce, you were randomly picked as the winner. Feel free to get me your contact details so I can make shipping arrangements.

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