I’ve been sort of disappointed. We don’t have our promised flying cars yet. But in addition, some of the existing tech that we do have seems sadly lacking. In an era of iPhones, video chat,Â Internet video streaming, integrated digital sound systems, etc. it’s quite frustrating to observe the current market for car audio devices.
My commute just recently went from a 44-miles-per-day to 130-miles-per-day and obviously, it’s nice to have something going in the background be that music, lectures, sermons, podcasts, or NPR (yes, I listen to NPR!). So I’ve been looking at upgrading from my stock 1998 Toyota Corolla radio with tape deck to something better.
This reminds me a lot of how I viewed the pre-Treo 600 cell phone market (although to me, even phones like the Treo were disappointing). You could pick from several hundred choices all of which appeared to be designed without any standardization, attention to detail, solid feel (that horrible crunchy plastic feel that was finally cured with the iPhone), etc. As I survey the current landscape for car audio systems, I’m sort of seeing the same thing.
What I’m frustrated with:
- HD Radio support — this is easy, but I hate being nickel-and-dime’d for an extra $80 to take the spiffy “HD Ready” unit to be an ACTUAL HD Radio. Let’s just make this standard.
- Auxiliary input — this is almost standard across the board but seems to have so many problems on many units. In many cases, it’s either a very difficult interface to navigate or really bad noise on the line. With my 12 year old stock unit, I can use a cassette adapter and get sounding audio in less than 5 seconds. Why are modern units worse?
- Overall interface bizarreness. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and user interfaces are hard to objectively rate, but very few “best practices” are ever followed in interface design for these units. Often there are confusing knobs, multiple buttons that appear to do conflicting things, and odd resets and menu navigation which means you have to press 14 buttons to switch to your iPod input.
- “Flavor of the week” interfaces. Come on people. iPods are neat, iPhones are neat, but don’t sell me a unit because it now supports Pandora ON the iPhone itself. The one advantage is that instead of punching input to the iPhone, you punch on the car audio unit. I’m not seeing justification to drop an extra $50+ on this.
What I’d really like to see is:
- Let’s be honest, I’d like to see Apple design an interface. They do this amazingly well. Some people may not love it (hey, everyone’s different) but it would reset the industry as the development and release of the iPod and iPhone did. The combination of simple interfaces, never being “far” from common tasks, and reasonably strong and durable hardware design would be simply amazing.
- Upgradable firmware. Everyone has wireless these days. Many if not most people could receive wireless in their garage. Even better, why not integrate 3G/4G into these units directly? If you have connectivity, it seems quite reasonable to allow new software interfaces, new protocols, new “apps” of some sort to be used. For that matter, why reinvent the wheel — let’s use iOS or Android as the OS for these devices. If an iPad can sell for $600 with free WiFi or a $30/month 3G subscription, surely a head unit could be at the same price point. Currently, many of these units are $1,000+ and from what I’ve seen, offer few if any of these benefits.
- Get standard — allow USB Bluetooth dongles to be used, allow WiFi USB dongles to expand simple systems, provide a web interface so you can use your laptop or home computer to configure settings and features.
- Related to the above, a true separation between hardware and software. I should be able to buy a unit and then buy 8 different navigation systems or audio players that all run on the same hardware. I don’t want to be stuck with some name-brand piece of junk “solution” that I can never upgrade or change.
It’s much easier to complain than to actually do research. I may have completely missed some models out there or companies who are actually moving in this direction. If so, please leave a comment with any details.
I know very little about Microsoft’s foray into this sort of thing. Mainly because from what I understand, their Sync technology is exclusive for Ford vehicles. It sounds cool, but it’s only a first step in my opinion. Voice control is great, but they seem to just be replaying the same paradigm of older systems with a few Microsoft-ish bells and whistles.
As a final note, I’ll just say that I like the stock units the most — high-end cars come with some pretty amazing units that are hard to beat so far as making the interface blend perfectly with the car itself. In addition, integrated Bluetooth that’s tidily hidden away, steering wheel volume control, etc. are all great features. And maybe it’s the presence of reasonable built-in units that’s hurting the development of this market. Unless a big name company cuts a deal with a major car maker, it seems unlikely that after-market sales would drive enough sales to warrant some serious investment in this technology.