Really, Infotainment Isn't So Bad
If you’re like me, you’re probably intimidated by the wide array of functions available with today’s infotainment systems. With Toyota Entune, for example, you can make restaurant reservations, buy movie tickets, and use Bing to find at least 35 percent of your search terms. Ford SYNC has an app called “tool finder,” which presumably provides the current location of John Mayer. And Chevrolet says its next-generation MyLink system can actually do the impossible: navigate an IKEA. Hyundai BlueLink can even help you put together the furniture.
Infotainment systems are daunting to those of us who aren’t sure about the idea of a motorized, road-going automobile offering all the comforts of your home computer, and also Bing. This isn’t a problem for some people, namely realtors, who are used to balancing two phones and a stack of documents as they drive their Lexus RX350 with their knees. Of course, realtors can’t do this in California, where it’s illegal to talk and drive. In California, they would be driving a Lexus RX400h.
Infotainment is also downright alien for anyone who’s used to driving an older car. For example, when I owned a Range Rover Classic, the only time I ever looked at a screen was when my mechanic pulled up the bill.
But for those of you nodding and readying your keyboard for a diatribe about the pitfalls of infotainment, listen up: it’s not all bad. I recently discovered this on a drive from Atlanta to Nashville, during which I passed – this actually occurred – a gold Lexus GX470 outfitted with police lights. Presumably, this was seized from a realtor who had been caught texting and driving too many times.
I made the trip in a Dodge Dart press car, which included many standard and optional features, all of them plastic. It also had Chrysler’s infotainment system, which boasted at least two neat items that helped convince me there might be at least some benefits to all of this in-car technology. They are:
1. “Favorite” songs. Say you’re cruising along and a favorite song comes on XM. You press a button called “favorite.” Hours later, as you’re bored out of your mind and listening to XM channel 247 (“Songs about Plant Life”), an icon appears on the screen: “Favorite Song On Air.” You press it, and you’re immediately transported to the channel playing your favorite song.
Apparently, you can do this with any number of songs, solving radio’s biggest problem: yes, I like this song. But what if there’s something better on one of the other channels?
2. StreetView navigation. In a normal car, using the navigation works like this: first, you type in the name of your destination. It doesn’t recognize it. So you use your phone to find the exact address. Then you have to enter the address, which is a tedious process that starts with the category “Country.” Eventually, you get on the road, only to be confused by vague directions and complicated highway interchanges.
This doesn’t happen in the Dodge Dart. I mean, typing in your destination is still a massive chore that no human should have to endure. But you don’t have any trouble with directions. That’s because the navigation system actually gives you a Google StreetView photo of the highway interchange that’s currently confusing you, along with purple lines that display exactly where you want to go. This makes navigating extremely easy, giving you ample opportunity to instead devote your time to more important endeavors, like favoriting songs about deciduous vegetation.
Between song favoriting and StreetView navigation, I made my trip to Nashville with ease. The only problem came at my hotel, which demanded $22 per night for parking. My cries of “But this is Nashville!” were largely ignored, giving me an idea for a new infotainment service: finding free parking. This would be really helpful, assuming it doesn’t rely on data from Bing.
Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.
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I don't think I've ever seriously used an infotainment system in a car except the Audi MMI (which was very good) in the 2013 S4. Unfortunately, MMI with navigation is expensive (about $3,000). Also, love the John Mayer comment.
I'm not a luddite or technophobe by any definition. I was an early iPhone adopter and have pretty much had every other generation right up to the iPhone 5. I was sporting iPods well before that. I'm the guy at the office who everyone comes to with their computer questions. When I'm touring on the motorcycle, I have my bar-mounted Garmin deliver its nav instructions via Bluetooth to a ScalaRider headset mounted in my helmet. But for whatever reason, I still haven't come around to screens in cars. Not only do I not want/need the capability to look at Facebook in the car or have my car read my text messages to me, I especially don't want/need to do it on hardware/software that's already obsolete by the time it makes it to the showroom floor. Then the kicker is the manufacturer wants you to pay a lot of money for this third-rate hardware and software. Then, five or six years down the road, if you still own the car, the infotainment technology is going to be so hopelessly obsolete and dated that it may even be unusable/unsupported/un-upgradable depending on how personal tech progresses by then. It'll be like looking into a '90s high-end BMW today and seeing one of those laughable built-in phones. "Wow! This CAR has a PHONE in it!" For me, these systems just don't add value. I can already easily put my Garmin that I use on the bike into its car mount and bring it with me on road trips. If I'm in a pinch and don't have it with me, I've still got my iPhone with my choice of Google's or Apple's voice nav. When I was recently car shopping, I was looking at the Focus and stopped by the local Ford dealer to play with the MFT system. Watching the salesman demonstrate the ability for the system to use voice commands to change climate control settings was laughable. First you have to push the button to signal the system to listen, then say your command (hoping you choose the right syntax and the system can understand you - god help you if you say a command that the system doesn't understand: you get a long lecture from the Microsoft lady about what you can say and how you can say it) - a comedy of errors just to adjust the fan speed. It's just so much easier and faster to reach over to the knob and adjust it manually. You can of course also adjust the settings through the touch screen interface but then you're required to make an additional soft button press on the touch screen to get to the climate control interface, where you can then touch your adjustment. But that's still an extra step needed where you could have just reached over to the climate control panel itself. If the electronic system doesn't make it any easier (or, more importantly, safer) to accomplish the task, then what's the point? I eventually decided on a GTI and I must admit that one of the factors in picking up a MkVI GTI now was because the coming MkVII GTI will have a touchscreen infotainment system as standard. I see this more as a liability than a selling point though I expect I'm in the minority on this these days. The setup in my GTI is just about perfect for me. It's a regular stereo with no big goofy screen but it does have satellite radio capability and Bluetooth integration. Being able to play music from the Spotify app on my phone through the car stereo via Bluetooth Audio is a nice treat (I was pleasantly surprised with the sound quality of BT Audio, fully expecting it to be crap) and the car also has a plug in the center console where I can plug in an iPod or iPhone and navigate my iTunes library via the car stereo head unit with track info displayed on the screen (while of course also charging my device). And finally there's the good old 3.5mm headphone jack aux in port for all those other devices out there. I see these infotainment systems now as being gimmickry for gimmickry's sake as opposed to serving any truly useful purpose. Hopefully that will change as the technology improves but for now I don't see them as being worth the money (or any money really).