Another Dashboard Confessional
March 1, 2013
Like millions of other Americans, I'm not in the market for a new car. I saw a report the other day about how the average household can't afford to buy the average new car, and, well, yeah, that. I'm praying that my car -- model year 1999! -- lasts forever.
But I salivate over the new models, not just because they're cool and powerful or can be powered by harnessing the energy of your good thoughts (that's how "alternative fuel" works, right?), but because of the dashboard. Yes, I'm one of those people who looks at Ford Sync or GM's MyLink or whatever the other guys have, with those nice big screens and built-in nav systems and apps and steering-wheel audio controls and thinks I MUST HAVE THAT. If the Volvo eventually disintegrates, my next car will be chosen as much for the in-car entertainment/information/navigation system as for less important things like handling, horsepower, comfort... I want my car to be higher tech than high tech.
But, as I mentioned, I'm trying to squeeze more miles out of my present car. (I come from a family heritage of driving cars into the ground; my father drove a 1976 Chevette -- yes, one of THOSE -- until the floorboard under the driver literally rotted away and you could, if you were so inclined, "drive" the car in the Fred Flintstone manner by sticking your feet through and running.) And I decided to upgrade the car stereo, because the old one was feeling ancient, being as it was without Bluetooth but with a cassette player and a CD player and a persistent buzz on AM no interference filter could conquer. Yet I'm not made of money, so I wasn't going to buy a full-on, video-screen navigation system, either, figuring that I use Waze on the smartphone when I need a GPS, which isn't often. I went for a regular, single-DIN radio, but I went for one with some bells and whistles. So it has Bluetooth, it has Pandora, it can stream Internet audio through the smartphone, it'll play your music from your phone or even a thumb drive, and it has....
...wait for it....
Yeah. I did that. Look, I've told you, I had HD Radio before, but in portables and desktop radios. It's my job to listen to that ("so you don't have to" -- there, happy?). I decided that if I was going to get a new car stereo, HD Radio was going to be in it so I could get, once and for all, the full in-car HD Radio Experience (TM). I've been driving around with the new radio for a few months now, including long drives to Vegas for CES and other places. I think I've given it a good workout, good enough to reassess my previous impressions and draw some conclusions about HD and smartphone integration and how this stuff's playing out.
First, for Internet audio: The process is still not seamless, and it makes what Ford and GM and others are doing with dashboard apps critical. You will NEED to have access to that dashboard with a simple app, whether you have one for your own station or show or through iHeartRadio or TuneIn, or, preferably, both. Otherwise, it's a cumbersome process that requires you to select a stream on your phone to play through the radio; an app can then give you some control over it, but it's not the same as touching the screen and instantly pulling up your choice, or, better, saying "Play WIP" and the radio instantly blaring complaints about the Eagles' quarterback controversy. That's already here if you have the most advanced dashboard system, but since that's not yet in every car, it's presently a little bit of a pain to have to set everything up every time. It works, but it'll work better when everything's right in front of you and voice controlled, with the phone never having to leave your pocket.
Now, for HD: Here's the thing. If it works, it's not bad -- extra channels for free on FM, and clearer AM. But, as I've complained before, too often, it DOES NOT WORK. Sorry, raising my voice again, but it's frustrating. I've driven all over the place in Southern California and southern Nevada, and there are too many examples where I've been line-of-sight to the transmitter and the HD's dropped out. I'm in the business, so I'm more patient than the average consumer with the technology, but I get exasperated when I'm, say, listening to CBS Sports Radio on KCBS-FM's HD-2 channel and right in the middle of Scott Ferrall ranting, it drops out. Or when I've listened to KBZT in San Diego and the HD and analog are about a second apart, unsynced, and the HD drops out and cuts back in over and over and the song stutters with each changeover. Or when the 50,000-watt, non-directional KFI goes from digital back to analog in several spots along Crenshaw Blvd., about, what, 20 or 25 miles from the transmitter? Or when some HD-2 and HD-3 channels are there one day and gone the next, and there's no way to tell if they're off for maintenance or on and just not being received or gone for good. Let's put aside the programming issue for now, and whether most of the FM multicast channels are worth bothering with. That doesn't matter if you can't reliably hear them when you can see the tower on the top of a mountain 20 or 30 miles away.
If it worked all the time, though, I'd be more charitable. I like having song titles on the screen (much better than RBDS, which is pretty bad). I like the option of extra channels, even if most are presently not programmed with anything you'd want to hear. I like when an AM station is sharper and cleaner. It's nice to see the call letters on the screen so you know what you're listening to, and it's a real kick to get full decoding on AM at great distances -- I've gotten KCBS San Francisco here and in Vegas in full HD, and KSL Salt Lake City on the Vegas strip, and that's hobbyist-cool. The actual sound of HD versus analog FM isn't that spectacular -- there's a reason "HD" doesn't stand for "high definition" -- but the features are okay. Yet, it just isn't reliable enough, and if I wasn't in the business, I'd be as frustrated with it as I am when my cell phone signal drops out on every call in my neighborhood (hello, Sprint!). And this isn't a brand-new technology; it's been on the market for long enough so that it's on a lot of car radios. Since most people probably don't know how to turn the HD Radio option off, they're experiencing these dropouts and glitches and analog-to-digital-to-analog back-and-forths and getting frustrated and angry and turning to... Pandora, and Internet streaming, I suppose, and the music and podcasts on their phones. And that, with the new systems, will become easier than ever.
Here, radio, is your competitive future. You might want to make sure that your technology, you know, works.
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That new car stereo also has a CD player, but I discovered that on most new car stereos, you wouldn't know that. The slot's hidden behind the faceplate. It's there, but buried. Here's hoping that as the new in-car systems become more prevalent, radio doesn't meet the same fate.