Leaders of the New School: In-car Infotainment Leaders
Automobile manufacturers are kinda stuck with a basic technology that hasn’t changed in decades – it’s still an internal combustion set-up at the heart of the engine, connected to a drive train that turns inflated rubber wheels sitting on suspension systems with a passenger cabin overlaid on top. Refinements to this basic set up continue to happen, but differentiation has become harder and harder to achieve.
This is the reason why car makers are now paying more attention to the electronic devices that not only control and report on the automobile’s various systems but also provide external information to the driver, while acting as the entertainment center. Clunkily named ‘in-car infotainment systems’, these devices have a tough row to hoe – in the age of sleek iOS and Android mobile device user interfaces, they need to be just as good while also intruding as little as possible on the driver’s concentration.
When we set out to rate the various in-car infotainment systems out there, little did we know how difficult the task would be. The first thing we discovered is that one man’s Apple CarPlay is another man’s Bluetooth streaming – meaning, rating an infotainment console is a highly subjective and personal matter.
So, here’s the deal: We’ll look at some of the features essential to a good system, and then figure out which systems do them best.
We figure the optimal interface would get the required information or result with the fewest taps on the screen or presses of buttons. The nomenclature of options would be easy to understand and no target option would be more than two hierarchical levels away.
The least user-friendly system would have dense and hard-to-decode option names, would need multiple taps to get there, or, worst of all, use a complicated combination of taps and clicks in a non-intuitive order to get a result. Steering-mounted controls add another layer to the driver’s mastery over a system.
BMW’s iDrive continues to be the leader of the pack with full-touch controls, easy-to-learn set-up and operations, and a full-color head-up display. Volvo’s Sensus isn’t far behind, with its large screen and almost all-touch interface supplemented by just two knobs. The Chevrolet MyLink system is pretty good too, again with an all-touch interface that behaves almost like a smartphone and a display that intuitively aggregates the most important stuff.
Kia rather lags in this regard, with a complicated hop-scotch needed between screen taps and button presses, while Ford’s Sync system designed by Microsoft is the most complex of the lot and needs hours of practice to reach a point where it does not frustrate you enough to put your fist through it (though the newly introduced Sync3 system is a marked improvement).
Infotainment systems often play a large role in offering navigation aids, while using tethering to a single source to provide connectivity to passengers wishing to use their smartphones and laptops. Seamless connectivity with automatic tethering are the golden targets here, and very few systems have the nous to be quick and agile modems even while they read satellite information, connect with radio channels, and interface with traffic data.
The Mercedes-Benz Comand system is the clear winner in this category, with a sweeping display that covers almost three-quarters of the dashboard and rock-solid connectivity that allows all passengers to get internet access while still giving the driver the navigation data he requires.
NissanConnect isn’t much of a laggard here, its only drawback being that it is married to the iOS while shunning Android. It gives access via apps to Twitter, Facebook, Pandora and a host of other services using Siri Eyes Free, which allows you to interact with your iPhone by voice command without taking your eyes off the road.
One of the key roles that in-car infotainment systems are supposed to play is that of safety watchdog. From assisted or automated parking, to lane-departure warnings and controls, to active cruise control, to forward-collision warning and prevention, the automobile’s computer has a solution for you.
How well these features are displayed with action triggers on the infotainment system separates the safe driver from the pedal-pusher from hell.
Chevrolet’s MyLink does a superb job of collating all this information from sensors on its digital screen, giving the driver intuitive options at every stage. For instance, should the forward-collision warning be simply a flashing light or should it add an audible alarm? Should the warning be followed automatically with a braking maneuver or should it leave that to the driver’s judgment?
Your Volvo, Mercedes and Volkswagen are also great with safety information and control, but tend to give less control to the driver.
Most cars, even at the lower end of the price spectrum, today come equipped with some pretty high-performance speakers, pre-amplifiers and equalizers. The key is to provide multiple sources of audio – from radio to CD, Apple CarPlay to Android Auto, Spotify to YouTube, and Bluetooth to audio and USB jacks.
Such as plethora of choice needs to be backed up with an interface that not only switches intuitively from one to another without going back and forth on menu lists, but also streaming information about what’s playing (from any source), and connecting quickly and painlessly to new sources.
Chevrolet’s MyLink is once again the best we have seen in this category, with seamless switching from source to source, easy-to-use steering-mounted controls, and optional additional display on the dashboard. Setting up and connecting a new source is simple and blazing fast, unlike the Sync and UConnect systems.
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