Sunday, July 22, 2007

Drivin' Down the Highway....

...ok, so you have all this great digital music, podcasts and audio books floating around the hard drives of your life. (Sounds like a bad song from the 70's: "Hard drives of my life." How do you get them into your car in a way that won't annoy the crap of yourself? (Cuz, its pretty easy to get annoyed doing this stuff.)

I have two cars - and I tend to outfit them identically. Mostly because my limited brain can only memorize one list of controls as I'm whizzing down the freeway at 95 miles an the legal speed limit of 60 miles an hour. For nearly 5 years my cars have been equipped with systems from Phatnoise, Inc, called Phatboxes. Wonderful, nearly perfect machines that had almost no marketing behind them. They hit the market at the perfect time with the perfect solution, but - save for a series of limited run TV spots - they weren't marketed very well, and so very few people knew about these things. (They also took a left turn into home audio, which was a huge mistake.)

The system consists of an in-car docking station that allows for cartridges of up to 120Gigs in size to be inserted in a car player (Phatnoise calls these cartridges a DMS - Digital Music System). (There is a docking station for your computer that allows you to sync up your music and playlists.) The unit is controlled by most major unaltered head decks that support alphanumeric display and CD jukeboxes. (The usual digital playback function selections - genre, artist, etc. - replace the standard CD functionality: disk skip, next track, etc.) Kenwood also made a system of head decks that specifically connected to the Phatboxes - Kenwood rebranded the system as the Kenwood Music Keg.

The best features of the system came a few years later when Phatnoise licensed AT&T's natural voice technology to make a system Phatnoise called "SSA Voice Indexing." This is the system that sold me on the Phatbox. Nothing is safer when you are whizzing down the freeway (AT THE LEGAL SPEEDLIMIT, MASSACHUSETTS, CALIFORNIA, NEW YORK OHIO and KENTUCKY! Now, clear those charges, please!) then an audio system that you don't even have to look at while driving. Seriously. It is that good.

But, alas, I replaced the Phatboxes recently. Why, if I liked them so much? Strangely enough: the rise of the podcast caused the discord. Like it or not, Apple currently owns the digital audio category...and I am hopeless addicted to podcasts. Listening to podcasts in my house, gym, public transport and my car involved no fewer than 3 devices that had to be synced nightly. (The iPod and the 2 phatboxes.) While this was fine for music, which I add at a slower interval to my digital archive, addiction to daily podcasts require daily syncs. Opening up the trunk of my cars and bringing the phatbox DMS' in each night and remembering to bringing them out to the cars each morning was getting seriously annoying.

So - just as I abandoned my wonderful iRiver music players for the iPod (try finding iRiver accessories at an airport when you forgot something at home), I found myself forced to find an appropriate iPod solution to the car audio problem.

For years, however, there just wasn't one. Lame aftermarket attempts by Phillips, Kenwood, Harmon-Kardon and others, as well as partnerships with auto makers like BMW, Acura, Infinity and others resulted in a confusing mish-mash of head decks, navigation systems, satellite radio, and 3rd party boxes. (Don't even get me started on that "FM transmitter for iPods" bullshit.) Installations were a nightmare, and the results were underwhelming - with non-alphanumeric head decks displaying crap like "Disk 102 - Track 22" as a way of navigating through your 10,000 song library. WTF boys?! I've seen the Apple iPod API spec -- you have COMPLETE control of the iPod, and get query all of the metadata on each MP3 or AAC track. You make the GD head deck yourselves - what, exactly, is the freakin' problem? Either you support this viral little musical player, or you don't.

I knew if I waited long enough, something interesting would happen - and it did. The grand old dame of car audio, Alpine, figured it out. "Why don't we, " they postulated on their own, "assume that everyone on planet earth owns an iPod as their primary music player? Why don't we also assume that they like to use the iPod's interface for navigating their music?"

...and then they added one more leap of logic...

"Why don't we call Apple up on the GD phone and get them to help us out?"

Hmm. Good idea.

The result was the Alpine X-001, a truly beautiful creation that completely integrates all of the iPod functionality (except video playback) and User Interface design in a single DIN unit. A hidden cable attached to the iPod's interface to allow complete control of the unit, with an intuitive display user interface that mimics (imperfectly of course) the iPod user interface screen. The large scroll wheel in the center takes the place of the iPod click wheel, and some of the scroll wheel functionality feels a little first generation - but the effect is wholly convincing: artists, genres, albums, podcasts and playlists are easily accessed - and album art is even shown on the tiny iPod-sized screen.

The unit takes both XM and Sirius as satellite providers (I have Sirius), and uses the scroll wheel in a similar manner to access the satellite providers' offering. CDs are not accepted here - the assumption is that you are a digital child living in the digital age, and have no need for actual bulky media like CDs.

Best part? Even though the system is designed from the ground up for iPod support - it is, oddly, iPod proof. The cable that connects the iPod to the X-001 also connect to standard USB-2 ports. In fact, anything that supports a FAT32 or FAT file system can be accessed with the X-001. This means that music stored on a thumb drive, or even my dearly departed iRiver, can be displayed and played back via the X-001. Very, very cool.

The music sounds great - of course, it's an Alpine - and the system boots up incredibly fast. It isn't without its drawbacks, naturally. The "Saved Stations" feature is basically useless, as it stores the stations with unalterable titles like "Station 1," "Station 2," etc. Big help, thanks Alpine - and the bluetooth phone integration feature (oh, did I neglect to mention that?) doesn't display caller id information on the display. Uh, why?

However, at $399 a pop (MSRP), it was impossible to resist. The X-001 looks great, and installed easily in both of my cars. (I seriously miss the SSA Voice feature on the Phatboxes, though. Oh well, can't have everything.)

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