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5 things to look for in a car infotainment system

Don’t buy without trying these first

Published: April 03, 2014 09:00 AM

Sophisticated car infotainment systems have essentially relegated conventional radios and climate controls to the automotive scrap heap, right along with the eight-track player and hand-crank starter.

While improved navigation, communication, and virtually limitless choices for music are always welcomed on the road, some systems can be cumbersome and frustrating to use. And our annual owner surveys have revealed reliability issues, including screen freezes and glitches, some of which we’ve encountered in our test cars. (Read: “High-tech automotive headaches.”)

Consumers demand smart-phonelike connectivity wherever they go. Like it or not, these systems are here to stay.

Due to their complexity, it is important to have the sales representative take the time to thoroughly explain the system in any vehicle you’re considering. You should also thoroughly explore it as part of your test drive, but don’t let the system be a dangerous distraction nor detract from focusing on the dynamic performance of the car.

Here are the things you need to look for if you’re buying your first car with an infotainment system.

  1. Knobs. Yes, knobs. Early systems largely did away with knobs in favor of on screen controls. But as things have evolved, we’ve seen several manufacturers, including BMW and Ford, go back to conventional knobs for frequently used functions such as radio tuning and volume. Knobs are just easier quicker than touch screens and mouselike controllers, and, thus, safer to use.
  2. Good voice controls. Sometimes, the best control is one you don’t have to take your hands off the wheel to operate. Lots of systems offer voice controls, but some are better than others. Look for one that responds to natural speech, such as “Take me to Starbucks” or “Turn up the heat,” rather than requiring certain words spoken in a specific order. Take the time with a salesperson to “practice” them before buying.
  3. Big buttons. Make sure that virtual “buttons” on the screen are big enough to operate on the road and clearly labeled with large fonts. Things that seem easy to do in the showroom are often more difficult on the highway, where your attention and eyes should be elsewhere.  
  4. Screen test. Look for a screen that’s easy to see and operate on the road. One that’s large enough to comfortably see and use is a good place to start. Also make sure you can reach it, and that it doesn’t wash out in bright sunlight.
  5. Simple menus. No matter how good or simple the system, accessing some functions will involve going through multiple screens or menus to find what you’re looking for. Make sure that’s easy to do. It’s no fun spending five minutes looking for a seat heater on a chilly morning, or going through 11 steps to find a radio preset button.

—Jim Travers

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