Consumer Reports study on automobile in-dash technology

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In-car electronics is the fastest-growing field of automotive technology, as drivers demand to stay connected, informed, and entertained behind the wheel.

In its latest report, Consumer Reports finds the best designs offer an unprecedented level of versatility and convenience, but the organization warns that some of these advanced systems can be complicated and distracting to use.

Jim Travers, associate editor autos with Consumer Reports, talks about the report with Maggie McKay and Michael Shappee:

The full article will be in the April 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Most new cars come with one or more ways to link and listen to a portable music device through the car’s audio system. Mini-jack and USB ports can even be found in budget models. When comparing cars, drivers should check the location of the inputs, which are typically found in the dash, center console or glove box. The latter two locations keep the device out of sight, but can make it difficult to also see and use the device as a navigation system.

The next step up is a full infotainment system that typically integrates a car’s audio, navigation, communication and climate systems. This typically includes an in-dash display and shared controls.  The latest trend is for automakers to integrate apps into these systems so users can access content from their smart phone. For example, Toyota’s Entune system lets users stream Pandora and iHeartRadio stations, perform Bing destination searches, make restaurant reservations through OpenTable and more.

Some systems are easier to use than others. Consumer Reports’ experts found Cadillac’s Cue and the MyFord/MyLincoln Touch systems frustrating to use.  Gripes include complicated menus, touch screens that are slow to respond and small display fonts and buttons that are hard to quickly read and access.

On the other hand, Chrysler’s Uconnect Touch system provides simple, clear menus while retaining easy-to-use push buttons and knobs for frequent tasks.  The 17-inch touch screen in the Tesla Model S has large onscreen buttons and is also very responsive. One redeeming feature of the Cue and MyFord/MyLincoln Touch systems is their class-leading comprehensive voice commands.

When comparing built-in navigation systems to portable ones, keep in mind automaker systems have larger screens and typically allow programming by voice, but these features come at a cost. Some built-in navigation systems start at about $650, but others may only come in an options package costing $2,000 or more. Consumers can get a good portable GPS device with the same basic functionality for about $100.  Many people can now use smart phones for navigation with apps from Garmin and TomTom starting around $50 and Google Maps for free on Android and iPhone models.

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