Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Visit to the Far East

Initially I was looking to take the easy way out.  I knew that I wasn't going to be happy with the stock radio in my new van, but I also wasn't prepared to pay the $1500-$2000 for a fully integrated out of the box solution like the Dodge myGig HD nav system.  It's a nice system, but for what it does, it seemed very pricy.  And at that price, it really is somewhat limited in what it can do.

I had a look at some of the aftermarket solutions from Clarion and Kenwood.  Both look nice, and are priced more reasonably than the myGig system, but still leave no room for customization.

Clarion NX509

Kenwood DNX9140

So after much searching I found China.  The Chinese are producing very inexpensive car media and navigation units.  So inexpensive in fact that it was worth while ordering one and installing it just to try it out.  I found a wholesale company called Chinavasion that exports all sorts of wonderful electronics.

Most of the "all-in-one" units sold out of China have the same feature set.  I was only looking for double din models to fit my double din (almost) opening in my dash.

  • 7" LCD touch screen
  • AM/FM radio
  • Bluetooth
  • GPS nav
  • Aux A/V (my Sirius input)
  • Analog or Digital TV
  • DVD/Divx/MP3/MP4 playback
  • SD card slot
  • USB port

I went with this one specifically.  Cost me ~$300

I've never installed a car stereo before, so after lots of reading and watching videos, I figured it out for the most part on my own.  I was pretty nervous taking the dash on my brand new van apart and digging into the wires, but all told, it really wasn't very difficult.  The hardest part was making the new head unit fit in the "double din" opening.  As it turns out it may have been 1mm too small.  But I "made" it fit.  Now I can't get it back out.  I'm not too worried.  Once I'm ready to replace it, I'll get it out one way or another. ;) 

My experience with this head unit has been somewhat of a mixed bag.  I'm enjoying it more than my stock radio.  However, the old adage, you get what you pay for, fits very well here.  This unit is worth $300.  That's not to say it's a bad thing.  It looks decent.  The AM/FM radio works well with decent sound quality.  The AUX input works as expected for my Sirius radio.  The bluetooth integration is very good.  Hands free works fine with my Nokia phone.  I haven't tried the TV as I didn't have an antenna to hook up to it.  It really isn't a priority.  DVD playback was better than I expected.  I tested with a Hawksley Workman live DVD.  The sound was excellent.  By far the best quality sound of all the inputs I've tested.  The video looks good, though the screen isn't great in sunlight.  You can see enough to control it, but not enough to actually watch a DVD.  The SD car slot works, however, the interface to play mp3's is almost unusable.  Basically you get 2 windows, on the left a flattened directory structure and on the right the contents of the selected directory.  Problem is you only get about 8 characters for each directory or file, so it is very difficult to navigate through your collection.  To compond this problem, there is no shuffle or random option.

I haven't been able to get the USB port working.  I tried a 2GB USB thumb drive and it didn't recognize it.  Then I tried a 400GB WD Passport drive, same problem.  Might be very picky about what sort of drive you plug in, fail.

The GPS function actually runs Windows CE 5.0.  You put your GPS software on a 2GB sd card and when you select GPS it loads it.  It comes with Route 66 which isn't great.  And they sent me the European maps instead of North American, so I got rid of R66 quickly.  I couldn't get iGO8 to work, but presumably if you had a good copy it would work.  I did get TomTom working though and I'm very happy with it.  The screen is a good size and TomTom 7 is quite nice.  The voice is better than my Magellin unit and the maps/poi's seem as good.  The routing also seems to be good.

So, that was my first take on my new car stereo.  Took the cheap and easy way out and it's kinda nice.  I have my FM radio and my Sirius, but no good way to play mp3's.  This isn't sitting well with me.  I know I can do better. ;)

Oh one other thing.  The opening in the bezel in my van isn't quite big enough for the new head unit.  So I can't actually open it to change DVD's without removing the bezel!  Not a huge deal for me since I don't use the DVD player, but it also doesn't look perfect.   I can live with it for now, but it will slowly rot my brain.


  • Price
  • Ease of install
  • Bluetooth works well
  • DVD playback is great
  • GPS nav works well


  • Unusable mp3 interface
  • Very little custmization

The install doesn't look perfect, but instead of "finishing" it with this stereo, I've decided to make a longer term plan to replace it with a proper car PC.

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