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June 28, 2006

Toyota FJ Cruiser Car Computer Update

I've had quite a few people ask for an update on the FJ Car Computer project.  One of my goals with this project is to see where the state of the art is for aftermarket systems, and then push beyond that by installing a real computer with all the bells and whistles I can think of to install.

Phase One of the project was to install a Pioneer AVIC-Z1.  Because I wanted the best speech recognition combined with navigation, audio and other features, this unit seemed like the perfect choice.  After using it for a couple of months, I have mixed feelings about it and I find I can't really recommend it which is too bad because it is close to being a great system.

The AVIC-Z1 is interesting because it has a 30gb hard drive in it.  You press a button on the face of the unit and the LCD screen folds down automatically uncovering the slot for the CD or DVD. (Yes, it will play movies, but it has interlocks to prevent watching movies from the front seat while the vehicle is moving.)  If you put in a new CD, it automatically rips the CD to the hard drive so you can leave your CD collection at home.  The entire Gracenote database is installed on the hard drive, so for most CDs the system magically plugs in the artist, album name and track data.  I was surprised that it even knew about CDs that were released after I bought the AVIC-Z1.

The hard drive, my iPod and the radio gives me all of the music I would ever want, so I didn't get the optional XM Radio module.

The display is a touch-screen that is very nice and easy to read and there are a lot of display options.  You can upload photos and associate them with locations in the GPS unit, you can change the wallpaper and do some other neat tricks.

I also went with the iPod interface, the backup camera and a Bluetooth adapter to allow handsfree phone control.  I didn't originally get the steering wheel remote, but soon realized that it was almost required to use the speech recognition.  It looks a little cheesy I think, but you've almost got to have it.

I didn't install the system myself - Woody at Extreme Autoworks did it for me, and he did a great job.  None of the problems I'm having with the unit should reflect on Woody - I'll be going back to him for help with phase two of the project.

Even now I'm torn about how to write about the shortcomings of the unit.  It is a shame that Pioneer got so much right, but missed on some really important features.

My first problem was that the Bluetooth connection to my Palm Treo 700w kept dropping after a minute or two.  The advertisements make it sound like the unit will work with any "Bluetooth compatible phones."  I guess they parse that sentence differently than I did.  When I emailed tech support, I received a terse reply of "If the phone is a PDA type it will not work properly."  Wow - that's a broad statement but when I tried it with an LG "PDA type phone" it would also drop the connection between the unit and the phone.  I found it hard to believe because it seems to me that the sort of person who would rip their radio out of the dash and replace it with this unit, which costs as much as a good laptop, might also likely have a "PDA type phone" in their pocket.

The first email response wasn't what I'd want my tech support team writing either.  They could have thanked me for my purchase, told me they were sorry that there was an incompatibility problem and suggested some sort of alternative.  I got to trial a Motorola Q phone for a couple of weeks when they came out, and it DID work with the unit.  I sent another email to Pioneer, and copied their PR group to confirm the statement that had been made earlier and I got a much nicer email back, but the result was the same.  The AVIC-Z1 won't work with the Palm Treo 700w and apparently many other PDA type phones (whatever that means) and it isn't Pioneer's problem, according to Pioneer.  When I asked them where I could find their list of compatible phones, I was told that they don't publish it but that they would be happy to check the list for any phone I might be interested in.  Seems like a silly way to do it to me, and I haven't had the energy to play 20 questions to find a phone that might work.

Now for the speech recognition.  I have no idea who makes the speech recognition engine.  For some reason the aftermarket automotive companies don't advertise who makes the speech engine or even the operating system.  The speech engine works amazingly well, except for when it doesn't, and then it is really, really bad.  I can reel off a 10 digit phone number and it gets it every time.  Other commands always work too, but I still haven't figured out some of the basics.  The system has a very large vocabulary, but if you don't say exactly what it is expecting you're likely to be routed to some far off city.  It's bad, and much of it is due to poor human factors design, in my opinion.  For instance, it says "Please" before almost every prompt.  After awhile you want to say "Please stop saying Please!"  A simple tone would have been fine I think.  Once again a nice cheat sheet would have been a great help.  If a user can't figure out the basics pretty quickly, they get frustrated and give up on the more advanced features.  A cheat sheet helps to get them going so that they want to explore and learn more.

Without the steering wheel remote, you have to find the icon on the screen and press it to get prompted for a voice command.  It sort of defeats the purpose to have to look down at the screen while you are driving, and to make it worse, the icon moves around depending on what screen is displayed.  A button on the unit would have been better so at least you'd be able to find it by touch.

Last weekend I used a $400 Garmin GPS that I liked a lot better for navigation.  They know how to design a user interface - I never looked at the manual and was able to use every feature of the unit within a very short time.  It isn't fair to compare the two units, but if I was just looking for a great GPS, I'd go with the Garmin.

There is a lot to like about the Pioneer AVIC-Z1, but I can't recommend it.  There is still hope because Pioneer could release a software update and fix most of the problems I've experienced, but I wouldn't buy one until they do.

Phase Two will be to build a computer that will supplement, if not replace the AVIC-Z1.  If you remember the early days of computing where you bought parts and built it yourself, or you wish you hadn't missed that era, then you might consider building a car computer.  It feels a lot like the early days, except we have the Internet to connect all the nuts in the world who think this sounds like a fun way to spend the weekend.  I've been playing with Microsoft Vista for a couple of months, and it is definitely the operating system to use if I can build enough power into the system to run it properly.  The speech recognition in Vista is amazing, but I'll write more about that another time.

June 28, 2006 in Car Computer | Permalink


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The speech recognition software was created by IBM, using our Embedded ViaVoice platform (we were recently allowed to announce it publicly). As for the repetitive courtesy i.e. "please," do you except the Japanese to be anything but? :-)

Posted by: Igor Jablokov | Jul 11, 2006 7:55:51 AM

I enjoyed reading your column (albeit it was written a long time ago).
I have a Z1 and it has a bluetooth disconnect problem with most Windows Mobile OS based phones, also heard PalmOS phones also had problem. I am with a blackberry because their bluetooth stays just fine with the Z1. I had to return a new cingular 8525 because of the same bluetooth disconenct broblem. Audi bluetooth car-kit users and many others are having the same disconnect problem with WM5 phones...a shame MSFT hasn't released a s/w patch to address this problem in more than 7-months.

Posted by: Phal | Jan 2, 2007 1:39:10 PM