I recently installed a Pioneer AVIC-F900BT in-dash bluetooth hands-free, nav system and car stereo in my Smart car. Until January 1st, 2009, when California passed a law that prevents drivers from fiddling with their mobile phones while driving, I’d never seen the point of in-dash navigation systems. I’d successfully used Telenav and Google Maps in my car for years without getting into an accident, but the prospect of getting a ticket was enough to convince me to change my mind.
I picked this model because the Smart Car dealership highly recommended it, saying it was the best in-dash navigation and stereo system with built-in bluetooth available through the Smart dealer. As a mobile gadget geek, I have the opportunity to play with a lot of interesting mobile devices, many of which now have built-in GPS, triangulate location using mobile phone towers or wi-fi. Pioneer’s reputation and the F900BT’s features combined with my experience working with sophisticated mobile phones, gave me high expectations for the product. Unfortunately, having used it for almost a month, I can say that the performance of the F900BT leaves a lot to be desired.
Aesthetically, the F900BT is pleasing… It has a sleek, touch screen display and just four hard buttons. Here are the basic feature specs:
- DVD-video/ CD/ MP3/ WMA/ AAC/ DivX/ MPEG4 compatible player
- Built-in bluetooth for hands-free calling
- Supports ipod (including voice recognition)
- Built-in SD card slot
- Supports USB and audio input through an input jack
- Touch screen in-dash navigation system with
The version of the unit that was installed in my car had already had been upgraded with the “2.0 Update, featuring start-up speed, touch panel response, bluetooth compatibility and more!” I’m curious to know what the boot-up and screen response times were for version 1.0, as the 2.0 version still has an insanely long boot-up time and poor touch screen response. If you want to use the in-car Nav system to go from point A to point B, be prepared to wait several minutes for your nav system to boot up before striking out on your journey. And, brace yourself for an uncomfortably long delay between pushing the touch screen and getting a response. If you’re used to the touch screen response times on the iPod touch, Palm Treo, or other touch screen devices, you’ll be disappointed by how slow the F900BT seems in comparison.
In addition to slow start-up and response times the user interface (UI) isn’t intuitive. As with most geeks, it’s rare that I bother reading the user manual for when I buy a new gadget. The F900BT was an exception. After a couple of days of unsuccessfully attempting to figure out how to use some of the more sophisticated features of the nav system and not seeing a manual in the box, I buckled and asked the Smart dealer for an operations manual. Unfortunately, the F900BT doesn’t ship with a manual – just a .pdf version of the 190 page user guide (which lacks an index) supplied on CD – hardly practical for at home printing or reading inside a car.
Companies should go green and eliminate paper manuals whenever possible but not if they’re selling a complicated consumer electronics product that requires a 190 page manual and doesn’t have help built-into the product (like a computer or a software application). If the intent of excluding the manual was to reduce consumer waste, Pioneer Corporation would have been better off improving it’s UI (so that a manual wasn’t necessary), eliminating unnecessary styrofoam and cardboard inserts, or reducing the size of the product (I’ve seen mobile phones 1/10 the size of the F900BT the pack a bigger punch). After trying to read 190 page PDF on my computer, I ordered a paper version of the manual online, and it arrived a couple of weeks later. By that point, I’d figured out most of the features on my own, and I realized that many of my frustrations with the device were less about its features and more about it’s UI and response times.
Besides response times, the other things that continue to drive me nuts about the F900BT are:
- Moving from audio/video to GPS and back and switching between different audio inputs is overly complicated. You have to go back to the main menu to navigate between GPS and audio/video inputs. There’s a built-in map button and a menu button on the device but no audio button, which means, you’re constantly having to navigate multiple screens to control audio settings and inputs. You spend too much time looking at the screen, when you should be driving.
- The audio/video controls are hidden too deep within the UI. Sometimes you just want to change the channel of the radio while you’re also using the map or control the equalizer quickly.
- The Bluetooth doesn’t work reliably with all phones. I’ve tried using it with my Motorola Q9H and my Nokia N95, and it’s very slow to connect. I can’t say for sure, but judging the response times of the F900BT, I suspect it is more to do with the F900BT than my mobile phones (both of which connect very quickly to Bluetooth headsets, without issue).
- Transferring the phone book doesn’t work well with either the Motorola Q9H or the Nokia N95, both of which are popular GSM phones. I’m left wondering – If the F900BT can’t successfully connect to the phone book of a Windows Mobile device or a Symbian Series 60 device, what can it connect to? There’s no clear answer in the operation manual.
- You can’t change the voice of the narrator on the nav system. And, you can’t turn the voice of the nav system off without also turning off the pinging noise the radio makes when you change channels. Similarly, you can’t make the “ping” noise the radio makes as it changes channels silent and still have the navigator’s voice audible. It’s one or the other – inconvenient.
- On highways, instead of telling you to “exit right”, the narrator tells you to “stay right”, making it confusing to know whether you need to get right or exit, without looking at the map.
- When you arrive at your destination, there’s no “end route” button. Instead, the narrator says you’ve arrived at your destination, and if you start circling for parking, the nav system continues telling you where to go. The only way I’ve figured out how to stop this is to delete the route, which means that you can’t re-select the route on a future journey.
- You can’t upload points of interest en-mass from Google, MSN, or any other website. So, the built in POI feature isn’t that useful, since restaurants, stores, etc. often change.
- If you use the DVD player (while stopped of course), the system has difficulty recognizing some DVDs. It will only play region 1 DVDs and even then, of the three region 1 DVDs I’ve tried, it didn’t recognize one.
- There isn’t a way to quickly turn the screen off without turning off the whole unit. Sometimes, especially while driving in the evening, it’s nice to have the screen off, while listening to the radio. A quick touch activated on/off screen would be helpful.
After all my criticisms, am I happy I’ve got the AVIC-F900BT? If this really is the best that I can get in an in-dash Nav system, I suppose the answer is “yes”. After all, it’s useful to have a bigger screen and turn by turn directions, and it is legal to operate while driving in Californa. But, in my experience, Google Maps on a mobile phone is easier to use, less distracting, and more reliable (maps and points of interest are constantly updated) than the F900BT in-dash nav system. Based on what I’ve been reading online, the AVIC-F900BT is one of the best all-in-one in-dash nav systems out there, which tells me the automotive industry has a lot to learn and leverage from companies in mobile and web 2.0.