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  1. Hardware Review: Portal Media Bluetooth TPMS module

    by , 06-16-2014 at 10:31 AM

    What is it?

    The Portal Media Bluetooth TPMS module lets you monitor tire pressure wirelessly via Bluetooth.

    The Verdict:

    Portal Media's Bluetooth TPMS improves on the last generation of devices by allowing wireless communication via Bluetooth. The module is sleeker and reception appears improved. Once the kinks are worked out of the Android app, the Bluetooth TPMS module will be an awesome addition to any compatible car.


    Description:

    Quite a few years ago at mp3Car's first national car PC meet, I was lucky enough to win a prize for having as many as 19 USB devices connected to my car PC. The prize received was USB number 20, a car PC connected tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) from Portal Media. Many years and several dead sensor batteries later, the device had served me well, but it was time for an upgrade. Luckily, the guys at Portal Media have been busy at work improving on their existing technology. For years it's seemed that the Bluetooth variant of their TPMS devices was simply an idea in our mp3Car forum, but the time has arrived, and the device really exists. I've been privileged to spend the last few weeks testing this new device out and getting to see if the wireless abilities actually improved the experience.


    Let's get the obvious information out of the way first. The tire sensors required for the Bluetooth TPMS device must be professionally installed, so be sure to account for the cost of installation when considering this purchase. My cost was roughly $30/tire, but yours can vary. Also, as if this review, there is no Apple or Windows application that will work with the Bluetooth TPMS module. It's unknown whether this will be created by Portal Media in the near future, but as the mp3Car community is founded on the idea of tinkering and fitting square pegs in round holes, I'm sure solutions will exist shortly. Once the sensors are installed in the tires, the rest of the process of setting the system up is a breeze. The TPMS module is smaller and sleeker this time around, so it's easy to plug into any available 12v source and slide in a glove box or other compartment. It's recommended to install the device in a centralized location in relation to the tire sensors, but I've had far more success with reception despite installation location in comparison to the USB unit. Once the device is mounted and powered, the Android application will need to be downloaded from the Play Store. Once the app is installed, its time to begin the process of synchronizing the tire sensors to the Bluetooth module. Check out the video below on the steps required here.


    The Android application for the Bluetooth TPMS is very easy to use. The user interface is very simple, and once the sensors are learned, it will quickly and accurately report sensor information. In the app settings, there are a large number of variables which control sensor alert notifications and display preferences. The app is not without faults though. I have the application installed on three of my Android devices; A Samsung tablet with QHD resolution, a Samsung smartphone with HD resolution, and the ODROID X-2 Android low resolution head unit. Each instance gives me a different take on the app. The smartphone displays the perfect scaling of text, buttons, and images. On the tablet, the buttons are very small and often a chore to press, and the vehicle image and text does not scale to make use of the added real estate. The ODROID's low resolution allows for the buttons and images to display correctly, but the text is too large for the bubble window it's presented in. Portal Media has acknowledged some of the drawbacks of the app, and is aggressively working to correct the issues.




    Ultimately, the experience of being free of the installed car PC screen when dealing with my tire pressure is a much needed improvement. Rather than having to run back and forth between tires and the monitor to check pressure levels, I can take my tablet with me to each tire. I'll still receive alert notifications through my Android car PC, but the flexibility to use an additional screen when I choose is awesome.

    The Positive:

    • Module has a sleeker and smaller profile
    • Tire sensor reception seems improved
    • Android ability allows for cross-device usage
    • Easy learning and setup process



    The Negative:

    • No current iPod or Windows support
    • Android app is functional, but will need work



    The Verdict:

    Portal Media's Bluetooth TPMS improves on the last generation of devices by allowing wireless communication via Bluetooth. The module is sleeker and reception appears improved. Once the kinks are worked out of the Android app, the Bluetooth TPMS module will be an awesome addition to any compatible car.

  2. Hardware Review: Andrea Electronics WNC-1500 Wireless Computer Headset

    by , 03-11-2013 at 10:52 AM

    What is it?

    The Andrea Electronics WNC-1500 is a Wireless Computing Headset featuring digital audio enhancement and noise cancellation.

    The Verdict:

    The WNC-1500 is an excellent option when looking for a wireless communication device for VOIP. Communication was crystal clear in a variety of busy environments. The headset is very comfortable and provides a secure fit allowing for a pleasant listening experience.



    What’s in the box?

    The WNC-1500 Comes with the headset, a 2.4ghz USB adapter, USB charging cable, a convenient carrying case, and an instruction manual. Software is also available for download from AndreaElectronics.com


    Description:

    Andrea Electronics is widely known in this community for the stellar series of Superbeam USB microphones. When installing a automotive PC, the Superbeam was the best available option for hands-free audio communication for a very long time. The quality of the Superbeam bundle has been reassembled into a wireless audio headset named the WNC-1500.


    Each part of the WNC-1500 package has been considered for fit and finish. The headset itself is extremely comfortable, which each part of the headset which touches your ear cushioned more than adequately with genuine leather. The attached microphone with included pop filter rests away from the face but in ideal position for vocal clarity. Microphone placement was considered not only for clarity, but it stays out of the way during video conferencing for the most part. The headband is also cushioned and does an excellent job of securing the headset speakers comfortably. Being wireless, the device is made to be mobile, and consideration was certainly made to keep the headset snug without being painful.


    The WNC-1500 comes with a convenient set of controls on the right earbud. Included buttons are for volume control, music playback next/previous track, power, and configuration. The buttons are raised with a firm press, but unless you use the headset often, you may find using conventional computer controls more friendly. I find myself hunting for the proper control through trial and error too often.


    The most endearing feature of the WNC-1500 set is the audio quality. Its crystal clear that in it's out of the box form, the headset is made for verbal communication. Despite being wireless, I could effectively speak and listen as if using a landline form of communication. There was simply no static or filtering noises with callers, and they never reported issue in response to my end. Andrea calls it "military grade acoustic noise cancelling technology", I'll just say it does the job and then some. The headset does just enough to filter ambient noises locally as to not disturb what your ears are hearing through the 40mm speaker drivers. By default, the headset doesn't thrill in regard to music or gaming enjoyment, but the included software has a 10 band graphic equalizer to aid in this regard. Despite this, I still felt at times that the headset muffled the audio experience while gaming at its most ideal setting. The virtual surround sound feature was lacking.

    The WNC-1500 is powered by a built in lithium-ion battery. Simply plug in the WNC-1500 with the included USB cable and it will charge fully and relatively short time. The LED indicator on the headset will indicate when charging has completed. During testing, I observed battery life in the 5-7 hour range, more than enough for one sitting. The wireless range too was outstanding as audio clarity would hardly be affected until I was some 40 feet from the USB adapter. This far exceeds any bluetooth headset I've used to date.

    The Positive:

    • Terrific audio quality and noise cancellation
    • USB rechargeable
    • Comfortable design and secure
    • Fold away design and included carrying case means the headset will go where you do
    • Excellent battery life and range

    The Negative:

    • Not immersive sound for gamers
    • Must use device manager to enable/disable the USB adapter as your primary sound card


    The Verdict:


    The WNC-1500 is an excellent option when looking for a wireless communication device for VOIP. Communication was crystal clear in a variety of busy environments. The headset is very comfortable and provides a secure fit allowing for a pleasant listening experience.



  3. More on CES: Your automator is safely automated

    by , 01-11-2013 at 05:40 PM
    Another slice of the massive tech showcase known as CES was spent focusing on the trends that should have an immediate impact in the evolution of automotive automation. Many aftermarket manufacturers have inched past the practice of trying to safely deliver content to the car in lieu of using hardware systems to process content to create a more engagement and safe automotive environment. I spent the majority of Day 2 scouring the North Hall booths for demos of the gear that will bring some of the high end OEM systems to the aftermarket. The top buzzword from both OEM and aftermarket companies when referencing these systems is the "Connected Car" concept, a term that most people in the mp3Car community have run into in previous years.




    Among the coolest gear in this Connected Car category is Delphi's new OBD-II based Bluetooth 2G adapter. Developed in partnership with Verizon, this device not only has the ability to monitor car systems and control routine functions like car start/stop, but it also can harness available data received and provide users with recommendations on how to automate driving tasks. For example, the device can take user driving habit along with the power of the Verizon mobile network to suggest new routes based on time, distance, or even environmental impact. Of course, another key feature of the Delphi adapter is the ability to control car functions like locks, engine start, and geofences from anywhere. Accompanying apps for the web, Android, and IOS are already available. Unfortunately, the current iteration of the device is limited to 2G communications, making unable to be used as a infotainment hotspot.




    Globalstat's TR600 tracking system is another automation powerhouse. In short, the TR600 is a GPS, GSM, and CANBUS capable I/O device. The TR600 has a total of 9 I/O points (3 Input/ 6 Outputs), and with add on sensors can monitor most any vehicle event and automate tasks based on them. GSM capability means users can also remotely monitor and control I/Os. The TR600 can be used fully autonomously or as a standalone device to control relays via an included serial interface.


    The Mobileye Series 5 is a product aimed specifically at adding collision avoidance systems for any vehicle. The Series 5 is essentially a advanced camera which can identify objects and their respective distances from the vehicle in real-time. The camera can then relay information to either your Android or Apple smartphone, or to the included display module. Multiple data points are available and instantly updated including lane departure warnings, following time indicators, and road sign recognition and indication. On top of these monitoring capabilities, the Series 5 can also automate tasks such as headlight and high-beam control for an active safe driving experience. This is a fascinating system which can be easily tucked away behind the windshield of any vehicle.



    More from CES 2013 to follow.
  4. Hardware Review: Phoenix Audio MT107A Array Microphone Car Kit

    by , 02-03-2012 at 09:14 AM

    What is it?

    The Phoenix Audio Technologies MT107A is a USB-powered array microphone kit with echo and noise cancellation technology.

    The Verdict:

    The Phoenix Audio Technologies MT107A is the most ideal solution for hands-free operation with a car PC. The technology built into the kit allows for clear communication whether using the device for voice commands or phone calls through compatible Bluetooth phone systems. It's flexibility in installation is a well-considered feature which means the microphone position and accuracy can be optimized regardless of vehicle type.



    What’s in the box?

    The MT107A comes with a stereo microphone, the noise cancellation processor and its stand, a USB cable, and an instruction manual.


    Description:

    Throughout the existence of the in-car entertainment genre, a perfectly working voice recognition solution has been one of the primary systems to attempt to integrate. Unfortunately, OEMs and hobbyists alike have found it is an incredibly difficult task. Road noise, vehicle attenuation, and user individualism each add their own set of issues to tackle when considering the installation of a true hands-free voice solution. The Phoenix Audio Technologies MT107A microphone car kit does the best job yet for hobbyists of mitigating these issues and more.

    The immediate question any potential installer will ask about this stereo microphone bundle is "how well does it work?" The answer I'd reply with is "darn well". In fact, I was so enamored with how well my voice replayed back through the windows audio capture utility that I decided to attempt to type these two introductory paragraphs using nothing but the MT107A and the Windows 7 built-in speech recognition program, all while traveling down the loud and crowded streets of the Washington DC metropolitan area.


    Minor grammatical errors aside, the MT107A did the job without any issue. Of course, most car computer users are not going to be using this microphone bundle to type reviews or even respond to an email. The primary use of most in-car microphone setups is clearly the use of voice commands and hands-free phone calls.

    Before proceeding to anymore bragging, I will discuss a bit more of the hardware installation of the MT107A. Most people realize that compared to most devices, installing a microphone is pretty much a breeze in the car, and the MT107A definitely falls in that notion. Simply connect the USB cable to the microphones control box and processing core, then run your stereo microphone to the location of your choice. The primary benefit the MT107A has over competing devices is the fact that the stereo microphone comes with easy to use clips, allowing the microphone to be installed anywhere from the rear-view mirror or the sun shades in any vehicle today. In short, these clips allow you to have the microphones as close to your mouth as possible without interfering with driver view or personal comfort. Even if your microphone installation isn't as ideal, Phoenix Audio has a host of SDK applications on their website that can be used to tune the MT107A to your liking.


    Wires connected and tucked, a small configuration in Windows sound manager gets you off and running with using the MT107A as your primary means of voice control in the car. Once configuration is completed, its up to the user to decide how to utilize the MT107A DSP based sound management systems. In testing, I loaded up the RideRunner front end with the DFXVoice plugin. Having previously having a lot of frustration from this software and my Andrea array microphone, I can say that it now works perfectly with the MT107A. Voice commands spoken at normal volumes get picked up and processed right away.

    The more extensive test of an in-car hands-free solution is its use during a phone call via Bluetooth. In trying a few calls with a few different smartphones I received mixed results. My Motorola Droid Bionic worked rather well. Call participants reported no echoing or artifacts during the call, and the bi-directional communication flowed as well as any speakerphone based call would. My wife's LG smartphone however did have some echoing with the MT107A. Callers reported that they could hear themselves talking prior to hearing my response. These results were duplicated in many different scenarios; in my car parked, in my car while driving, and in my wife's minivan under the same conditions. The discovery in all of this testing was the MT107A can do the job of providing clear and precise voice fidelity... provided your phone manufacturer and bluetooth stack are doing their respective jobs.

    In the end, I don't have a problem replacing the Andrea microphone I have "somewhat" used over the last 3 years with the Phoenix Audio Technologies MT107A. The MT107A control box, despite being fairly larger than the Andrea's, does a better job of allowing me to control my experience with my voice in the end.

    The Positive:

    • High fidelity voice capture
    • Flexible installation of microphone
    • SDK available to tune to personal preference
    • Can be used with 2 sets of stereo microphones
    • USB bus powered



    The Negative:

    • Sound processor housing is rather large
    • Microphone wiring could stand to be longer to accommodate more installs without extensions
    • Isn't the all-in-one solution for all Bluetooth phone calls




    The Verdict:

    The Phoenix Audio Technologies MT107A is the most ideal solution for hands free operation with a car PC. The technology built into the kit allows for clear communication whether using the device for voice commands or phone calls through compatible Bluetooth phone systems. It's flexibility in installation is a well considered feature which means the microphone position and accuracy can be optimized regardless of vehicle type.

  5. Hardware Review: OBDLink MX Bluetooth OBD-II Reader

    by , 01-03-2012 at 02:10 PM

    What is it?

    The OBDLink MX is the smallest & fastest bluetooth capable OBD-II device available today

    The Verdict:

    The OBDLink MX makes it all too clear that there's a large difference in effectiveness between generic and high-end OBD-II adapters. It's fast, small, and installs in seconds to any OBD-II capable automobile. Fact is, the OBDLink MX is the best OBD-II option to date.



    What’s in the box?

    The OBDLink MX comes with the OBD-II adapter, start guides for windows and android applications, and a licensed copy of Scantool.net OBDWiz software.


    Description:

    In 2007, I ventured into the OBD-II adapter market in search of a simple device to read as much data as my car was capable of providing. There were many options, mainly of the USB variety, which did nothing in my opinion to differentiate themselves from a generic "cheap" reader. This idea in mind, I went on good old Ebay and purchased a generic ELM327 OBD-II module. To this day, it still works. It doesn't update any more than 3 sensors per second, is not compatible with my newer secondary vehicle, and isn't anything I'd show off at all, but it works. It wasn't until I got a hands-on demo of the new OBDLink MX that I realized the world of difference a high-quality OBD-II reader is capable of.


    The very first thing that jumped out at me is how small this device is. In my cramped Acura RSX cabin, the generic reader does its best job at poking my leg every time I go full throttle. With no heavy gauge wire protruding, and being just a smidgen over the size of the OBD-II connector itself, the OBDLink MX gives me no problems in this arena. I will note that the indicator LEDs (four of them, each a different color) on the device's face do somewhat light up the underside of my dash a bit at night, but the positioning of most OBD-II connectors will mitigate this small issue.


    Equally as impressive as the size of the OBDLink MX is just how fast it is. Despite my primary vehicle sporting the ancient ISO protocol, the OBDLink MX provides PID updates at a noticeably faster rate than my generic ELM module. It's not real-time, but the information i want from my OBD-II system comes at a rate that is 5 times greater than the generic device. When you consider that this increase comes over a bluetooth virtual serial port versus the higher bandwidth USB port of the generic unit, that's darn impressive. Connecting the OBDLink to my Android smartphone is equally as easy as installation with a windows PC, and seems to make the PIDs update even faster, though some of that may be software manipulation at work. Either way, the device provides OBD-II data at a far greater interval than the PLX Kiwi Wifi OBD-II device I reviewed some time ago.

    To attempt to truly gauge the speed and compatibility of the OBDLink MX, I borrowed a buddy's later model Mazda RX-8. Utilizing it's medium-speed CAN bus protocol, the OBDLink MX provides data in an absolute fury. This is the absolute manner in which I envisioned receiving OBD-II values back in 2007. Using the OBDLink over CAN bus appears real-time, indeed.

    On top of these benefits, the OBDLink creates a solution that several other OBD-II devices ignore. When connected, other OBD-II adapters will drain your battery while the car is parked. The OBDLink MX is programmed to automatically shut off if activity is not detected on the bus for 10 minutes. This is feature that should be considered invaluable to a person who wishes to install this device permanently but frequently leaves there car parked for days at a time. The device also has built-in encryption methods which deem it "unhackable" by its creators.


    It is hard to find a fault in a device which does what it intends to faster than it's competitors with a smaller footprint. The small quips I've encountered with the OBDLink MX include its current incompatibility with iPod devices, including the iPhone and iPad. I was unable to connect to and poll data from the MX despite using a variety of apps. The only other nitpick I discovered in testing isn't really a fault to the creator at all, but the Bluesoleil bluetooth stack. The device at times will have trouble reestablishing a connection after resume from hibernation. The windows bluetooth stack showed no problem what so ever however. Based on other experiences, I will chalk that up to a Bluesoleil problem.

    The Positive:

    • Fastest OBD-II device I've encountered, even with outdated protocols
    • Smallest bluetooth capable device on the market
    • Easy one-touch installation method
    • Fully compatible with PCs and android (without root)
    • OBD-II software included with visual gauge support and logging
    • Can be easily removed and swapped into any OBD-II vehicle
    • Battery saving technology built into the device
    • Hack-Proof encryption


    The Negative:

    • Resume issues with Bluesoleil stack
    • Not currently compatible with iPod product line
    • Bit of a light show in the driver foot well at night when connected



    The Verdict:

    The OBDLink MX makes it all too clear that there's a large difference in effectiveness between generic and high-end OBD-II adapters. It's fast, small, and installs in seconds to any OBDII capable automobile. Fact is, the OBDLink MX is the best OBD-II option to date.