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Product Reviews

  1. GPS Review: Comparing the BU-353 with the new BU-353 S4 edition

    by , 06-01-2012 at 12:57 PM

    Looking for a new USB GPS device for your car PC installation? Check out this video on the latest entry from USGlobalSat, the BU-353 S4 and see how it compares to the forum favorite, BU-353.
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  2. Hardware Review: Pittasoft BlackVue DR400G-HD Driving Recording Device

    by , 03-22-2012 at 08:35 AM

    What is it?

    The BlackVue DR400G-HD is a high-definition audio/video recording device with built-in GPS & accelerometer. Video is recorded for playback on an included 16GB micro SD flash drive.

    The Verdict:

    The BlackVue DR400G-HD improves over competing video recording devices I've tested with a brighter more vibrant capture and a smaller footprint.



    What’s in the box?

    The DR400G-HD comes with the high-definition camera, a 16GB micro SD card with adapter and USB dongle, a windshield mount with adhesive, a 12 meter cigarette lighter power plug, 3.5mm to composite audio/video cable, and a 3.5mm to composite video cable. Wire looms and instruction/installation manuals are also generously thrown in.


    Description:

    A few months back I did a review on the Rupel iVox102H driving recorder system. One of the negative points for the device was the size. The iVox102H stood out like a sore thumb though no matter where it was placed on the front windshield. Enter the BlackVue DR400G-HD. Similar in technical specifications, the DR400G-HD is a sleek and visually appealing driving capture device, sitting at a fraction of the overall length and size of the competitor. The DR400G-HD definitely improves on the competitors footprint, but can it stand toe to toe in regard to the one area that matters most, video quality?


    Simply put, the answer is a resounding "yes". In fact, in similar conditions, the DR400G-HD replayed my driving sessions with more color intensity and brightness. The technical specifications on the box indicate the camera sports only a 2mp chip, but it appears that despite the size and weight difference between these two units, the DR400G-HD sacrifices nothing on video quality. The size of the unit has no effect on the angle of view either, giving a nice full windshield view. The size savings comes from the lack of a proprietary solid-state hard drive for the BlackVue. Instead, the DR400G-HD utilizes your every day micro SD card, found in most modern smart phones and handheld electronic devices. Simply install the side card into the slot on the DR400G-HD camera housing, provide 12v power, and the device records away. A small hitch in the ease of installation is the difficulty sliding the tiny micro SD card into the camera for people with left-hand drive vehicles. The card slot is on the right hand side of the unit when it faces outward towards the windshield, and if the camera is mounted in the ideal position (behind the rear-view mirror) it becomes quite the chore to insert/remove the card. Most users may opt to simply uninstall the camera from the included mount instead, which can be easily done with a simple press of the lock button.


    Another knock on the competing iVox102H was the bright light emitting from the device when powered. Sadly, the DR400G-HD triples the number of lights, and even causes the record indicator to blink continuously while powered. Thankfully, these lights can be switched off in the settings menu in the cameras playback program. On top of the visual feedback with the lights, the DR400G-HD also utilizes voice prompts indicating when the device is powered and recording is started. These too can be turned off via the settings menu.

    In speaking of the program, I must state, like the iVox, the BlackVue camera stores its companion playback application on the storage medium. That means the playback application can be run from "any" computer. A somewhat disappointing omission in regard to this application is it can not be run on a 64-bit windows system. Hopefully the software team is working on a fix for this.


    Once running the software application does a great job of allowing users to playback video with accompanying GPS mapping and accelerometer feedback all indicated. Users can select different dates and times to watch, and all files can easily be backed up to a larger external storage medium. This is somewhat important because in my week with the device I've filled up the 16GB card several times over with the video at its highest quality setting.

    The audio capture is a bit muddy, especially when music playing in the background, but its still easy to pick up the conversation of people in the front and rear of the car.



    The Positive:

    • Superior video capture quality
    • Sleek and small means it doesn't stick out on your windshield
    • Auto-power on/off
    • Captures GPS and accelerometer data and uses it for event detection
    • Included software gives you all the video information in a nice GUI
    • Parking mode set automatically by accelerometer feedback


    The Negative:

    • Muddy audio capture
    • Software is not 64-bit ready
    • SD card installation is somewhat a chore based on location of slot on the camera


    The Verdict:

    The BlackVue DR400G-HD improves over competing video recording devices I've tested with a brighter more vibrant capture and a smaller footprint.

  3. 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.

  4. Hardware Review: Element 7" Touchscreen Display

    by , 01-25-2012 at 09:40 AM

    What is it?

    The Element is a 7" Touchscreen display which features HDMI, DVI, VGA & composite video connections.

    The Verdict:

    The Element 7" display is a well-received competitor into the small touchscreen genre. In its first revision, it seems to incorporate most of the criteria which makes a touchscreen device usable in the car. Those looking for a budget display device with great quality and community recommendation should look at the Element as their device of choice.



    What’s in the box?

    The Element comes with the 7" Touchscreen monitor, power supply, a remote control, and a 3.5mm to composite video connector. HDMI is not included, however because the Element uses a separate mini-USB connection for the touchscreen, any HDMI cable will do.

    Please note at the time the photos were taken the Element monitor came only in open frame form. A case is now available for the device.


    Description:

    Every once in a while, sites like ebay turn up a gem for the small market Car PC world. Such is the case with the new Element 7" touchscreen monitor, a device that community member RipplingHurst found while sifting through the items available on that website. His intrigue, which lead to this massive thread of information regarding the device, inspired me to contact the displays creator to review the device's uses for Car PC.


    With that massive thread in mind, lets summarize some of facts regarding the Element display. It is a 7" Samsung monitor with LED backlighting, overlayed by a resistive 4-wire "sunlight readable" touchscreen input device. Note that it is not transflective, but it does a fairly decent job in high sunlight conditions. I would put the device right on par with the high brightness Lilliput displays of recent years in terms of the amount of screen visible when the sun is bearing down.


    The controller for the device supports the famed 800x480 resolution from any video device which supports it. This means sticklers car PC pixel perfection can use their compatible video cards with the Element without the hassle of custom resolutions or firmware hacks. Oddly enough, the device supports many different resolutions all the way up to 1920x1080, far higher than most Lilliput and Xenarcs dare go. Now, most people wont ever use a 7" monitor at that high a resolution, but the ability to do so is worth a bragging right or two.


    Another built-in feature that was kindly considered is the ability to auto switch to composite AV1 on signaling. This request has become more popular with the installation of rear cameras in car PC setups. Auto-on/Auto-off and input resume are all there as well. The creator as definitely done their research in regard to what car PC hobbyist are looking for from their touchscreens. They've even done away with the dreaded "blue screen of boot" no signal screen. Instead of retina burning bright blue, the screen is a subtle black.


    The display quality of the Element display is darn nice at factory settings. Colors are rich and deep, and there's not any noticeable "pixel effect" or ghosting at low resolutions, no matter what input you choose to use. The only poor aspect of the viewing quality was the off-axis viewing angles. Colors quickly turn dark when viewing at modest angles. Unfortunately this is a trait of near all resistive touchscreen monitors, and the Element makes no strides in this regard.


    Installing the open-frame Element in to your car shouldn't be any more difficult than normal. The device will fit into mp3Car's double-din kits available, albeit with some minor controller mounting and cable interference issues. The display fits nicely into the opening of the bezel, with only a minor smidgen of touchscreen white-space showing through. The developer for the device kindly included a long strand of cables connecting the controller board to the button panel, meaning the buttons can be neatly tucked away, or the IR sensor for the remote can be mounted away from the dash panel.

    A minor matter of contention I have with the Element is of personal opinion. The device uses separate USB and HDMI cables, meaning there is one additional wire required to tuck into the dash and extend out to the PC. The benefit to this is the ability to use any HDMI cable, instead of the stiff and often difficult to replace HDMI-to-HDMI/USB cables found with Lilliput and Xenarc monitors.

    The Positive:

    • Above average sunlight readability
    • High quality display with extremely rich color and contrast
    • Includes features car PC installers demand
    • High selection of available resolutions
    • True native 800x480 support
    • Buttons can be easily mounted elsewhere for space saving in installation


    The Negative:

    • Requires a mini-USB wire for touchscreen
    • Uses proprietary touchscreen drivers
    • Height of controller and angle of connectors mean some hacking required for double-DIN kits
    • Poor off-axis viewing angles



    The Verdict:

    The Element 7" display is a well-received competitor into the small touchscreen genre. In its first revision, it seems to incorporate most of the criteria which makes a touchscreen device usable in the car. Those looking for a budget display device with great quality and community recommendation should look at the Element as their device of choice.

  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.