View RSS Feed

Product Reviews

  1. Hardware Review: Phoenix Audio MT107A Array Microphone Car Kit

    by , 02-03-2012 at 10:14 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.

  2. Hardware Review: Element 7" Touchscreen Display

    by , 01-25-2012 at 10:40 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.

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

    by , 01-03-2012 at 03:10 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.

  4. Hardware Review: Car/Droid Double Din All In One Car Multimedia System

    by , 12-14-2011 at 03:10 PM

    What is it?

    The Bybyte Car/Droid is a fully featured double DIN multimedia system with a detachable 6.5" Android Tablet.

    The Verdict:

    As a whole, the Bybyte Car/Droid is a feature packed multimedia system giving you the bits of the best things a car PC has to offer. The device harnesses the power of a standard head unit with the power of Android, and sprinkles in a little iPod connectivity on the side. When viewed separately, the double DIN head unit still manages to incorporate most of what the device was made to do, while the Android tablet is crippled by its hardware limitations.



    What’s in the box?

    The Car/Droid comes jammed packed with every cable needed to connect the system to your vehicles audio wiring harness and other support devices. Included is the double DIN radio, the detachable Android tablet with case, a separate 12v power brick for the tablet, external GPS, a proprietary iPod connector, radio wiring harness, and a host of cables for optional accessories like rear DVD and rear camera support. An instruction manual is generously included, but strangely omits information regarding the head unit.


    Description:

    A double DIN radio, created to house an Android tablet with the backing of the popular Android Market. What's not to love about it? The idea behind the Bybyte Car/Droid is quite clear up front. The device can be used simply to play music, allow hands free phone usage in the car, or allow the kids to watch a DVD through a rear screen (not included). Bring the tablet with you, and do all of this, as well as just about anything that an Android device can do. Stream Pandora, listen to Sirius, or perhaps play a game. When factoring all this with the idea that you can easily connect your iPod device and control its music playback all through the 6.5" touchscreen the tablet provides, it seems that the creators of the Car/Droid have considered everything. Heck, you can even easily connect your built in steering wheel controls to the Car/Droid and configure their usage right from the tablet's interface.


    Sounds like everything that anyone that doesn't want to hack into a dash would desire from a multimedia vehicle system. The Car/Droid is technically just that, but beyond the surface is where you could find the device is not the dream system that non-hobbyist yearn for.


    Let's start with the good. The "Car" portion of the Car/Droid device is rather satisfying in itself. While not particularly modern looking or stylish, you do get a head unit that is absolutely jam packed with available features. In fact, the only features that the head unit does not allow for is the use of the included GPS receiver, and the rear camera connection. Because there is no touchscreen, and save for the small VFD on the face, no screen at all, you could hardly use or control a navigation system. The head unit will obviously allow CD playback, but will also accept a DVD and feed it to a rear screen, or you can connect a TV antenna and feed that through to a rear screen. You can accept phone calls with the device and speak through the built-in mic port (that surprising works well), and will even accept a micro-SD card for auxiliary playback.


    On the rear of the head unit, you'll find connections for all of the optional accessories, as well as your standard looking wiring harness for your speaker and power connections. There's also a fan which keeps the unit cool under the wildest of temperatures ensuring you have all features regardless of the weather conditions. The creators of the Car/Droid were wise in considering the mounting depth of the device and making sure the wiring will not interfere with installations in cramped DIN openings.


    The face of the head unit is sprawled out with control buttons for all of the media device options. You get six presets for radio, and can control Radio/TV/DVD/Audio with the same sets of buttons. Again, the device doesn't look as fancy as most aftermarket radios out today, but it at least has all of the controls needed without having to do too much hand surfing. Below the tablet dock mount are the volume and mute buttons, a source/power button, a host of buttons for some of the advanced features like phone and "pad" mode (more on this later), as well as the built-mic and IR receiver for the included remote control.


    The obvious key feature of the Car/Droid is the Android tablet dock, and plugging the tablet into the dock is done without fuss. Once docked, the Android tablet instantly displays your main menu in a touch friendly interface that I will call "radio" mode. Here you have options to change instantly between sources like Music, Radio, iPod, and Phone. While the main menu works well with the head unit to present you with whatever source you want, here is also where the first problem is presented. The Android tablet, at its best, displays a 800x480 resolution. To us car PC users, this is pretty standard, but the "radio" mode of the device does a very poor job of utilizing that resolution to its fullest. The main menu, and each screen under this mode uses colors and gradients you could easily find something manufactured by ColecoVision in the 80's. It's obvious that more work should have been done in the interface design of this mode.


    The alternative mode is "pad". Pressing the pad button on the head unit instantly transforms your tablet into a standard Android-style tablet. You get Android 2.1.x with the "Droid" portion of the Car/Droid device. To this date, the latest publicly released build of android is in the 2.3 range, so the Android tablet which comes with the Car/Droid is a few years out of date on the software side. Aside from the touchscreen friendly Home, Menu, and Back buttons which always display in the notification area on the tablet, it appears to be a "vanilla" Android experience. Still though, with Android comes the power of Android applications. With the Android market, you can download a host of applications which enhance the tablet's ability to act as a vehicle multimedia system. Google Maps can use the head unit's external GPS for navigation (internet is still required however). You can get better music applications, download Facebook, and most anything else you'd want to do while driving in a car. Because of the version of Android available to the tablet, some pretty large enhancements are not allowed. You can not use the popular Google Music streaming service, you can not get Adobe Flash. Good luck flinging your angry bird around.


    The top of the tablet has buttons for Android functions Power, Menu, and Back, as well as the button which releases the device from the head unit. The side of tablet has connections for power, USB, USB-Host, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and strangely enough an HDMI output. It's odd to see an HDMI output on a device which such small resolution. A plus of the tablet is that it too has a micro SD port for external storage. It also charges while docked into the head unit.


    Despite the appeal of the head unit, the centerpiece for the Car/Droid is the tablet and it's touchscreen. Sadly, you're restricted far too much by the tablets specifications to actually enjoy using it anywhere other than the car. For starters, you are limited by a restrictive touchscreen, which is particularly hit-or-miss when it comes to presses and debilitated when scrolling. It is also extremely reflective to sunlight or other light sources.

    The other specifications for the tablet aren't as impressive either for the most part. Inside you get a 720mhz processor, 256MB of RAM, and 8GB of internal storage, most of which is occupied by Android and pre-installed applications. Also of note, the battery life of the unit I tested was very poor. In fact, in the amount of time needed to post this review the battery meter went from 90% to 40% with minimal use. While the tablet is removable and this is a pro, i'm afraid you won't get much use from it outside of the car.


    The Positive:

    • Device capable of doing everything a All-In-One is made to do
    • Detachable screen ensures portability and security
    • Offers a very good hands-free phone experience
    • Head unit automatically controls and powers tablet when docked
    • Tablet can use the GPS connected to head unit while docked
    • Head Unit is feature rich and can do most of what the device does without the tablet installed.
    • SD Card ports on tablet and head unit allow for abundance of storage options
    • Simple iPod hookup and control


    The Negative:

    • Tablet is running outdated version of Android and is not upgradeable
    • Tablet specs limit the effectiveness of the Android experience in the car
    • Included controlling application uses poor resolution and poor graphic interface
    • Tablet as tested had a poor battery and is not replaceable
    • Low resolution and sunlight readability


    The Verdict:

    As a whole, the Bybyte Car/Droid is a feature packed multimedia system giving you the bits of the best things a car PC has to offer. The device harnesses the power of a standard head unit with the power of android, and sprinkles in a little iPod connectivity on the side. When viewed as separately, the double DIN head unit still manages to incorporate most of what the device was made to do, while the android tablet is crippled by it's own hardware limitations.

    For more pictures on the device, please check out my album.

  5. Hardware Review: Rupel iVox102h HD SSD Driving Recorder

    by , 12-05-2011 at 04:34 PM



    What is it?

    Purchase the Rupel iVox iVox102h on the mp3Car Store here.

    The Rupel iVox is a high-definition audio/video recording device with built-in GPS, accelerometer, and rear camera support. Video is recorded for playback on an included 16GB USB solid-state drive.

    The Verdict:

    The Rupel iVox102h is a feature rich recording device with all the bells and whistles. It’s “install and forget” configuration as well as its high quality image capturing means the iVox102H is a very versatile device. It seems its creator has done an amazing job of incorporating a variety of sensor capabilities into a useful and intuitive device.



    What’s in the box?

    The iVox102H comes with the high-definition camera, a 16GB solid state USB drive, a windshield mount with GPS built in, a 6 meter cigarette lighter power plug, and a rear auxiliary camera. Wire looms are also generously thrown in.


    Description:

    In car, I talk, a lot. A lot of the things I say cannot be repeated in this blog post. In fact, I should probably invest in installing a swear jar somewhere in my mass of PC components and wiring. The Rupel iVox102H was the device that taught me this. That’s because this high quality audio/video capture device sees and hears all that’s going on during my daily commute. It does a clever job of recording what I see as a driver on the busy streets of the DC metropolitan area, all while (optionally) recording all audio that echoes throughout my travels.


    Installation for the device is only slightly more difficult than installing a portable GPS unit. The included base, which features a built-in GPS receiver, simply sticks to your front windshield or dashboard. It connects to the camera with a standard VESA mount and 3.5mm cable so that the GPS data can be written to the camera’s 16GB solid state hard drive, or optionally, a SD card. Next step in installation is to simply run the power line to your nearest 12volt cigarette lighter port. Then optionally the camera will take a 3.5mm audio/video out and yet another 3.5mm jack for the included auxiliary rear camera.


    Once installed, the iVox102H powers on when power is supplied through the cigarette lighter port upon ignition, and powers down shortly after the vehicle is turned off. Optionally, you can connect the device to an always-on 12volt source and record 24/7, though, as always applies in the car, this will only work if you maintain 12volts or more at the battery.


    Shortly after powering on, the camera will automatically begin recording, emitting a simple “recording started” phrase which is elegantly created. This is the “normal” mode for recording. A secondary “event” recording mode is automatically created based on the built-in accelerometer crossing a preset threshold. In this automatic mode, the iVox102H will recapture the prior 15 seconds before the event, and continue recording the preceding 5 minutes after the event before returning to normal mode again. The idea behind event mode is that the moments that need to be captured are captured without the default 30 second splitting the camera saves the files at during the default setting.


    While the iVox is declared as an “HD” capable device, the reality is at its highest setting the primary camera records at 3-megapixels. The video quality is still good enough to capture a license place or an occasional street sign. The rear camera is of lesser quality, but is good enough to use in parking scenarios, which is what the creators designed it for.


    The iVox102h comes with a Rupel Viewer application which allows the video files created by the capture device to be displayed with metadata in tow. The app will show you your calculated speed, latitude, longitude, and built-in accelerometer values in a nice graphical interface. You’re also presented a Google map window which will show your recorded travels. The application, while useful for configuring the camera for things like quality, time format, and distance display, requires a very large resolution display (no car PC will display it), and doesn’t genuinely do anything special. All metadata is shown embedded on the video replay, so users are welcome to simply use they’re own video application.


    The Positive:

    • High quality video capture without the need for a PC
    • Composite video output means you can connect the device to a PC if you wish
    • Quality imaging and audio pickup
    • 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
    • Two channels means you can record from two cameras


    The Negative:

    • Camera itself is somewhat large for windshield mounting
    • Can run into cable management problems if connecting all accessories
    • Included application requires a high resolution display to use.


    The Verdict:

    The Rupel iVox102h is a feature rich recording device with all the bells and whistles. It’s “install and forget” configuration as well as its high quality image capturing means the iVox102H is a very versatile device. It seems its creator has done an amazing job of incorporating a variety of sensor capabilities into a useful and intuitive device.

    Updated 12-29-2011 at 03:06 PM by Jensen2000

    Categories
    Product Reviews