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Tom Berry (aka Bugbyte) takes a look at the new BoomzBoxHD, a device used to add HD radio to a mobile PC. This ingenious device will be available on the mp3Car store in the upcoming weeks and proves to be a quick and painless installation. Software for the interface is included. Read the complete review below.
What is it?
The BoomzBox HD radio is an HD radio that is controlled and played back through your PC.
What’s in the box?
- Boomzbox HD radio
- USB interface from MJS Gadgets
- 8 pin mini DIN cable
- Mini USB cable
- 12 volt AC to DC power supply
- Mini CD with drivers and BoomzBox player app
The BoomzBox HD radio is an easy way to add HD radio to your car PC setup. Out of the box, there are two main components, the BoomzBox HD radio itself and a USB interface box. The interface box connects via USB cable to the PC and also via an 8 pin mini DIN cable to the BoomzBox. In addition, the 12 volt power supply connects to the interface box. The setup is very similar to using the mp3Car XM radio adaptor and XM Direct radio except that the BoomzBox's audio is routed via USB into the PC -a very nice touch that makes it simple to manage with front end programs.
The last connection is the car antenna on the BoomzBox itself. The Boomzbox includes a standard Motorola antenna socket that allows you to plug a standard U.S. car antenna cable into it with no modification (some cars, like my VW Beetle require an adaptor to the Motorola socket). In addition, the BoomzBox includes antenna in and out to allow the user to keep a head unit on the car's antenna as well as the BoomzBox (you'll have to purchase the Motorola cable to do this separately). A very thoughtful addition that many folks will find handy.
Once connected, installation is a snap. The included mini-CD has the required drivers on it. Just plug the interface box into the PC, load the drivers and check the device manager to ensure that the interface box shows up under the USB devices and also under the COM devices with a port number assigned to it. (If you don't have a CD/DVD drive with a caddy on it, you'll have to download the drivers and software to a USB stick like I did. It would be nice if they came on a full sized CD as many car PC's have slot load drives that can't handle a mini-CD.)
The BoomzBox HD comes with a software app that mimics a car head unit to control the radio. It includes seek, direct tune, three banks of presets and several different skins to change the look of the app. On initial startup the app scans for the radio. If all is well, it will automatically find it and turn it on the BoomzBoxHD. Specs for the radio were not included with my test unit but to my ears the quality of the sound was very good, although I have to say that I'm no audiophile. It certainly sounds much better than analog FM radio!
One important feature of the BoomzBox is the USB audio feature. This reduces the number of cables from the box as well as solving the problem of getting the sound into your PC. In addition, I found that when using the RideRunner car front end that the program would seamlessly switch between the radio and mp3 files without requiring any input from the user. Nice!
I tested the BoomzBox HD with the RideRunner car PC front end program. RideRunner is arguably the most popular car front end and I'm happy to report that it worked perfectly with this program. A simple change to RideRunner's rr.ini file to specify "HDRADIO" was all it took for the program to recognize the BoomzBox. Using the Carwings skin I was able to play and tune the radio with no difficulty.
What could be improved about this product? There's little to dislike about the BoomzBox HD but I found a couple of things that would be nice to improve. The separation of an interface box and the radio itself makes the product clunky and adds more cables to your car PC mix. With space at a premium in many car PC installations, it would be nice if the interface box was integrated into the radio itself with all cabling internal. I'd be willing to trade a bigger box or even some type of header pin connector system that would allow the interface box to piggyback onto the BoomzBox.
In addition, the requirement for 12 volt power is, I suppose, necessary but tiresome. With 5 volts on the USB line, it would be nice if the USB power could have been used to run the BoomzBox, eliminating another cable. I'm fairly sure that the 12 volt power runs through the mini DIN plug and powers the BoomzBox rather than the USB interface and it seems like it might have made more sense to put the 12 connection in the side of the BoomzBox as opposed to the interface box.
I hope that mp3car makes the standard for control of the BoomzBox HD available for hobbyists since the BoomzBox is currently a Windows only device. There's no reason it couldn't work with Linux or OS X since it uses standard Prolific FTDI drivers that make the BoomzBox show up as a serial port device. It would be dead simple for a developer to code up a program that would allow the BoomzBox to work on either operating system.
But these are all nits, really. If you are looking for an easy way to add HD AM/FM radio to your car PC setup, the Boozbox HD is the product for you. It solves the dilemma that many car PC'ers have of "should I keep my head unit or go with an amplifier?" by providing high quality HD radio reception that is piped into the PC and easily controlled by current front ends.
Works as advertised, sounds great, easy to connect to system. USB cable routes sound directly into the PC making it easy to manage.
YABB (Yet Another Black Box), requires separate 12 volt power supply for radio, interface box and additional cables add to in car clutter.
Thumbs up! The radio Just Works(tm) and is easy to configure to integrate into RideRunner. BoomzBox software player works well, sounds great, sensitivity of radio is good. The BoomzBox HD comes with a pass through antenna cable connector which allows you to connect it inline with the antenna and keep your head unit connected if you desire.
This was the first time I've ever been to CES. I knew CES is the largest consumer oriented electronic show and despite a 10% reduction in attendance, this year did not disappoint in terms of size. Fibreoptic and I walked for 4 days straight and still didn't see all of the show, which takes up the entire Las Vegas convention center and spills over to several nearby hotels.
So, what were my impressions? The overwhelming sense I got was that car computing is alive and well but is unlikely to include traditional computers in the next few years. The days of the car PC are numbered.
Smaller and Smaller
The trend on the mp3Car.com forums for the past several years has been more towards innovation on the software development side rather than the hardware side. Although the learning curve may be steep for newbies, car PC veterans know that it is trivial to install a PC in a car. Power supplies, screens, hard drives and motherboards that can survive and operate reliably in the car are readily available and easy to install. While performance differences command differing price points, car PC hardware is effectively a commodity.
Combine this with the trend of shrinking hardware size whether form factor, power requirements or storage, along with continuing price reductions however you measure the cost (per megabyte, per CPU cycle, per watt) and the car PC is an endangered species. Why? Because small device like smartphones are getting both smarter and more powerful.
These phones are destined to be more than just application-enabled handheld devices. They represent a product that is increasing in storage, computational capability, full time connectivity whether bluetooth, WiFi, or cellular. Right now, they represent a simply a communication component that can link your car PC to data or voice networks but as they become more powerful they will eventually displace the PC in the car.
Consider how close a device such as an iPhone comes to replacing a PC in the car right now. The big apps for car PC's such as music, video, web browsing, GPS and high speed internet are all available. Turn by turn navigation and voice control are not on the iPhone but doubtlessly they will be and they are available on other phones today.
Of course, there are still compromises. Phones have a visually intensive interface, limited storage, proprietary protocols and OS capabilities, limited graphics capabilities and slower CPU's than full-blown PC's. Here's why I don't see that as a problem in the near future:
The move of desktop applications to the net via web applications such as Google apps like gmail, mapping, calendars, chat and so forth offload the processing to systems on the net. That means the net computes your routings rather than your PC. It also offloads the storage requirement for data like maps while permitting access to live, updated information like traffic, weather, video and so forth. Connected computers have much more value in the car than non-connected ones.
What Does the Future Look Like?
So, what do I think this new future of car computing will look like? I think within the next five years we will see a shift from hardware in the car to a mobile device that you carry on your person. This device will help deliver what I call "Webiquity," the intersection of the right information to the right person at the right time, and on the right device. Webiquity exists in a limited way today for example, whenever Google asks you if you meant to inquire about movie times instead of moive times, but it doesn't span the majority of our human activity.
When do I think a 'magic' device or phone will be delivered? First, I doubt if we will recognize it when it first appears. I certainly never connected the idea of putting a modern PC in my car when IBM delivered the PS/1. It will probably emerge through gradual experimentation and the ease of fitting crucial missing links in place.
The main link is advances in communications. It's pretty clear that if you are willing to pay for it, you can get net access most of the time. As the coverage becomes better and the cost for connectivity continues to drop, our attention will turn towards the possibility of actually depending on the net for things we can't store on our devices -such as weather, dynamic traffic, gas prices and so forth.
In fact, current iPhones might make a pretty good car PC except for the screen and the interface. Even if there were an easy way to link the phone's display or drive a separate display (say, by bluetooth or WiFi, or even by a docking mechanism), we'd still have the problem of the interface and extending the functionality of the phone in the car.
Therefore it's not necessarily a lock to say that this device will be a phone. As hardware gets smaller and more powerful, non-handset makers will be innovating to offer connectivity on new and different types of devices. Who knows? It may not be a single device at all. It might be a series of devices and interfaces that you interact with as you move from home to car to office and back. All I know is that the results will be small, powerful, and connected.
Given the ability of a web browser to access and run most any kind of web application running on nearly any type of OS, I expect the OS in the car device to become less and less of an issue except for specific hardware interface issues. The OS will still matter on the web server, but the end result -the application being run by the client, will be less and less important.
So, while one piece of the puzzle is probably hardware -something like a monitor that is wireless or cellular and can interface with your handheld device, the other piece is software.
The Software Will Be The Solution
Once we can reliably depend on the mobile net, we'll start shifting our attention from front ends that are tied to an OS to front ends or voice interfaces that are built on the web, for our cars. We'll be able to mash up services, figure out routings, get directions, find phone numbers, view webcams and stream data in both directions.
Of course, we can already do that in some of the most advanced car PC installations. The best part will be the applications we haven't thought of yet. Right now, nascent applications that are location aware are just now beginning to be developed. Consider how cool would it be if you could conjure up Zillow while driving through neighborhoods hunting for houses? School performance, tax data, things to do and see would be available to you on the move. How about dynamic GPS reroutes based on traffic density reports online? Or instant comparison and evaluation of codes thrown by your car's OBDII port to tell you whether you need to head to the nearest mechanic right away or whether that sound the car is making can wait a day or so?
It may all sound a bit far out right now but what I saw at CES confirmed what I already thought. The days of the car PC are numbered. It may die a slow and lingering death, but evolution is going to catch up with it eventually. I think sooner than later.