August 15th, 2007 • 4:05 pm
Since our 11-year-old Volkswagen Jetta is starting to show signs of advanced decrepitude (with over 300,000 km on the counter), we decided to buy a new car this summer.
We had a 10-CD changer in the Jetta, but, as an iPod user, it was obvious to me that our new car would have to have an iPod connection. But it was obviously not the main criterion for choosing the car brand and model.
In the end, we chose to buy a Honda Accord. When investigating various car brands and models, I always made sure that an iPod option was at least available (if not built-in). There was one for the Honda Accord, so I didn’t bother to investigate any further and just asked the dealership to order and install the option.
This was obviously a mistake—at least when it comes to the actual quality of the iPod feature. I didn’t expect a masterpiece of UI design from a car manufacturer, but I somewhat foolishly assumed that any iPod feature from any self-respecting car manufacturer would have a minimum standard of quality and usability—especially considering that it was, in this case, an add-on priced at $375 (CDN).
It was only when I plugged in my iPod and started trying to use it with the car that I realized how wrong I was. (It also didn’t help that the Honda web site had absolutely no details about how this option worked, and that the local dealer had no previous experience with it. It was actually the first one they had ever installed! I guess there aren’t that many iPod users in southwest Nova Scotia…)
Our Honda Accord comes with a GPS navigation system, so it has a rather large LCD screen, with more than enough space on it to display tons of textual information.
Yet, for some reason, the Honda engineers have decided that the interface for using the iPod should be exactly the same as the one for the built-in 6-CD changer. So all you have is a screen with buttons for “Next Track,” “Previous Track,” “Next Disc,” and “Previous Disc.” And that is it!
In actual fact, the “CDs” in this case are playlists that you need to create on your iPod with iTunes. The playlist have to be named “Honda1,” “Honda2,” “Honda3,” etc. up to “Honda7.” You can put as many tracks as you want in each playlist.
Once you plug the iPod in and turn the car audio on, you press the button to select the CD changer twice, which switches from the actual CD changer interface to an interface for controlling the iPod which is… also labelled “CD-C” (as in “CD changer”). In other words, they did not even bother to label the interface “iPod,” even though an iPod is the only thing that you can connect to it.
Then, in order to select the playlist you want to listen to, you press the “Next Disc” or “Previous Disc.” When it says “DISC 1,” it actually means that you have selected the playlist called “Honda1″ on the iPod. Ditto for “DISC 2,” “DISC 3,” etc. So you have no option to assign a more descriptive name to each playlist. You are just supposed to remember what you put in each playlist.
It gets worse. Once you start playing one of the “discs” (i.e. playlists) through the interface, the only thing that the big navigation screen displays about the track that is currently playing is… its track number! There is no artist name, no song title, nothing!
So if you have a playlist with 100 tracks in it, all you see is “Track 1,” “Track 2,” etc. You are just supposed to have memorized the entire playlist before actually plugging the iPod in. (Once the iPod is plugged in, you can no longer use the iPod’s controls or screen, for understandable safety reasons.)
I realize that this is an interface primarily designed for CDs, and that CDs do not come with their own textual information about the tracks. But there is quite a difference between a 12-track CD for which you have the CD sleeve in the glove box and you can check track numbers and titles at any time and a 100-track playlist on an iPod for which you have no way of consulting the track information once the iPod is plugged in and the music is playing!
I phoned Honda’s customer service on the very first day I had the car and was able to talk to a customer service representative named Philip. He tried to justify the limitations of the user interface with safety reasons, and I can understand this to a degree. You don’t necessarily want drivers to try scrolling down lists of hundreds of songs on their navigation screen while they are driving.
But surely displaying the title and artist name for the currently playing track on the navigation screen is not too much to ask and is not a safety issue! After all, this is a screen which displays a fair amount of information when it’s in GPS mode (not that I’m likely to ever use the feature). If that amount of information is not considered a safety issue for the driver while he’s driving, then I fail to see how displaying the track information would be one.
The customer service representative took note of my comments and said he would pass them along, but of course I don’t really expect Honda to send me a software update on CD next week that addresses those concerns. The auto industry doesn’t exactly work like this.
I will now probably have to live with this poor user interface for the next ten years. I am obviously not about to return the otherwise excellent car because of this particular issue, but I must admit I am quite disappointed.
There are other aspects of the audio system that are quite good. The CD changer is fine, the sound quality is great, and you can both control the volume level and skip tracks using controls on the steering wheel itself. These controls work for the iPod option as well, letting you skip tracks in the current playlist. (To change playlists, you still have to use the buttons for changing “discs” on or next to the navigation screen.)
But there are also other aspects of the iPod feature that add to the disappointment. For example, because of the use of a CD-based interface, the track number is actually limited to 99—even though there is of course tons of space on the navigation screen to display more digits. You can have more than 99 tracks in a single playlist, but the track number on the screen goes back to “00″ after 99.
And then there is the problem of what happens when you disconnect your iPod, use it for something else for a while, and then come back to the car and plug it back in. If a song is on pause on the iPod when you plug it in, you have the option to continue playing that song, by using the “DISC 9” option. (Don’t ask.) But otherwise the car’s iPod feature has forgotten where you were in each playlist and just starts playing the tracks of the playlist from number 1 again.
The only other option is “DISC 8,” which plays songs on your iPod in random order. So if you actually want to play an album that you have not included in any of the “HondaN” playlists, you have to disconnect the iPod, start playing the album on the iPod, reconnect it and use the “DISC 9” option. That’s it. Needless to say, it’s not exactly something that you would feel safe doing while driving.
I realize that there are safety issues that car manufacturers have to take into consideration. But even within the strict limits of what is considered safe to do while driving, Honda’s engineers could have done a much better job with the iPod interface.
(And this approach also completely fails to take into account a situation where you have a passenger sitting next to you who does not have to do any driving and can devote his or her entire attention to the screen.)
I do wonder whether all iPod interfaces in other car brands and models are equally bad. I have no easy way to determine this, but if my experience with Honda is a reflection of the average quality of what’s out there, we still have a long way to go before car audio options include quality iPod features that are actually reasonably user-friendly and simply usable.