Car Tech 101: How To Test-Drive Music Player Integration


You probably have noticed that there's no industry standard for integrating portable music players like the iPod with a vehicle. But you don't always discover problems with the way your music player works in your car until weeks or months after you've bought your new device — or your new car. No wonder it makes you crazy.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution for connecting a device to a car or for the interface you'll use while you're driving. But you can take your technology fate into your own hands by test-driving your iPod or other music player in the new vehicle that you're thinking of buying. This article walks you through that process.

If you need a tutorial on music player technology, read the article "Car Tech 101: Music Player Integration Basics." And once you're at the dealer, use our Music Player Checklist to make sure that your music player is compatible before you buy a car. Finally, "How To Test-Drive Car Technology Without Dealer Interference" gives tips about avoiding any hassles you might get from a dealership while you're testing technology in a vehicle.

Music Player Connection and Interface

  • Is your device compatible with the car? Most car companies list compatible devices in the vehicle's owner's manual.
  • How does the music player connect to the car? Find out which of these the car uses:

    1. An auxiliary or "aux-in" jack that requires an aftermarket accessory cable to connect a music player to the car. This setup requires the driver to use the controls on the device rather than those built into a car.
    2. A USB port that allows a music player to be plugged in using the computer sync cable that comes with the device. This setup also accommodates USB thumb-type memory drives loaded with music files.
    3. A proprietary cable supplied by the automaker. This is sometimes an extra-cost item.
  • Does the car radio or audio head unit have a dedicated button to access an iPod or connected device? Some do, but others have a multifunction button that toggles through various music sources, such as the CD or other auxiliary music sources.
  • Does the vehicle have center console/dashboard, touchscreen and steering-wheel controls for accessing content on a connected device? If so, determine how your device works with each one.
  • Are the controls easy to use? Remember, you'll be operating the system most often while driving, so check to see whether the controls are intuitive and let you keep your eyes on the road most of the time. Also make sure you can quickly get to the controls you use most often. It's no help to you as a driver if the controls are buried in a submenu that takes several button pushes and lots of time to get to.
  • Does the car have voice-recognition control? If so, how well does it work? Voice recognition capability varies widely. Some automakers only allow voice control for basic functions, such as switching between sources or skipping tracks. Others, like Ford's Sync system, let a driver request a specific song, album, artist, playlist or even genre. If your prospective car has voice recognition, test how extensive it is and how it responds to your commands, especially in a noisy cabin at full speed.

Features and Formats

  • How quickly does the system let you access content on a device? It's not uncommon for a device to have thousands of songs and hundreds of artists. Let's say you want to get from Aerosmith to Zero 7. Do you have to go through your entire music library by repeatedly twisting a knob or pushing a button? Or does the system have a method to quickly jump to where you want to be within a menu?
  • Does the vehicle have the menu items you use most often? All automakers include the main menu items found on iPods: songs, artists, albums and playlists. Other vehicles also include composers, audiobooks and podcasts. If these secondary categories are important to you, make sure the prospective vehicle includes them. Also find out how well they work. Does the system pause an audiobook or podcast at the place you stopped it and resume it when you start the car again? Or does it take you back to the beginning of the book section or podcast? Does it resume regardless of whether you unplug the device?
  • Does the vehicle correctly identify tracks? This isn't usually an issue with music, but it can be more of a concern with audiobooks and podcasts, since these are sometimes listed as artists and songs instead of, say, authors and chapters.
  • How is the music information displayed? Remember that you'll be driving, so a quick glance will be all you have time for. You'll want to make sure that you can easily read the information in all types of lighting. Is the text sized right for you? Does it wash out in bright sunlight or when you wear polarized sunglasses?
  • Does the system offer Bluetooth audio for wireless music streaming? Bluetooth audio is appearing in more vehicles and is a great convenience. It lets you wirelessly send music from your device to the car's stereo system and then control it from there, though the level of control varies. It also allows you to stream Internet radio stations like Pandora from a smartphone.
  • If you plan to use a USB thumb drive, which music file formats does the system accommodate? Most will play MP3 and WMA files, while others also include formats such as Apple's AAC.
  • How easy it is to access music on a USB device? Does the system use the same song, artist, album format that it does for a music player?
  • Does the car have an SD card slot? If so, what type of music files does it accommodate?

Buyer Beware
Because automakers have to design their vehicles at least two years before they hit the street — an eternity in terms of technology — in-car electronics often lag behind the latest consumer tech. That's often why your car and a brand-new music player might not work well together. Another issue isn't about the march of technology, but personal preference, since an interface that one person finds easy to use may prove frustrating for someone else.

So that's why it's essential that you know about the music player connection, interface and features that are available in the vehicles you're thinking about buying. And that's why it's crucial to bring your music player along on your new-car test-drive.

It's the only way to ensure that player and car get along — and that you can easily and safely get to the music you want while you're on the move.