Jewish World Review Feb. 28, 2003 / 26 Adar I 5763

Clarion's "AutoPC" is no "Joyride"

By Mark Kellner | Can you -- should you -- trust a Microsoft operating system to run your car stereo? What if it promised voice commands, navigation to your appointments and perhaps even more?

That is the premise behind Microsoft's Windows CE for Automotive, the operating system version that the software behemoth is advocating for in-car systems that offer you the top 40, but more besides.

Since November, I've tested what appears to be the only commercial, after-market iteration of what was once called the "AutoPC" (stet), the Clarion Joyride, made by Clarion Corp. and sold through a small network of dealers. Yes, Clarion car audio products can be found widely, but not every Clarion dealer can handle this product.

As billed, the Joyride provides almost all things to all people: according to the firm's Web site, you get an "AM/FM ... Tuner, a DVD Video player, a CD Audio Player, an MP3 decoder for either CD-R recorded MP3 or MP3 files loaded on a Compact Flash Card, built-in Dolby Digital and DTS audio decoders for 5.1 channel audio, true dual zone capability, CD Changer Control, an Address Book function, and an optional navigation package."

Thanks to extraordinary efforts by Microsoft - Clarion, initially, didn't want to cooperate with the review, though the firm later proved crucial in helping with a support issue - the Joyride was installed in a vehicle well worthy of such hardware: Hyundai Motor Corp.'s Santa Fe SUV. This vehicle, which I've used now for quite some time and have driven across country recently, is a stunning example of how good technology can work: from the electronics systems to heated seats (very useful in recent snowstorms!), the Santa Fe's performance has been superb.

It's also just the kind of vehicle that could benefit from an after-market product like the Joyride. Hyundai's supplied stereo system is excellent, but "extras" such as a CD changer, a large LCD screen and navigational tools were not options when the Santa Fe was delivered.

Installation was handled in the Los Angeles area by a firm noted for its custom audio work, Audio Options of Torrance. These people are professionals whose work is often seen at auto and electronics shows; having such experience is crucial when hooking up a system that includes a Gyroscope, GPS signal transmitter/receiver, the aforementioned LCD and other components, including a 6-CD changer.

With installation and retail pricing, it's safe to figure a $4,000 price tab for such a setup. Is the price worth it?

At present, I'd have to say no. Where the original "AutoPC," announced in the late 1990s and demonstrated for me at the 2000 Winter CES show in Las Vegas, was supposed to be an extension of a desktop computer or a Microsoft Pocket PC, transferring schedule, e-mails and addresses from handheld to dashboard, including a built-in cell phone for hands-free calling and perhaps e-mail, the devolution to a multimedia product with navigation on the side is disappointing.

A user's most important Joyride accessory, I found out, is a paper clip, bent to use one edge on the Joyride's reset button. Every few days, I would have to reset the system because "something" - I could never tell just what - would knock it out of whack, producing only an ear-splitting screech best suited for use against recalcitrant dictators. One reset and I was on my way, that is, until one time when I managed to wipe out the entire operating software for the device (hasn't Clarion heard of programmable, read-only memory chips where an OS can be safely stored and eventually updated?).

To its credit, a Clarion staffer was kind enough to overnight a replacement CD that got the system going again, after five days of silent commutes. However, this "wipe out" was not my only issue with the Joyride. As will be seen next week, it's a temperamental beast, this product, and it might give even the most dedicated car audiophile pause.

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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.

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