Auto Electronics: Making Better Connections

Best Values in Receivers • Video Monitors • Navigation • Security Systems

Aftermarket automobile-electronics products increasingly connect to wireless communications networks, which means that you can look up restaurant reviews on your navigation system and stream online audio through your receiver. However, the latest connectivity features require a smartphone or a tablet computer, which can do the same tasks on its own.

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When you hit the road for your morning commute or a cross-country vacation, aftermarket automobile-electronics products are designed to keep you on course and entertained.

However, at a time when smartphones and tablet computers exist, do you still need a dedicated navigation device to avoid the latest traffic jam or a video monitor so your children can watch a movie during the next family road trip?

That conundrum drives manufacturers to deliver more connectivity features to the latest audio receivers, multipurpose systems, navigation devices and security systems. Manufacturers increasingly create products that connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi hot spots and, ironically, via your smartphone to expand the capabilities of their products.

Thanks to in-vehicle connectivity, you can stream and control online music services with audio and video receivers, access real-time traffic updates and up-to-date maps on navigation devices or track the location of your vehicle with your smartphone via the latest vehicle security systems. Furthermore, one manufacturer incorporates a tablet in its headrest video entertainment system.

Nonetheless, as manufacturers create products that are designed to work with a smartphone or a tablet, they reveal how smartphones and tablets deliver the same capabilities on their own and threaten to make even the best-equipped automobile-electronics products obsolete.

NAVIGATING CHANGE. Half of all Americans own a smartphone that can deliver navigation and live traffic updates, so why would anyone other than a driver who doesn’t own a smartphone want a portable navigation device (PND)? That’s a question that PND manufacturers answered by introducing features that in some cases require—believe it or not—a smartphone.

Annual PND sales dropped to 9 million devices in 2012 from their peak of 15 million devices in 2008, according to market-research company IHS. Likewise, the number of PND manufacturers dropped to just three companies in 2013 from 12 in 2009.

As a result, prices of PNDs have dropped significantly over the past 4 years. At press time, we found no PND that cost more than $380, which is $220 less than the price was of our premium Best Buy selection 4 years ago. The majority of PND models in 2013 cost no more than $180, which was the price of our economy Best Buy selection 4 years ago.

Meanwhile, PND manufacturers have added features, such as Bluetooth technology, which allows you to make or receive hands-free cellphone calls, and receive traffic alerts and free downloadable up-to-date maps—all to better compete with smartphones.

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For example, TomTom’s Live Services, which is available on two models that cost $230 and $300, respectively, uses the PND’s built-in wireless receiver to connect to the Internet and deliver weather alerts, daily fuel prices and traffic alerts that update every 2 minutes. The service is free for the first year, but it costs $60 each following year. Such information can be valuable to drivers who don’t use a smartphone, but those who have a smartphone would be paying extra for services that they already can get on their smartphone via mobile applications.

However, new capabilities in PNDs by Garmin and Magellan require the use of a smartphone’s connectivity, which begs the question why anyone would shell out extra money to buy such a PND. Eleven Garmin models ($180–$380) have Smartphone Link. The feature allows you to send street addresses to the PND from Web searches through your smartphone, provides weather forecasts and helps to locate parking lots that have available spaces. Although those features are free, access to live traffic updates requires an annual subscription of $20. At press time, Magellan introduced SmartGPS ($250), which connects to your smartphone’s network, so you can get access to social-network reviews and discounts for restaurants and hotels that are displayed next to the navigation map on a split screen. SmartGPS also delivers traffic updates and fuel prices for no additional subscription costs.

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