When I was in Sec One (circa 1989), one of my most treasured possessions was a S$90 digital Sony FM radio tuner. It was slightly smaller than an iPod, and the best thing about it was a large digital screen from where I could see which FM frequency I was tuned into.
Honestly, that gadget wasn’t very good – the reception was worse than analog tuners and the sound quality was so-so. But hot damned! It was a DIGITAL tuner and that was all that mattered to a student who couldn’t afford a full-blown Sony Walkman with digital tuners. I plugged into it every time I got onto a bus and it provided my life’s soundtrack as I know it today.
Fastforward 20 years, and I’ve almost stopped listening to radio when I’m travelling. There’s really no reason to, apart from the traffic updates. Where DJs used to have power over the masses in the form of their vast library of songs, consumers have turned the tables because we now own our own libraries, which can be several magnitudes larger than what a radio station traditionally holds on to.
But large libraries require equally adept MP3 players to manage the song lists and the iPod led the way in easy navigation of thousands of songs. Car solutions for iPod players have been around for a few years, and I’ve personally used two Alpine 1-DIN head units with iPod compatibility. But I was never satisfied with them because they didn’t replicate the full navigational ease of the iPods. The last one I used was the Alpine CDA-9857 below:
With the demise of Doracar, I let the 9857 get scrapped with the car and finally got my hands on the double-DIN, full-touchscreen Alpine W502 (below) which I have been eyeing for nearly two years since it was announced. I haven’t been able to find a decent review of the product, and after a week of using it, here’s my quick assessment : Yes, you should get it if you drive, own an iPod, and have thousands of songs.
It’s known as the W505 in the US and most parts of the world, but it’s the W502 here. Check out the specs page here.
And here are pix of it installed in my new Altis.
Quick smackdown on the W502
PROS – Really intuitive iPod controls!
1. Very responsive display that doesn’t reset itself if you don’t touch it after a few seconds. This means that you can spend a few seconds looking for a song at a red light, then continue driving, and return to looking for your song at the next stop. There’s always an ESC button if you want to return to the Home Screen.
2. After your song starts playing and you decide that you want to relook into the same playlist, just press and hold the “Files” button to go one step back. You’d be surprised how other iPod-compatible head units don’t do this simple thing. It’s analogous to the Menu button on the iPod.
3. Intuitive random play modes. After using for a few days, you’ll quickly get used to switching from ALL RANDOM modes to isolating the album that you want. This bit will sound Greek to everyone save us veteran Alpine owners.
4. Of course, it plays movie DVDs, CDs and radio stations with finesse and no fuss at all. But that’s the least one would expect from such a car audio solution. The WVGA (height 480px) screen is tack sharp!
5. Coupled with a good amp and subwoofer, the sound you’ll get out of your iPod or CDs is rocking solid. Clean and powerful audio, dudes.
1. It doesn’t display Chinese text. This means I’ve had to add Hanyu Pinyin to the artist names or my favourite Chinese songs in order for the info to show up on the screen. According to the grapevine, only one iPod model does so, and it’s 1-DIN and only shows simplified Chinese.
2. Poor skinning capability. Actually, you can “skin” the background with Alpine wallpapers and 3rd party mods, but it’s really not worth the effort. It’s not a full theme changer and the wallpapers can only be seen if you select an esoteric visual mode. And the existing look is okay but will not set your heart pounding anytime soon.
3. It lacks a text search capability. Meaning I can’t type in words like I would in a GPS unit and wait for song results to pop up. Instead, I have to either create playlists, or be patient as I jump to an alphabet that I want, then scroll down to find the exact song I want.
4. At S$1500, it’s not exactly affordable. You could buy three or more iPods with that kind of moolah.
It’s not perfect, but I’m glad to see Alpine continually improving their iPod head units over the years. I considered other models from Pioneer but still settled back on the Alpine because it’s really the superior solution for iPod users today. I just wish more people would learn that upgrading their car audio offers better ROI than most leisure activities. If you want a near-perfect solution to listening to your iPod on the highway, the W502 should be on the top of your list.
PS: If you’re still using those crappy iPod FM transmitters, stop wasting your time! The best way to listen to your iPod is through the line-out connection, and such head-units will charge your player all the time. Such dedicated units are also superior to AUX-IN solutions provided by factory-installed head units in new cars these days, because you’d never have to unplug your iPod to get it charged.