Since we have been conditioned to see things in a certain way, we are left scratching our heads when someone takes a radically different approach to improve a thing that isn’t broke. Take the headphone jack, for instance. When Apple announced it will be skipping one on the iPhone 7, it wasn’t received well—by critics and fans alike. But as other manufacturers caught on with this, it became slightly more acceptable.
When I got my hands on Pioneer’s newest car infotainment system, I had the same dilemma—why mess with something when it’s not even broke?
Here’s what the head unit looks like—a rather small display with four huge buttons for voice recognition, navigation, messages and calling. The volume knob and folder (up and down) buttons along with the semi-circular Music Source and Menu/App Launch buttons are pushed to the side. The bottom of the head unit has an LED-backlit parking sensor indicator.
But that’s not it, the heart of this entire system is not behind the head unit; but in your smartphone. That’s right, there’s an app called the Pioneer Smart Sync which acts as the control centre for the unit and that’s why you don’t have an EQ button or a giant screen in the middle—your phone is the centrepiece.
They have also added a really sturdy smartphone cradle with the unit which can be tilted vertically or horizontally according to your preference and when you’re not using it, you can simply tuck it inside.
All of this is not to tell you that you’re in 2018 and smartphones are taking over everything, they’re for a reason.
According to Pioneer “with all these cutting-edge features, Pioneer Smart Sync makes it easier for the driver to use his phone through Pioneer Smart Sync App and SPH-CI9BT."
It is clear that Pioneer is taking a step forward in reducing driver distraction with this product. To give you some perspective, 2,138 lives were claimed by distracted driving due to smartphone usage.
But here’s the thing, for such a unit to truly be less distractive, the voice recognition of the system has to be really responsive and the entire interface has to be in the line of sight of the driver, so the eyes are always on the road. I used the head unit for three days and here are my findings:
There are three ways to connect to the system—via USB, Bluetooth and aux. I will be talking mainly about the Bluetooth connectivity as it was my main source of media consumption.
Connecting to the headset was a bit tricky. There’s a specific way to connect your smartphone to it—download the app, then enable your Bluetooth visibility and then connect with the unit via the app. If you don’t do it via the app and do it through your Bluetooth settings instead, you’ll have to delete your pairing and start all over again.
This got a bit annoying at times—I have the tendency to keep my Bluetooth on when I leave the car, and if the app wasn’t opened, it would refuse to connect. By this time I had already started driving and since the device was in the cradle, I had to park my car as the cradle was a bit out of reach.
The unit allows connectivity with multiple devices at a time, which a great thing. It also comes with a fast charging USB port at an unfortunate position at the top left corner. I have mixed feelings about this, as the charging cable forms the loop over the volume up and down buttons which I happened to use a lot.
Smart Sync App
The Smart Sync app consists of several layers of customisability. The default setup on the home screen allows you to view the track currently playing, Google Maps (in case you’ve enabled navigation), time and date and a speedometer that also tells you the altitude.
You can interact with the app either by using your phone’s screen or by pressing any one of four physical buttons present on the unit. You can also change your audio source and trigger the home screen of the app with the two buttons present on the edges of the unit.
While Pioneer claims you can select the app of your choice for actions like playing music and reading out messages, I found it fairly limited. For instance, it didn’t support Wynk Music, so I ended up pulling down the notification tray everytime I had to change the song.
It does allow WhatsApp messages to be read out if you tap the “message" button on the head unit something that I found really useful.
When you start digging further in the settings, you’ll find a really cool presentation of EQ and the ability to accurately pick the direction of sound using the fader and setting. It also supports FLAC audio for the audiophile inside you.
But here’s what bugs me: everything relies on Google Assistant when it comes to voice recognition. And it can be a bit unnerving while driving. Google Assistant is not that great when it comes to Indian accents. That being said, you’ll find yourself repeating the simplest tasks multiple times.
The navigation button sticks out like a sore thumb too—you’d expect it to take your command as soon as you tap on it. Instead, it triggers the Google Maps app and then you’ve to take your eyes off the road to either press the voice recognition button on the screen or type it out.
Oh, and for those asking if you can watch YouTube—of course you can. Just hop out of the app and you can watch full-length Netflix movies on it, let alone YouTube.
Pioneer has taken the step in the right direction with the device, in which your smartphone is the master. However, the implementation of it is still half-baked. I have my faith in Pioneer to come out with software updates in the future.
The reliance on Google Assistance is inevitable, it is the best voice recognition interface out there and coming up with an in-house intelligent AI assistant might not be very profitable for Pioneer. But it only adds to the distraction, not eliminate it.
Pioneer also doesn’t have control over your actions on your smartphone, so the option to watch movies or videos on your central console seems a bit concerning to me. But again, anyone can go for a cradle that fits in the central console.
But given the price of ₹ 7,150, it is a novelty in the segment that you might want to check out since it does everything (and a bit more) a regular infotainment system would do.