Category Archives: Toys, Technology. Electronics, Software

Economical Mazda3 offers premium feel and tech

In recent years, luxury automakers such as Lexus and Mercedes-Benz launched compact cars at the low ends of their lineups, betting on the idea that urban-dwelling, well-heeled buyers would prefer a car with smaller dimensions. Mazda reaches up-market with the 2014 Mazda3, pushing the latest generation of this economy car to compete with the luxury compacts.

But where the luxury makers set a base of about $30,000 for their offerings, the Mazda3’s price remains solidly amongst the economy set.

Mazda managed to make the Mazda3 look and drive as well as the new cars from the luxury competition. Even its tech features compare well with these new up-market compacts, although in practice some of those features proved buggy, and could have done with some refinement.

2014 Mazda3 looks as good as it drives (pictures)

The Mazda3 I reviewed was the five-door hatchback, a form I prefer over the available sedan for its looks and practicality. In design, the Mazda3 has a delicious curviness in all its lines, and looks like no other car on the road. The nose is surprisingly long and the front fenders arch upward, creating a dramatic dip at the A pillars.

The low roofline at the rear gives it a little gangster swagger, but the back of the Mazda3 seems to cut off too abruptly. There seemed so little to the back end that I assumed the cargo area would be non-existent. Opening the hatch, I could see there was room for more than a couple grocery bags, at least. The official rating for the cargo area is 20.2 cubic feet, far from the largest in its set. Fold down the rear seats, though, and the rated space goes up to 47.1 cubic feet.

2014 Mazda3

Mazda offers the Mazda3 in both hatchback and sedan style.

(Credit:
Josh Miller/CNET)

Premium tech
This particular Mazda3, with “s” and “Grand Touring” added to the name, sported the most expensive trim in the lineup. At this trim level every cabin tech and driver-assistance feature comes standard. Not only did this Mazda3 have a navigation system, but it also came with a head-up display, lane-departure warning, and a blind-spot monitor.

The new infotainment system, called Mazda Connect, consists of a 7-inch color screen perched on the dashboard, and a set of hard controls down on the console. From the configuration of these controls, it looks like Mazda is borrowing from the European automakers. Mazda Connect comes standard on the Mazda3 i Grand Touring, s Touring, and on the s Grand Touring.

2014 Mazda3

The new Mazda Connect cabin tech system uses these controllers for menu selection.

(Credit:
Josh Miller/CNET)

With this system, a home screen shows large icons for cabin tech functions such as navigation, stereo, and phone, and lets the driver scroll through and select items using the console dial. The dial also works as a push button, and moves laterally and vertically. Similar to BMW’s iDrive and Audi’s MMI, navigating menus is quick and easy, but entering alphanumeric characters is tedious. However, the Mazda3’s LCD is also a touch screen, so I could lean forward and tap letters in with the onscreen keyboard.

I found the interface intuitive to use, and I liked how Mazda put all the audio sources on one screen, rather than separating broadcast and local storage. However, one morning I started up the car and found that the buttons were not responsive, leaving me stuck on the navigation screen. It took a restart of the car, rebooting Mazda Connect, to restore its functionality.

Voice command allows hands-free control for some of the cabin tech, such as making phone calls by contact name and entering addresses for navigation in a single string. But it did not have the ability to recognize artist, album, or song names from media in the car.

The navigation system showed maps in good resolution, with perspective and plan views. I wasn’t crazy about the gray color scheme, but it included rendered buildings in downtown areas; rich graphics for upcoming turns; lane guidance; and the current speed limit. Turn and lane guidance also projected on the head-up display.

2014 Mazda3

These buildings look good on the map, but were also prone to throw off the Mazda3’s GPS fix.

(Credit:
Wayne Cunningham/CNET)

But the navigation system suffered from a couple of problems. First, in areas with tall buildings or trees, it was prone to losing its GPS fix. That led to unnecessary route recalculating and voice prompts. Second, the live traffic implementation is kind of bizarre. Under an Apps menu, far removed from navigation in the menus, I found a map showing traffic ingested from the FM data broadcast. That live traffic was not integrated with navigation at all.

Mazda Connect has the ability to show traffic on its map screen, but the car needs to be tethered to a data source with Wi-Fi. Some Android phones allow data tethering, or you could keep a Wi-Fi hot spot in the car, but all that seems a little ridiculous. I would very much like to see Mazda integrate the FM-derived live traffic with the navigation system, so the car could actively calculate routes around traffic jams.

Tethering the car to a data source also enables fuel price information, but more useful would have been online location search through Google or Bing.

Mazda Connect includes Pandora, Stitcher, and Aha Radio in its list of audio sources, but those apps were integrated through my phone. The Mazda3 uses one of the most advanced implementations of Bluetooth I’ve seen for phone connectivity. It allowed phone calls, of course, but Mazda included a Bluetooth standard called Host Controller Interface. The standard let me browse and select music from my iPhone through the car’s interface without the phone having to be cabled to the car. Android 4.2 devices should also support the Host Controller Interface standard.

2014 Mazda3

In the Mazda3, all the audio sources show up in one list.

(Credit:
Josh Miller/CNET)

So far, the only other car I’ve seen supporting this standard is the Acura RLX Sport Hybrid.

Among the Mazda3’s other audio sources were two USB ports in the console, HD Radio, and satellite radio. Traditionalists will be annoyed to find the volume knob sitting on the console next to the Mazda Connect controls, but Mazda has always found odd spots to place the volume knob.

Driving alerts
The head-up display is a very interesting feature which is virtually unheard of in compact cars. But the implementation in the Mazda3 is a little weird. Instead of a projection on the windshield, there is clear plastic panel that pops up from the dashboard. Mazda should have fixed it in place, as the panel did not always deploy all the way when I started the car. I occasionally found myself having to flick the panel so I could see the display.

2014 Mazda3

Vehicle speed and route guidance show up on the head-up display.

(Credit:
Wayne Cunningham/CNET)

Article source: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/cnet/mHpI/~3/hKncPT_QvTQ/4505-10867_7-35827087.html

Pricey Ultima smartphone holder looks good, lacks flexibility

Ultima In-Car Universal Smartphone Holder

The Ultima smartphone mount can orient a phone in portrait or landscape views.

(Credit:
Josh Miller/CNET)

Watches range from Casio to Rolex, but the set of smartphone mounts available for the car has tended toward the lower end. Now, Australian company NKMOS is offering a smartphone mount for those with money to burn. Call it the Rolex of mounts.

The Ultima In-Car Universal Smartphone Holder is a finely crafted piece of gear designed to hold a smartphone to your dashboard or windshield.

The mount consists of a plastic suction cup with a clever twisting lever to create a vacuum, a short aluminum arm, and a spring-loaded aluminum clamp.

The Ultima smartphone holder looks good and feels solid.

(Credit:
Josh Miller/CNET)

The example I looked at was finished in a nice matte black. NKMOS also offers one in silver.

The aluminum construction gives the mount a high-tech heft, and the sense of solid construction was reinforced with nickel-finished rivets holding the clamp to the arm. For the clamp, rubber pads protect the smartphones placed in its care. The clamp employs a ratchet, making it easy to compress on a smartphone. A plastic button releases the clamp, letting it open on its spring.

One obvious drawback of the Ultima smartphone holder is its lack of adjustability. The arm between suction cup and clamp is only 1.5 inches long and has no hinged joints. It is fixed at a permanent 45 degrees from the plane of the suction cup. In cars with wide dashboards, a central mounting position on the windshield would be too far away for accessibility.

The clamp pivots on a ball joint at the end of the arm, running through a 45-degree arc in any direction. For the example I received, the ball joint was very stiff, requiring some effort to move it. However, that also meant it would stay firmly in place when used in a car.

This clamp opens wide enough for a Samsung Galaxy S4.

(Credit:
Josh Miller/CNET)

The clamp opens to a maximum of 3.38 inches, and closes to a minimum of 1.88 inches. That’s enough to hold either an iPhone 5S or a Samsung Galaxy S4.

When the Ultima was mounted on a car’s windshield, I found it easy to hold the phone and compress the clamp around it with one hand. Likewise, it was easy to tap the button to open the clamp and grab the phone with one hand, making for quick entry and exit.

But as mentioned, the short arm made finding a suitable mounting position difficult. I ended up putting it near the left A pillar for a test drive. Engaging the suction cup required enough effort that I would not want to remove it and put it back on repeatedly. This is the kind of thing you attach once and leave in place.

During a test drive down a very curvy road, the mount showed no inclination to let go of the windshield or my iPhone. I didn’t feel 100 percent confident in the way the clamp held onto the phone, as it seemed a little loose. However, there was no indication while driving that the phone was in danger of falling out.

It may seem extravagant to spend $100 on a smartphone mount for a car, but some people prefer a Rolex over a Casio. The Ultima smartphone holder looks good and its construction feels solid, but it suffers some limitations in how it can be positioned. This mount seems most appropriate as a gift for someone with a nice car who doesn’t want a cheap-looking plastic mount marring the cabin.

Article source: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/cnet/mHpI/~3/aHxuSN8Q-TA/4505-3424_7-35834944.html

Subaru’s large sedan is a lesson in managing expectations

When it first debuted in 2009, the Legacy struck a more muscular, more aggressive figure than its slab-sided contemporaries from Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. Today, the sedan still looks more aggressive than your average Camry or Accord. Muscular fender flares serve as reminders of the all-wheel drive system beneath the sheet-metal and the sporting heritage that it shares with the likes of the smaller, more nimble WRX. Large, eagle-eyed headlamps house high-intensity discharge (HID) projectors that crisply illuminate the road ahead. The Legacy is just a giant wing and a set of plus-sized mags away from looking like a FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) racer. She looks fast, but does so in a way that doesn’t scream boy-racer.

Proportionally, however, it’s just as big and imposing as its more pedestrian competition; which is sort of unavoidable if it hopes to offer the passenger and cargo volume that will keep it competitive in this class. Its performance — which we’ll come back to — is also just as conservative as the rest. As it turns out, building a car that looks fast is quite different from building one that is fast, though I’m not sure that the latter was ever Subaru’s goal with the Legacy’s 2.5i configuration.

2014 Subaru Legacy 2.5i Limited

The 2014 Legacy is aggressively styled, but its performance is more subdued than you’d think.

(Credit:
Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

Cabin tech
Hop behind the wheel and you’ll be greeted with dashboard materials that, frankly, feel cheap. No, that’s not real brushed metal on the center stack. Yes, that dashboard is made of hard plastic. However, the Legacy’s designers have done a good job of creating a nice visual texture, and a variety of colors and textures that make the cabin look much nicer than it feels. And since I don’t spend a lot of time pawing at the upper dashboard, I don’t mind at all. One bit that I do mind are a pair of patches of translucent blue plastic near the volume and tuning knobs that look out of place and chintzy in the otherwise well-designed cabin. Toyota used to cover the Camry’s dashboard in this flash years ago, but has since learned better. I hope not to see this on the upcoming 2015 model.

Heated front buckets don’t offer much in the way of cornering support, but they are nice on a chilly day. And I was surprised to see an actual key for our fully-loaded example at a time where most automakers’ entry models offer push-button starters and/or touch-sensitive keyless entry.

Audio sources for the Limited’s standard Harman Kardon audio system include Bluetooth for both hands-free calling, audio streaming, and text-to-speech SMS messaging; AM/FM radio with HD Radio decoding (a nice quality bump for fans of terrestrial radio); SiriusXM satellite radio; and the standard 3.5mm analog auxiliary input/USB port combo that supports iPod connections from iOS devices.

Subaru Legacy interior

The cabin’s design makes good use of varied colors and textures for a premium appearance.

(Credit:
Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

DivX logos on the dashboard hint that the receiver’s display has been upgraded with the navigation option for playback of DivX-encoded video CDs or commercial DVDs while parked. You probably won’t be doing that very often, but you can still use the display to peek behind you when reversing using the rearview camera which features a distance marker overlay, but no dynamically updating trajectory lines or proximity detection.

Upgrading to the package that includes the navigation system also adds Aha Radio integration when paired with a compatible smartphone via USB (for iOS), or Bluetooth (for Android). I like Aha’s audio streaming options for music and talk radio programming, but I simply can’t figure out what kind of person would want to listen to robotic TTS readings of their Twitter and Facebook feeds. It was nice to listen to Yelp ratings for nearby destination types (such as coffee shops) and then navigate to one of those destinations with the touch of a button, so I suppose it’s not totally impractical.

The aforementioned Harman Kardon stereo packs in nine speakers and sounds pretty good with some seriously powerful bass from its parcel shelf-mounted subwoofer. However, it’s default flat setting is a bit muddy and could be better where midrange clarity is concerned. Fortunately, you’ve got a seven-band equalizer to play with to tweak the audio to your liking. Subaru doesn’t include any preset curves for this equalizer, so, with this level of flexibility, you could just as easily make the system sound worse, but that’s not Subaru’s fault. I found some great starting-point settings by searching the Legacy owners’ forums and found the powerful stereo’s performance to be one of the most pleasurable aspects of the week’s testing.

Subaru StarLink navigation

The navigation system gets the job done, but it takes its sweet time doing so.

(Credit:
Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

The SD card-based Subaru Starlink navigation will get you from point A to point B if you follow its instructions, but the system is also rudimentary, sluggish, and frankly disappointing for this class. At every tap of the the touch screen’s virtual buttons, I was disappointed at what was up to a 1-second lag between tapping a menu button and getting an onscreen response. One second doesn’t sound like a lot, but it adds up when you’re performing multiple taps to search for the nearest gas station at highway speeds. For your trouble, the navigation isn’t even really that good. The volume of the spoken prompts doesn’t adjust with the music volume, so I found that they were either too quiet to be heard or too loud. The traffic reporting will tell you that there’s a jam ahead, but will not offer any way around it. By the end of the week, I’d reverted to using my smartphone tucked into a cup holder — not a strong vote of confidence for the on-board navigation, which comes as part of a $4,040 package.

EyeSight cameras
Also part of that $4,040 package is Subaru’s EyeSight camera system, which lives on the cabin’s ceiling and features a pair of cameras that look out at the road ahead with stereoscopic vision. The camera’s feeds, though not visible to the driver, are put to use powering the lane departure warnings, forward-collision warnings, pedestrian and cyclist detection, and the adaptive cruise control systems. That Subaru does all of this with two cameras is impressive; most automaker’s use radar or lasers for their forward sensors.

The Subaru adaptive cruise control can bring the vehicle to a complete stop, if necessary and possible, and brakes pretty aggressively to keep you from plowing into a vehicle stopped ahead. In stop-and-go traffic it can also be useful, but its hold feature won’t automatically resume forward movement after it comes to a complete stop without your intervention. One minor annoyance of this system is that, by default, it beeps every time the cameras lock onto, or lose their lock on, the lead vehicle, which leads to incessant beeping as vehicles enter and leave your lane. Thankfully, you can (and should) disable the beeps in a settings menu.

EyeSight cameras

A pair of forward-facing cameras watch the road and power the Legacy’s driver aid systems.

(Credit:
Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

Article source: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/cnet/mHpI/~3/eAeKspswr0o/4505-10865_7-35834983.html

Glucose-based battery has 10 times energy of lithium: researchers

Brazillian sugar cane

Brazillian sugar cane


(Credit:
Green Car Reports)


Green Car Reports


(Credit:
Green Car Reports)

Humans and batteries–and indeed most other things in the natural world, operate on largely similar principles.

Energy is generated somehow, stored, and expended for work. It’s only the details that separate these processes, but the gap might shrink with the advent of biobatteries.

As ExtremeTech reports, researchers at Virginia Tech have developed a working sugar-powered fuel cell with energy density greater than that of current lithium-ion batteries.

Sugar, or more accurately glucose, is an excellent source of energy in biological beings, as it’s energy-dense and easy for a plant or animal to process. In humans, during aerobic respiration, it produces 3.75 kilocalories of food energy per gram.

In the newly-developed battery, it’s similarly productive, with a storage density of 596 amp-hours per kilo, described as “one order of magnitude”–or ten times more than that of lithium-ion batteries currently used in consumer electronics.

Non-biological objects aren’t particularly good at extracting energy from sugar (unless you burn it, something we’re attempting to reduce with electric vehicles…) so the researchers are using tailor-made enzymes to break down glucose and turn it into electricity.

These 13 different enzymes are combined with air and maltodextrin glucose in the battery. The only products are water and electricity.

The battery’s stability over multiple charge and discharge cycles isn’t known, though chief researcher on the project Y.H. Percival Zhang says it’s as near as three years from commercialization.

The other unknown is whether such a battery would be scalable for use in electric vehicles. For the time being, the project seems to be focusing on batteries for smartphones and similar, or smaller-scale electronics for use in advanced medicine.

Food versus fuel also rears its head here. While poorer areas may have better access to sugar than they do fossil fuels, mass commercialization of a sugar-based battery could lead to high prices and rising food costs.

And as ever, this is still a technology in the midst of research. We’ve covered dozens of different battery technologies over the last few years, but few have been produced in any meaningful quantity.

If sugar-based batteries could be made to work though, it’d be pretty sweet…

[Hat tip: Richard Zinck Jr.]

Source: Antony Ingram for Green Car Reports

Article source: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/cnet/mHpI/~3/GGNgIPXJ_9E/

US to push for mandatory car-to-car wireless communications

In the connected car future, vehicles will be able to communicate position data to each other. Googles self-driving cars dont rely on this technology, though.

In the connected car future, vehicles will be able to communicate position data to each other. Google’s self-driving cars don’t rely on this technology, though.


(Credit:
US Department of Transportation)

The US government will work to enable wireless communication links between cars, technology it expects will reduce accidents and, eventually, decrease fuel consumption and speed travel.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said Monday it’s finalizing a report on the subject based on a 3,000-vehicle study of vehicle-to-vehicle communications that began in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 2012. That report should be released in the coming weeks — and then the Department of Transportation’s push for using V2V technology in
cars and light trucks will get serious.

“NHTSA will then begin working on a regulatory proposal that would require V2V devices in new vehicles in a future year,” the agency said. “DOT believes that the signal this announcement sends to the market will significantly enhance development of this technology and pave the way for market penetration of V2V safety applications.”

It’s an understatement to suggest a federal law requiring V2V technology would speed its arrival into the marketplace. But any such change is likely years away, Transportation Department told CNET.

“The timing of implementation will be informed by the comments we receive on our research report and additional information we receive as we pursue a regulation,” the department said. “We anticipate that completion of the rulemaking plus allowing manufacturers some lead time to get ready will take a few years.”

V2V communications use a variation of the 802.11 wireless network standard used by laptops and mobile phones, but instead link cars, which can share position and speed information with each other 10 times per second. That can let one car reliably detect when another in front is braking hard, for example.

V2V technology initially will assist drivers, but NHTSA is considering linking it to “active safety technologies that rely on on-board sensors.” That could let a car brake or steer to avoid a collision without driver involvement.

DOT V2V safety device

The DOT will test drive acceptance of vehicle to vehicle warning technologies in six cities this year.


(Credit:
DOT)

A related technology, V2I, links vehicles to infrastructure like traffic signals. That ultimately could be used to help coordinate traffic flow better.

Neither V2V nor V2I technology is required for self-driving cars, but both would help by giving a car specific data about its surroundings.

One tricky part of V2V and V2I communications is that another branch of the US government, the Federal Communications Commission, is considering whether to release some radio spectrum for general use that’s currently dedicated only for vehicular communications.

Currently, the 5.9GHz band is set aside for use of the 802.11p standard for V2V dedicated short-range communications (DSRC). The Transportation Department is participating in the FCC’s discussions about how to handle the spectrum and in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration‘s evaluation of interference issues. The NTIA, part of the Commerce Department, is tasked with analyzing the best way to extract as much use as possible from scarce radio spectrum and check for interference issues.

The Transportation Department “also intends to participate in the NTIA’s upcoming technical analysis related to understanding interference and sharing of the 5.9 GHz spectrum,” the department said in a statement to CNET. “We believe that the FCC and the NTIA must ensure that unlicensed devices do not compromise safety through harmful interference to the Intelligent Transportation System architecture, operations, or safety?critical applications if permitted to operate in the 5.9 GHz band.”

Updated at 10:06 p.m. PT
with comment from the Transportation Department.


The Department of Transportations Intelligent Transportation System Architecture document attempt to bring some order to a fiendishly complex collection of technologies.

The Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation System Architecture document attempt to bring some order to a fiendishly complex collection of technologies. (Click to enlarge.)


(Credit:
U.S. Department of Transportation)

Article source: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/cnet/mHpI/~3/evUgjm8GhbY/

BMW adds two doors to its new coupe

BMW 4-series Gran Coupe

BMW fits two rear doors to its all-new 4-series, making it into a Gran Coupe.


(Credit:
BMW)

With its latest product strategy, BMW seems poised to please, yesterday announcing the 4-series Gran Coupe. It’s just like like the all new 4-series coupe, but it gets two rear doors.

The 4-series is a recent addition to the BMW line-up, a model designed to take over the spot formerly used by the 3-series coupe. However, the new 4-series, longer and wider than the 3-series, is its own model. For the newest model year, the 3-series can only be had as a sedan, wagon, or the oddly-shaped Gran Turismo.

BMW 4-series Gran Coupe

BMW retained the length and width of the 4-series model, despite adding the two more doors.


(Credit:
BMW)

The 4-series was launched with the coupe and a convertible.

The just announced 4-series Gran Coupe has the same width, 6 feet, and length, 15.2 feet, as the standard coupe version, but BMW notes that the roof is about half an inch higher, and holds its height longer towards the rear of the
car. That should enhance accessibility to and comfort in the rear seats, which BMW describes as a 2+1 configuration.

The 4-series Gran Coupe will be offered with similar drivetrain options as the 4-series coupe, including turbocharged 2-liter and turbocharged 3-liter engines. All-wheel-drive will also be available. However, BMW has not confirmed whether the 4-series Gran Coupe will be offered in the U.S.

The addition of the Gran Coupe to the 4-series line follows the model plan for the 6-series. The 6-series was also initially offered only as a coupe or convertible, with the 6-series four-door Gran Coupe a later addition.

The question of whether a coupe can have four doors is often debated online. Coupes have traditionally been two-door cars, but some designers consider frameless doors a coupe attribute. The 4-series Gran Coupe has frameless doors front and rear, as does the 6-series Gran Coupe.

Article source: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/cnet/mHpI/~3/sOIL7ai6Azw/