Tag Archives: Electronics

Subaru BRZ: Underpowered, under-tech, but overwhelmingly fun (CNET On Cars, Episode 16)


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cars have inspired as much hope as the Subaru BRZ: Hope that cars can still be unvarnished, affordable, and directly connected to the road and the driver. The BRZ isn’t overwhelmingly powerful, it doesn’t raise the bar on tech — hell, it barely meets it in many areas — but it’s a lot of fun to drive in a classic fashion that harkens to the 240Z, 2000GT, and S2000.

2013 Subaru BRZ

We did a video on the Scion FR-S a while back, but waited for a BRZ to arrive for the real performance romp because these stablemates are more Subie than Toyota: Boxer engine and basic Impreza platform are its DNA. I think you’ll enjoy our hopeful video.

I’ve detected a lot of confusion over the array of new headlight tech that has cropped up in the last few years, so that’s our Car Tech 101 this time around. On the other end of the car is your rear-view camera, which is common today, possibly ubiquitous tomorrow if a new federal law takes effect. That’s of interest to the smarter driver.

Plenty of high-tech cars in the $40K to $60K range, but how about something that isn’t a huge investment? After all, in an age when a $200 phone leads in innovation, a car starts looking like the lowest value way to get tech. This episode, I run down my Top 5 cheap connected cars, all in the $15K to $25K range.

As always, reach me at oncars@cnet.com.

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‘Tornado Junkies’ try to build twister-proof van

They call it Dorothy: The Tornado Junkies’ Intercept Vehicle will have hydraulic flaps to keep it on the ground.

Tornado Junkies)

What would happen if you could take “The A-Team” and “Storm Chasers” and put them together in a blender? You’d get something like Tornado Junkies.

As their name suggests, this trio of young men are crazy about tornadoes. So crazy they think they can build a tornado-proof van.

Yes, this $5,000 Kickstarter project wants your money to build an armor-plated Ford to carry these Des Moines dudes down Tornado Alley chasing twisters.

They want to get as close as possible to the devastating power of tornadoes. Indeed, they want to park in a tornado. But it’s not for fun.

They’re doing us all a public service: “When we chase, we report weather conditions through storm spotter systems, the National Weather Service, and social media, which aids in the storm warning process,” they write on their campaign page.

“When we see a tornado, our very first action is reporting it, so that a tornado warning can be issued. We want to keep you and the ones you love safe. This is why we chase. We chase for you.”

Along the way, they’ll be grabbing tons of high-def video of supercells and compiling it into a Web series so you, too, can get high on the adrenaline.

The trio–two photographers and a student meteorologist–removed the Ford’s body and welded 14-gauge steel sheets to the frame, as seen in the vid below.

They’re also adding 3/4-inch polycarbonate windows and hope hydraulically lowered plating will prevent high winds from picking up the van.

I would really not want to test that myself, but these guys are gunning for danger. Do you want to encourage them with a pledge?

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Fast fixie: Bicycle with giant chainring aims for 100 mph

Donhou 100mph bike

Zoom, zoom.


Most of us don’t put much thought into the components that make a bicycle move. Things like chains and chainrings are pretty much out of sight and out of mind as we peddle along. With Donhou Bicycles‘ 100-mph bike, you can’t ignore the chainring. It’s so big, you could serve a large pizza on it.

The Donhou bike has a purpose in mind. It’s made to go fast. The strange-looking handlebars keep the rider hunched forward in an aerodynamic position. That humungous serving plate-size chainring then goes to work to propel you forward at speeds your Huffy would never even dare to dream of.

That monster of a chainring sports 105 teeth and is 17 inches in diameter. That means every go-round of the pedal sends the bike forward way farther than your standard road or mountain bike.

According to NPR, the bike has already reached speeds of 60 mph on the open road, but creator Tom Donhou would like to get it up to 100 mph. Getting there under pure leg power alone is a little out of reach, which is why many speedster bicyclists use a lead vehicle that provides a good draft to follow in. That’s how Donhou plans to get up to speed with this unusual bike.

The Donhou 100-mph bike won’t be breaking any speed records, but it does manage to look much more like a regular bike than most of the specially designed creations that have set records. That chainring is certainly an attention-getter.

The bike was unveiled at the Bespoked Bristol 2013 show, but so far it looks like it will remain an specialty item and not go into wider production.

Donhou 100mph bike

This bad boy isn’t for dawdling around town on.


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Magellan’s Web-connected SmartGPS is a triple threat

The Magellan SmartGPS is a portable navigation device, but it’s also part of a larger system that, at the time of publication, has parts that give users multiple ways to navigate, search for destination, and manage their favorite places. At the core of this system is the SmartGPS hardware, which can be used as a standalone navigation device. However, the hardware works best when used in tandem with Magellan’s smartphone apps for iPhone and Android devices and a cloud syncing service called MiCloud that is accessible via any Web browser.

The SmartGPS hardware looks about like you’d expect a portable navigation device to look. It’s a plastic slab with a touch screen on one side that gets suction cupped to your windshield.

The device measures about 6.75 inches from corner to corner, but has a diagonal screen size of only 5 inches. There’s a lot of glossy black bezel around that screen, which seems like a lot of wasted space — particularly on the horizontal — for those of us used to seeing smartphones, tablets, and even other portable navigation devices push their screens closer and closer to being edgeless. Imagine a device that’s about the size of a small tablet with a screen the size of an average Android phone and you’ll have an idea of the potential for extra display real estate. To be fair, 5 inches is a respectable screen size for a navigator, but when you consider the amount of information that Magellan tries to cram onto the SmartGPS’ screen, this seem like a missed opportunity to go bigger or wider.

SmartGPS size comparison

The 5-inch screen isn’t substantially larger than my Samsung Galaxy Nexus’, despite the SmartGPS’ larger footprint.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

The screen is glass and features capacitive sensitivity, enabling swiping, pinching, and tapping gestures. The glossy black bezel is home to a capacitive home button located near the upper-left corner and a pinhole microphone for hands-free calling.

Flip it over and you’ll find a speaker on the SmartGPS unit’s back side and a power button on top edge.

The bottom edge is home to all of the ports and connections supported by the SmartGPS. There’s a microSD card slot for updates and increasing available memory for maps, a 3.5mm analog output for connecting headphones or plugging into your vehicle’s auxiliary input, and a micro USB port that connects to the 12-volt-to-USB charging cable that embeds in the suction cup mount for one-handed connection and disconnection. The included suction cup mount is a sturdy one, once mounted properly to a glass windshield. The mount only has one point of articulation — a ball joint with a locking ring at the base of the cradle — so there’s not a lot of flopping around once you’ve got the SmartGPS locked in.

smartGPS ports

All of the physical connections can be found on the bottom edge.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

Finally, there’s an 3.5mm AV input that makes the SmartGPS compatible with Magellan’s rear-view camera add-on.

The SmartGPS also hosts invisible connections for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for data synchronization and, for the former, hands-free calling.

Standalone navigation
The SmartGPS mixes up Magellan’s familiar interface by adding smart “Squares,” which are live-updating tiles that occupy part of the map screen and provide auxiliary data at a glance and quick shortcuts to destinations. On the default home screen, four of these squares are displayed, showing shortcuts to nearby destinations pulled from Yelp and Foursquare, nearby gas stations and live fuel prices, and nearby traffic events. When navigating, the map (which normally only occupies half of the screen) expands from to occupy three-quarters, pushing two of the smart squares off of the right edge of the display.

Along the bottom edge of the home screen are shortcuts for settings, Bluetooth calling and messaging, destination search, an address book of stored destinations, and Magellan’s OneTouch menu of quick shortcuts to searches and destinations.

Smart squares

Expanding the smart squares reveals live updating tiles for nearby destinations, fuel prices, weather forecasts, and more.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

Along the top of the screen is a status bar that is very reminiscent of a smartphone’s interface with icons for wireless connection and sync status, battery level, GPS connection strength, and the current time. There’s also sort of virtual scroll wheel that can be swiped to the left to reveal more smart squares — for total of eight squares — adding weather, safety alerts, current position, and a shortcut to a browser. Swiping to the left hides the squares and expands the map to full screen.

The browser should probably not be used when driving, but when parked (or outside of the vehicle) and connected to Wi-Fi, users can load Web pages. Addresses and phone numbers that appear during your browsing can be tapped to initiate a trip or a hands-free call. From the looks of the browser interface and settings screen, it appears that the SmartGPS is built on a heavily modified 2.x version of the Android operating system.

SmartGPS browser

The Web browser is probably the least useful feature, but it does hint that the SmartGPS hardware is powered by Android.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

Each of the smart squares has a sort of Rolodex-like appearance and cycles through its available data. For example, the fuel square will cycle through the nearest gas stations and their respective fuel prices, or the Yelp square will show the nearest restaurants with their average Yelp rating. Each square can be swiped up and down to quickly scroll through the available data and tapped to display more information or instantly navigate to the destination displayed.

The data for these smart squares is synced from the Web. After connecting the SmartGPS to a nearby Wi-Fi hotspot, the portable navigation device will connect to the Web and download the newest data for fuel prices in the area, highly rated Yelp and Foursquare destinations for your chosen categories, traffic prediction data, safety alerts, speed and red light cameras, and favorites and recent destinations stored to Magellan’s cloud service. Once this data is synced, the SmartGPS doesn’t need to maintain an Internet connection to access it; you can just hop in your car and drive around.

Destination information

Clicking a Yelp or Foursquare tile reveals more information — including deals or tips — and buttons to start navigation.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

When you return to your garage or bring the SmartGPS inside at the end of a trip, it quietly reconnects to the Internet to once again sync data.

SmartGPS app integration
Owners of of iPhones can download the free SmartGPS app from the App Store to link their portable navigation to the Web via the handset’s Bluetooth and data connections. While connected, the SmartGPS will have access the absolute most recent fuel prices, road hazards, traffic data, and points of interest. Magellan tells us that it has optimized the SmartGPS’ data use so that it doesn’t gobble up your entire data plan, only pulling relevant bits of data as necessary.

Since many users will already be Bluetooth connected for hands-free calling, there likely won’t be much setup required to get this bit of connectivity working properly.

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Six aftermarket car stereos for app addicts (roundup)

Look in the comments below any portable GPS navigation device review or news story on CNET and chances are that you’ll find a large number of readers saying something akin to “Why would I buy this when I’ve got an app that’s is better?” You people can’t seem to get enough of your smartphones and your apps!

But while a suction cup mount and an aux-audio cable may be enough for some users, many users could benefit from a phone/app integration solution that makes accessing their smartphone’s navigation and audio streaming apps a bit more solid and a lot less distracting. With that in mind, I’ve rounded up some of my favorite
car stereos that help you to (safely) get your app fix on the go.


Pioneer AppRadio 2 (SPH-DA100)

Pioneer’s AppRadio and AppRadio 2 are the first receivers that spring to mind when I think about aftermarket app integration done right. The flagship AppRadio 2 boasts a massive color touchscreen and compatibility with dozens of apps for iPhone and Android devices. It’s not a perfect solution — getting the unit to work with a supported
Android phone requires the installation of a hardware module and about 2-3 helper apps — but until we start seeing MirrorLink building significant steam, AppRadio is king.


Parrot Asteroid Smart

Parrot skips around the hurdle of getting the apps on your phone to play nice by simply building its own app store into this Android-powered receiver. From the Asteroid Market, users can download free and paid apps for navigation, location services, and audio streaming. I’m not a fan of managing multiple app stores, but users looking for a simple way to get apps like Spotify, Glympse, TuneIn Radio, and Waze into their dashboard, the Asteroid Smart is about as foolproof as it comes.

Josh Miller/CNET)

Parrot Asteroid Classic

The Parrot Asteroid Classic is essentially a smaller, simpler version of the Asteroid Smart mentioned above. It retains access to the Asteroid Market and most of the apps therein, but this single-DIN receiver uses a much smaller 3.5-inch display and a physical controller instead of a touchscreen. On one hand, this is a step down in accessibility. On the other, the smaller screen and limited function are sure to make it less of a distraction than its larger sibling.

Sony MEX-GS600BT
Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

Sony MEX-GS600BT

This single-DIN receiver from Sony doesn’t even have color display, but it manages to play nicely with a Bluetooth or USB-connected Android or iPhone via its App Remote function. After installing a helper app on their smartphone, users can set up shortcuts to their favorite navigation, location, or audio streaming apps and switch between them with the control knob on the receiver’s faceplate. Additionally, users of the Pandora app can simply take control of the app to browse their custom stations.

MirrorLink-enabled Alpine ICS-X7HD and Sony XAV-701HD

You may have noticed that I mentioned MirrorLink earlier. Alpine and Sony are among the first aftermarket manufacturers bringing this technology to a dashboard near you. More than just a simple screen mirroring system, MirrorLink uses two-way communication to enable touchscreen control of the apps that are already on your smartphone and has a certification process for app developers to ensure that the apps supported by the technology and approved to use the connection are car-approriate and use interfaces that have been optimized for use on the road. However, MirrorLink’s list of compatible smartphones is still pretty short and — while including some of the most popular handsets from Sony, Nokia, and Samsung — doesn’t yet include the Apple iPhone.

The Alpine ICS-X7HD and Sony XAV-701HD are shipping now and should be passing through the Car Tech garage very soon. Check out our video of the Alpine receiver in action below.

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VW integrates iPhone with new iBeetle

Volkswagen iBeetle

Volkswagen’s iBeetle includes a dock for the iPhone at the top of the dashboard.


Old rumors about Volkswagen and Apple collaborating on an iCar will come the closest ever to realization next week, when Volkswagen unveils its iBeetle at Auto China 2013 in Shanghai. The iBeetle announcement consists of a special-edition Beetle, a new iPhone dock, and a Volkswagen iPhone app.

The special-edition Beetle, coming out next year, will feature color schemes inspired by the iPhone. Available in hardtop or convertible form, it will also come with unique wheels.

An iPhone dock in the iBeetle sits at the center top of the dashboard. Volkswagen writes in a press release that “all iPhone functions can be used in the Beetle; the iPhone can be used to navigate, make calls hands-free, listen to music, and much more.” However, it seems from the photos that using all these iPhone functions has more to do with the placement of the dock than any new integration, beyond current Bluetooth and music playback, with the Beetle’s cabin electronics.

The most salient news concerns a new Volkswagen iPhone app, which should feature integration with the Beetle such that drivers can use the
car‘s interface to control its functions. This app includes Spotify for streaming music, the option to read out Facebook updates and incoming texts, and a Postcard feature that lets drivers send their current location with a map graphic to friends.

The app includes useful driving functions, such as a feature that lets drivers compare different commute routes, the app storing real-time information as each route is driven, to find which is fastest. The app also gathers information from the car, such as coolant and oil temperature, and shows a G-meter.

The iBeetle will be unveiled in China, but the popularity of the iPhone worldwide and global sales of the Beetle model make it seem likely the car will be sold, and the app will be available, in other markets.

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