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When it comes to enjoying music or talk radio in the car, why does everything have to be so complicated? First, I have to spend time loading up my iPod with music or podcasts I’ve downloaded. Then I have to charge my iPod up with power. Then I have to connect my iPod to my car stereo’s converter cable. Then I have to fiddle around with the iPod controls to find the music or podcasts I want to listen to — and NOT while driving.

What I’d really like is a simplistic interface, an easy way to get my audio and channels set up on a next-generation auto media center (AMC). I know that many car manufacturers and consumer electronics companies are trying to deliver this Holy Grail to me. And if I had $70,000 lying around, I would have some of what I want in the 2007 Lexus LS 460L. That luxury car got a perfect 10 rating from CNET Car Tech, and offers voice-activated audio, lets you rip CDs to an internal hard drive, gives live traffic reports in its navigation system, and will even parallel park for you. Not to mention 19 (!) speakers.

But I’m more concerned with the media element of the driving experience, especially the audio, and I want more, more, more! than what Lexus is offering currently. So as this is holiday time, I’m going to write up my wish list for Santa Motors Ltd., in the hopes that some of my auto dreams will come true one day.

The Perfect Auto Media Center

> No one accesses the AMC without a retinal eye scan first. It would only work for my eyes only, or the eyes of people I approve. One of the worst parts of owning a car stereo, especially in urban areas, is theft. This would dissuade that.

> The AMC has a hard drive with enough storage space to hold my entire music library. I can remove the drive easily and connect it to my Windows or Mac computers.

> The AMC also has inputs for all types of portable music and MP3 players, and can play all types of media — CDs, cassettes, and just for the heck of it, 8-track tapes.

> Cellular or WiFi uploads of music or podcasts. When I am in my car, stopped, I would like the ability to buy music on the fly through an internal cell connection or WiFi connection to the Internet. The interface must be simple and upload speeds quick.

> The AMC will have all XM and Sirius satellite channels built in, as well as HD Radio for the new digital over-the-air broadcasts.

> All functions of the AMC will be voice-activated so I can go through music libaries, audio channels, and uploads with ease — while driving.

> Full cell phone integration into the AMC, so that if I am listening to music cranked up, a built-in computer voice tells me, “Mark, your mom is calling. Do you want to take the call?” I then choose to switch to cell or let it go to voicemail. (For the record, I would never do that to you, mom!).

> All satellite and radio channels would be fully time-shift capable, meaning if I wanted to rewind, replay or save audio for later, I could.

> Built-in web searches. If I’m listening to music, and want to learn more about the artist, I could pause the music, ask the AMC to do a web search on the artist and read me pertinent information. Same goes for talk radio guests or breaking news stories.

Do you have other ideas for the ultimate auto media center? I invite you to share what you’d like to see in your dream auto media center, and I’ll update my list with your top ideas. Or if you’ve build the dream system, share your specs in the comments.

UPDATE: One correspondent, Pam, responded by email with more ideas for a car stereo wishlist. She obviously has more experience checking out seriously high end systems, and her conclusion is that the manufacturers haven’t worked out all the kinks yet — and the costs are still sky high. Here’s the report from Pam:

I have been impatiently waiting for years for an ideal car MP3 system. Your list captures the essentials. A few things I would also like to see:
- random play across album, genre, all songs
- ability to browse by genre, then album, then song
- GPS navigation
- touch screen
- works with steering wheel volume, mute, and radio station controls
- fast MP3 navigation
- ability to create playlists in the car
- custom background
- RDS [Radio Data System to get text from radio stations] capability
- automatic volume adjustment based on car’s speed

I’d even be willing to pay for a custom built system if I didn’t think it would be so expensive! I had the Alpine HDA-5460 installed in my car a few years ago, and I loved it. It had an in-dash 16 GB hard drive that I could slide out and download MP3s from my computer via USB. I could navigate songs by genre, album, etc. It wasn’t cheap, but while it was working I thought it was the best thing I ever bought. Unfortunately it was on the market for less than a year due to problems — mine stopped transferring files after a while.

I’ve currently got an aux-input for my iPod, but I’m not devoted to my iPod, as long as I can have something with a good size hard drive that’s easy to navigate songs. I’m eager to see what new systems show up at the CES show in January. This might be the year to try a new system…I came close to buying a Kenwood MP3/GPS system this summer, but the MP3 navigation was pretty bad. Anyway, I hope the major manufacturers come up with some better solutions than what’s out there today.

The installer I’ve dealt with said some of the current systems such as the Eclipse AVN6600 just weren’t reliable and he had a lot of returns and repairs. Others just weren’t easy to use such as the Pioneer AVIC-Z1. The Alpine IVA-W200 looked good but it doesn’t allow you to browse by genre. The Kenwood PNAV6019 requires you to scroll through one long list of albums, without being able to filter through genres, artist, etc. I also found the MP3 navigation confusing. I’m intrigued by the new Chrysler MyGig and would like to check it out, but I don’t want to spend a lot of money on something I won’t be happy with. Anyway, I am hoping some better options will come out soon. I know there are a lot of other eager buyers out there as well.

[Photo of car stereo by Michele Finotto.]

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