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Opinion: How to update your car to the 21st century

alpine carputer car computer audio navigation systemA few weeks ago, I told you about my desire to update my Jaguar XK-R’s 1990’s sound and navigation system. I now have installed a new system and spent close to $5,000. But the sound is better, the navigation is far better, the back-up camera works, and my Android smartphone can integrate with features in the car. In the process of upgrading, I learned many things I’ll share below that may save you some money and misery.

Kenwood DNX 9990HD

By far the best high-end car stereo in the market is the Kenwood DNX 9990HD. Before I selected this system, I spoke with folks who had been installing products in this class, and they recommended the Kenwood. At the end of the project, my installer was so impressed with my new Kenwood that he decided to pull out his new Pioneer AVIC-Z140BH, the second in this class, and replace it with the Kenwood. One nice feature: the Kenwood allows you to adjust the screen angle, which helps readability when you experience glare on the screen. (If you drive a convertible with the top down, sun glare can make a screen nearly invisible).

A relatively high level of smartphone integration and a number of advanced features define this top class of in-car A/V devices and make the number of products in it small. Let’s look at two of Kenwood’s competitors.

Kenwood DNX9990HD in car carputer audio navigation systemThe Pioneer AVIC-Z140BH is underpowered – not in sound output, but in computational power. That makes it slow. Pioneer appears to be aggressive with the technology, but the resulting product is annoying to use.

Alpine is coming out with an 8-inch screen product, but it is light on smartphone features and requires extra dash real estate that many older cars such as mine lack. The new Alpine INEZ928HD won a number of awards at the Consumer Electronics Show, so it may be worth checking out. Just realize that to get to an eight-inch display, Alpine had to get creative with the design, which requires clearance underneath the display – clearance my car didn’t have. Installing the new Alpine would have added an additional $500 to $1,000 in installation charges to modify my car’s dash.

Picking a car that can be upgraded

If you cycle your car every two or three years and buy new, upgrading technology likely won’t be an issue. Technology in a car typically takes three to five years to develop, and then it remains unchanged for two to five years. If you keep a car longer than three years, buy used cars, or care about navigation and in-car entertainment, avoid cars that have tightly integrated media and navigation systems that you cannot easily replace with aftermarket units.

Single-DIN systems, even those with motorized screens, are a generation behind double-DIN models, which have features such as back up cameras (which you need if you are backing out of a parking slot). Current German cars manufacturers, in particular, like high integration, making upgrading their stereos and navigation systems nearly impossible. Also, although owning a unique car is cool, my experience is that cars which sell in small numbers get few software updates (maps for navigation, software for newer phones, etc.). That can render the car company-supplied systems obsolete even if you have no plans to upgrade.

Still no smartphones

Car sound and navigation systems are still undergoing transition, and none of the products are yet demonstrating the power of the current generation of smartphones. Of the systems on the market, the Kenwood is the clear leader. The good news is that once you install one, switching brands later is far less expensive and is easier than the first installation.

steering wheel controls carputer audio navigation systemIf you have steering wheel controls, virtually all current-generation systems can integrate with them.

Unless you are removing a standard double-DIN radio (Chrysler often defaults to this, which will save a ton of money) make sure you hire a good installer; a bad installer can ruin your car.

Automobile sound and navigation technology will be going through massive changes in the next few years because car computer features and smartphone integration are still in their infancy. If you aren’t really upset (which I was) about the technology you have, wait at least until next year before changing your car’s sound and navigation systems, because the next generation will be vastly improved.

Guest contributor Rob Enderle is the founder and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, and one of the most frequently quoted tech pundits in the world. Opinion pieces denote the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Digital Trends.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.