aDSC_0016Traveling a lot, I use a portable GPS system in my car a great deal. But have grown tired of constantly installing and uninstalling it when not needed. I don’t leave it out for fear it might provoke another theft attempt. But, the inconvenience of getting it set-up each time I need it, is getting too much. For years, I’ve bee watching the prices of double-DIN GPS/DVD car stereos (the size compatible with my car), waiting for the one I could afford. $1000 is way too much to justify for that convenience, and that’s just about where most units are today.

Then comes China.

I’ve been keeping track of several interesting items sold by Chinese manufacturers for years. Quad-band wrist-watch phones, super-cheap IPhone-clones (still waiting for CETC hack software), the possibilities seem endless.

And Affordable.

Then..Surprise! China now offers a line of Double-DIN GPS units for $250-$500 with lots of extras. There seem to be an !BUzT-tg!2k~$(KGrHgoH-D4EjlLle-etBKP(eO)5+!~~_1NO692_smlNO682_smlendless supply of slightly different models and designs, running variations of similar software. The mix-and-match game that the Chinese builders seem to be playing with these unit;s hardware and software have produced seemingly innumerable variations of GPS car-stereos. Having checked numerous importer sites and compared the Chinese units available, I found one with the features I wanted for ~$300, and couldn’t pass it up.

7″ touch screen, Bluetooth, USB media access, dual SD cards, DVD, TV, external A/V inputs- it looked great just out of the box. So I installed it.

Should have left it in the box. Where to start?…..

The manual was interesting. Though relatively fluent in Chinglish, even a few sentences had me stumped. Here’s a description of the MUTE key, for example:

“The mute key is long to press for close the TFT to hold press this key and can correct the touch while need the machine appearance (press this key future reunion to appear the X1. Double click the X1 to under appear the OK then.)”

Classic. And that was one of the easier ones. Some whole paragraphs were nothing but long strings of fake words.

Wiring should have been straight-forward with three sources of information. The wires were supposedly color-coded by EIA wiring conventions using a standard ISO connector, each wire had a little label attached to it, and the manual had a pin-out diagram just to make sure. Unfortunately, none of these methods matched the others. Using the manual and a few emails to the manufacturer cleared-up the confusion, even with the one weird wire that went to nothing. Oddly, there’s no dimming wire on Chinese radios. You want something less bright during night driving? Navigate to the configuration screen and turn down the screen brightness every time you get in the car.

Unfortunately for me, installation was only half the story. The first power-on took almost 5 minutes for the interface to work. Subsequent startups got much faster. Once working though, I even found a few undocumented features. The problem is that the basics didn’t work.

The radio worked, but needed an old-fashioned antenna signal booster to receive even the local stations. Luckily, I found one in the junk pile in the back of my garage. USB had power, but cannot recognize anything. After trying multiple drives- flash media, external card readers, even a 2.5 HDD in a USB enclosure, I gave up. No luck. Optical disk wouldn’t not play/recognize any DVD’s or CD’s (new or homemade). It immediately ejected all disks inserted into it. SD card readers couldn’t read anything over 2Gb capacity (No SDHC). But that, I later found from over a dozen emails to the manufacturer, is part of the design. Looking over the features of most electronics coming out of china now, SDHC is still too new for them. Speaking of too new, the integrated TV was NTSC-Analog (but they state that in their advertising). So, here in the US, it wouldn’t work with our digital broadcasts, anyway.

The main GUI takes 30 seconds to 8 minutes to refresh after any button is pressed, though GPS interface works quickly (a custom version of Route66 GPS package, I think). The only good things I can say about this unit are that it established a Bluetooth link with my phone very easily, and the seller (manufacturer) was extremely willing to discuss problems by email. But, with all their suggestions, I never got the unit to work. Now I’m out two weeks of frustration and extra $50 bucks in shipping back to China for a refund.

Did you know that Chinese customs routinely denies shipments of anything that receives transmissions, even their own car-radios? It’s in their own customs rules supplied to our postal service. The lady at the post office suggested I don’t get my hopes up with the return. What else could go wrong.

Chinese units, when working, seem to have the power to be an incredible buy. But they are hampered by buggy, and sometimes illegal, software. If someone figures-out how to load custom interface software on these units (like what can be done with others), and can perform some local testing before sale, these could potentially be a real market killer. But for now, I’d stay away- far away.