So, after a horrid experience with a Chinese Double-DIN car radio, I was left with two choices- put back the original crappy Honda radio, or keep looking for something to fill the gaping hole in the dash. Still wanting in-dash GPS and the ability to instantly access my entire music collection (~7GB of MP3’s), but not wanting to spend $1000, I hit the stores.

Clarion, Kenwood, Alpine, Pioneer, and JVC seem to be the biggest players in the double-DIN car radio GPS market, at the moment. At least, these are the units making it to store shelves of even the smallest markets. Most have offerings of 7″ screens with prices hovering around a grand. Models with 5-6″ screens can go from 500-900. Odd single-DIN and specialized double-DIN models with smaller screens seem to start at ~$300. Already owning a TomTom1, I don’t need another tiny screen. But, I like a traditional volume knob. That, and the high price, eliminates the 7″ units for me (no 7″ models have actual knobs). Some don’t even have real buttons. Old clarions and others have real volume knobs, but were hard to find. Chinese models (XO and others) still sell many versions with and without knobs, but I’m not going there again.

Scouting the local stores, Alpine seemed to get the best recommendations from the staff. One salesman recommended Alpine over the Kenwood and JVC models, even though they all had the same price (and I’m assuming, the same commission). JVC felt and looked cheap, and Kenwood had some sort of horrible music library interface that rendered it useless when driving. Web searches garnered similar experiences. Nobody recommended Pioneer.

An older pioneer on display at a local store had what looked like a real volume knob, but it was hard to grip (even though it was the largest of the bunch). Although It had a 6.5″ display, it couldn’t play DVD’s. Odd. But, it had a very clean interface, and was cheap. I don’t know why it caught my eye, but I knew there had to be more to this unit than what was sitting here. Time to do some digging.

A few hours on the internet proved there was much more. Newer versions, the 900BT and 90BT, had been out for some time. They were DVD capable, had SDHC readers, USB port, GPS, Bluetooth Handsfree, and voice recognition. Satellite radio and MSN Direct options are available. No TV, though. With all these options, why so little interest by others?

Good reason.

The Pioneer AVIC series comes configured to automatically disable the GPS and DVD interfaces once the vehicle starts moving. Want to watch a movie? Stop and pull-up on the handbrake (regardless of whether you have a manual transmission or not). The software on these units had so many bugs and randomly self-disabling features that it made these units nothing more than a giant, blinking bricks screwed into your dash. Luckily, there’s a fix. And, a whole community of folks to teach you how to apply it.

Unlike other manufacturers, Pioneer has issued a long string of software updates for their units, but the basic problems never get addressed. Early on in Pioneer’s foray into GPS stereos, some special pioneer technician noticed that Pioneer had no feel for actual driving and programming. So, he or she released a special program into the wilds of the internet that allowed access to the OS of Pioneer units. It’s nothing more than the test program for access the Windows CE operating system that powers these units. But, it was a godsend to hackers and AVIC owners.

The AVIC users community coalesced to create “AVIC411” , a news page, forum, and repository of all things AVIC. From here, one can discover how to bypass random lockouts and restore full functionality to the units, like ones offered by other companies. They’ve also found ways to fix bugs and allow customizing the interface to your own liking. Certain projects are still going (music list interface is still awful, and navigation legal warnings still popup when GPS is started, requiring acknowledgment). But, their work continues. There’s even a project to replace the Pioneer GUI with an entirely new one. Unfortunately, it’s still far from ready. However, the working updates already provided by the community bring the AVIC 900BT up to, and sometimes beyond, the quality of AVIC’s competition. There’s even a guy who sells custom replacement knobs for better grip!

This effort hasn’t gone unnoticed by Pioneer. Their newest software update actively blocks the ‘Testmode’ software- effectively ending all hacking attempts. Luckily, the aftermarket software has already surpassed any features available from Pioneer, so using the official firmware would be crazy at this point.

Even with the ‘hacked’ software, the unit still has some problems. DVD player can’t read most ‘home-burned’ DVD’s for MP3 playback. The USB port isn’t set-up for large media reading (external HDD are a pain to set up, and don’t even bother with external SDHC card readers). And, I’ve only been able to access my song collection on the internal SDHC about 70% of the time. Sometimes the unit will just hang-up when trying to list the card’s contents. And voice-recognition? It will do everything except “PLAY..” whatever. Proper ID3 tags and voice commands right from the manual don’t help.

I suppose for $500 I shouldn’t complain. It does most of what I want most of the time. And, being able to customize almost anything in the software is fun. But, I’m giving the AVIC 900BT a mixed review. If you’re willing to take the time and invest a couple extra bucks, it’s a pretty nice unit.

An even newer series of units is planned for this summer, but don’t expect them to be anywhere the 900BT’s price. And, based on last few years of Pioneer’s history, you probably can expect some terrible software. But don’t fret… I’m sure AVIC411 is already in the case.