WQTS 14

A little more than a year ago, in discussing the failings of our car radio, I said “And there is a chance that JVC’s more recent units radios [sic] were designed and built following more rigorous design and testing processes.

Excuse me while I laugh hysterically.

Yes, I really did get a new car radio. Only a year and a half after sayingDespite its limitations, I have no plans to replace the radio with something newer and more capable.” (Insert that famous quote about foolish consistencies here.)

I got fed up with the lack of Bluetooth. Getting sound out of my phone onto the car speakers so I could listen to ballgames on the way home from work required plugging in multiple cables and random bits of gadgetry. And every time I tried to simplify the process by leaving everything hooked up, the Mariners would take an East Coast road trip, meaning games were over by the time I got in the car. Not to mention, it looked messy.

And, more to the point, it was starting to fail. The sound would cut out randomly, requiring a reboot. Or the display would stop displaying, also requiring a reboot. Or it would refuse to change channels, requiring (you guessed it) a reboot.

So the Circuit City relic–yes, the old radio really did come from the late lamented CC–now resides in a bucket in the garage, and its spot in the dashboard has been taken over by a newcomer.

The new one isn’t a JVC product. It’s a Kenwood. Except that the full name of the company that made it is JVCKenwood*. Which I hadn’t realized when I bought it. Not that knowing would have stopped me. Despite the old one’s limitations, I really did like it.

* Apparently there’s no slash or other separator between the C and the K, much to my surprise.

We haven’t had a power failure since it was installed, so I can’t address whether it, like its predecessor, has issues remembering user settings. But even the few weeks I’ve had it makes it obvious that JVCK’s design review process hasn’t changed for the better.

Let’s start with something that might not be obvious. The English version of the Quick Start Guide is 37 pages long. That’s one heck of a slow quick start. Still, it could be worse. The full manual (only available via PDF download) is 120 pages. Whoever wrote the Quick Start managed to trim more than three-quarters of the text.

But, still. If it takes almost forty pages to introduce someone to the basic features of a product, you have to face the fact that you haven’t done much to build in discoverability.

That aside, the new box is a significant upgrade. No more 11 character LCD with scrolling titles. Instead, it’s got a large screen (okay, not maybe not in absolute terms, but certainly by comparison. “Almost the entire front of the unit” easily qualifies as “large” as far as I’m concerned). And it uses proportional fonts, so more characters can fit in a given amount of space. In typical English language song titles, this seems to work out to about 20 characters. It also uses a smaller font for artists and album titles, so they can squeeze in around 25 characters. That’s an improvement.

Except that they don’t scroll. So Kate’s favorite truncated song title becomes “Papa’s Got a Brand “. Are we talking cattle ranching or personal promotion?

I lied. Actually, they do scroll. If you tap a small on-screen control* (yes, it is a touchscreen), the title/artist/album will scroll. Once. Better pull over if you want to (a) find the button to tap and (b) read the scrolling information without (c) causing an accident.

* This is a theme, actually. There are lots and lots of onscreen buttons. Most of them are small, and those that aren’t are tiny. Clearly nobody involved in designing this radio considered how to use it while driving. Or, if the assumption was that it would only be used in vehicles with on-the-steering wheel controls, said controls should be included with the radio.

Who thought one-and-done was a good idea? And I checked very carefully: there is no setting for autoscrolling, or even “keep scrolling once tapped”.

The old radio had a dial to change the volume. A nice dial that stuck up from the front of the box, easy to see out of your peripheral vision, so you could reach over and turn the sound up or down without taking your eyes off the traffic. The new one? Two tiny buttons at the lower corner of the radio. After several weeks, I still haven’t developed enough muscle memory to change the volume without looking. I wait until I get stuck at a red light.

There are other buttons. I have no idea what they do, because they’re equally tiny, and I don’t really want to experiment while driving. No, let me amend that. Once of them–helpfully labeled “ATT”–mutes the radio, presumably so you can quiet it enough to hear the traffic cop who’s chewing you out for swerving across three lanes of traffic while you hunted for the volume buttons. (Checking the Quick Start Guide, I see that “ATT” is right next to the “HOME” button–which also doubles as the power button. Nice.

Moving on.

One feature I hadn’t considered when buying the radio, but greatly enjoy is the ability to plug in a thumb drive full of music files. And, hey, I’ve got a thumb drive already loaded with my entire music library, almost 50,000 tracks, nicely sorted into folders by artist and album. Feel like some ZZ-Top, Brave Combo, Danny Coots, or…? Got you covered. As long as you want to listen to a specific track or album. Because there’s no way to play* all tracks in a folder full of folders**.

* Not quite true. If you start playing a track in folder/subfolder1, it will play through to the end of subfolder1, then go on to subfolder2. But you can’t shuffle all of folder’s tracks; hit the shuffle button (another tiny on-screen icon), and the radio will shuffle the current subfolder, then move on to the next subfolder and shuffle that.

** Also not quite true. If there’s a playable track in folder, it’ll go from that to subfolder1, then subfolder2, and so on. It’ll even shuffle the entire set of tracks in the subfolders (as long as you hit the shuffle button before the first track ends). But why would you have a random song in each artist’s top-level folder?

Shuffle is a particularly vexing issue for me. I like the ability to be surprised with something I haven’t heard for a while. So if I’m not sure what I want to listen to, I’ll often tell my playback device to shuffle everything. Guess what you can’t do with this radio.

Actually, you can shuffle everything. Go into the search function and hit play without making a selection. Hey, it works! For a little while. Then you realize you’re hearing the same artists over and over. Turns out that search–and therefor the search-based shuffle–can only load 1,000 tracks at a time. Oops.

Come on! Even my iPod Classic (pre-upgrade) could shuffle more than tracks than that.

Apparently, nobody considered the actual use cases for thumb drives larger than, say, 32GB. Even though someone did check off the boxes in the requirements document that said “support exFAT” and “drives up to 512GB”.

There are minor annoyances, too, pointing to inadequate testing and/or limited post-release support (the firmware for the radio has apparently been updated a grand total of twice since the initial release in 2020). For example, Android Auto can’t connect to the radio unless the phone is unlocked, even though I’ve selected the option to connect without unlocking. Swiping controls left/right works nicely unless you move your finger too slowly, in which case the radio sees a tap instead of a swipe. Android Auto always starts in the Map app (though, to be fair, this may be Google’s fault, not JVCK’s). And so on.

All my complaints notwithstanding, I do consider this radio a major upgrade from the old one. I love having the big screen that shows (most of) the title, artist, and album information at the same time instead of making me switch among them. Album art onscreen is nice, especially while listening to SiriusXM channels.

And the Bluetooth works nicely. It connects automatically and rarely skips or stutters. Baseball in the car, without unsightly wires and gadgets draped over the dashboard. Heaven!

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