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Automotive infotainment systems are becoming smarter, and more powerful, featuring some of the same hardware as popular smartphones and tablets. It's time to apply our own unique analysis to technology finding its way into the automotive segment.
It was only a decade ago that compact cars came standard with AM/FM cassette decks, and CD players were upgrade options or exclusive to higher trim levels. Navigation systems were still in their infancy and only available as expensive add-ons to luxury cars or installed aftermarket. Even then, though, they had clunky interfaces and slow response times. Compact car niceties were limited to anti-lock braking systems, leather seating, aluminum wheels, side airbags, and a handful of other comforts that certainly didn't get the tech geek in us wondering, "How does that work?"
That all changed towards the late-2000s when gas prices rose and there was renewed interest in smaller, more economical cars with premium features. Honda began offering its Civic with navigation, while other manufacturers added audio system upgrades like iPod integration, auxiliary inputs, and USB storage device capabilities.
It would seem the adoption of digital media, smartphones, and portable storage that began with the MP3 file format in the late '90s became mainstream. Car manufacturers saw the trend and adapted accordingly.
Perhaps you're wondering why Tom’s Hardware is venturing into the automotive space. The answer is quite simple. The infotainment systems in cars are evolving at a brisk pace. Already, they share some of the hardware you find also in smartphones and tablets. Manufacturers are essentially integrating similar capabilities with slicker, driver-friendly user interfaces, detailed voice controls, and deep integration with other subsystems, such as climate control, the on-board computer, and the gauge cluster.
Each manufacturer implements its chosen features differently, from Ford and its Microsoft-powered SYNC, General Motors with its reliance on OnStar, or Audi's upcoming Nvidia Tegra-powered systems. The best part about the booming infotainment space is that the systems aren't limited to high-end luxury cars and showy SUVs rolling on 22-inch wheels. They're often available for most of a car manufacturer’s car line-up, from sub-compacts to sports cars. We believe the infotainment space is going to be the epicenter of technological convergence, as each builder increasingly looks to some of our favorite brands to help advance their own feature-loaded systems.
While the automotive industry as a whole works toward the common goal of providing the most useful capabilities and interfaces for drivers, they seem to all have different philosophies about control and accessibility. Some approaches work surprisingly well, while others are clunky. But in typical Tom's Hardware fashion, we want to dig into the hardware at the heart of each manufacturer's implementation, come up with our own benchmarks, and hopefully send you away with a good sense of how well each infotainment system and technology package come together.
We acquired a 2012 Ford Focus Titanium to kick off today's coverage. This is the highest-specced trim, loaded with technology that includes the latest version of Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch, HD Radio, push-button start, Ford MyKey, and rear parking aid sensors. It carries an MSRP of $25 675. Our test mule does not have the Ford Active Park Assist feature, which helps with parallel parking, though Ford offers it as an option. We got our hands on another vehicle with Active Park Assist, and will demonstrate that to you in this story, too.
The reason we chose Ford for our first venture into automotive coverage was because the company is Microsoft’s first partner for mobile device integration. Different variations of SYNC, MyFord, and MyFord Touch are available across the entire Ford line-up, from the Fiesta to the Super Duty pickup trucks. We specifically selected the 2012 Ford Focus, an affordable car that features the complete SYNC with MyFord Touch system. If this were a CPU, it'd be a Core i3: a mainstream offering that still packs in modernity without the price tag of a Core i5 or i7 (or a more expensive luxury vehicle).