Dan Mahoney (gushi) wrote,
Dan Mahoney

The Smart Radio Rant


The Smart "Highline" radio is an option I paid over a grand extra for in my 2013 Smart Fortwo (a car which I otherwise love). It offers touchscreen CD/DVD/MP3CD player, plus SD card support, bluetooth support, AUX video and audio in. For a brand I've otherwise been incredibly impressed with the design of, this one niggling detail seems to be where the ball was dropped. It's well known that the radio component was basically shopped out to Bosch, a german engineering firm with divisions that make everything from Brake Pads to dishwashers. While not only did Bosch really fail to capture the ingenuity that Smart has shown in other areas, they've mismanaged some features as to make the car less safe (a great example would be that there's no way to turn off the screen!).

NOTE: I should also mention that Smart has an "iPhone Kit" available for use with their stock radio. I haven't used it, nor do I think I have the option to do so. It's a $400 option, plus the install fees, and I don't think it's designed to work at all with the Highline model. From my readings, it's mostly designed to give you some "light" features of the highline radio, plus comes with a dash-mounted dock connector (which means its support stops with the iPhone 4s).

I kind of go on a bit of a diatribe here, but the intention is to actually prepare a list to give to Smart, because it almost feels like this radio was designed by people who don't have to use it. As one of my friends (a software engineer himself) said "I'm an engineer, I am qualified to diagnose broken".

Phone Issues

  • The "highline" radio includes a microphone which is used for interfacing with your cell phone, as well as triggering the voice-activated NAV functions. The microphone is implemented as a "pinhole" in the bottom right corner of the screen. This location is simply a joke. Both voice commands to my phone as well as phone conversations are constantly misheard, even if I shout. I originally reasoned that the microphone is not elsewhere in the car because Smart only wanted to install a single "head unit", but there's a subwoofer under my seat, six speakers throughout the car, a GPS antenna somewhere. Adding one more component can't be that hard.

    Suggested improvement: Mount the microphone directly in front of the driver, either in the dash or up by the visor.

  • Iphone compatibility is damaged. Siri-based phones have been out for nearly a year now, and yet we still don't have a standard button to press to "talk through" to the phone's voice dialing. If I press a button on the iphone I can trigger siri, but because of the microphone issues, I might as well just get a bluetooth headset. Also, at that point it's no longer a "hands free phone" by some definition of the law.

    Suggestion: There's a way to do bluetooth open-channel where you simply connect to a phone's voice-dialing input. The cheesy retro-bluetooth-handset I bought for $20 at Micro Center supports it. Find it and implement it.
    (Note, it took me about five minutes of googling to find it -- it involves sending "AT+CKPD=200" over the command channel to the phone). Apple could also work around this by giving you a "contact" which just calls the siri interface. They haven't. They shouldn't have to. This has been part of the bluetooth spec since the beginning.

  • The device supports two different "address books", one downloaded from the phone and I guess the other is "local" (because for some reason you want a contact that exists in your car but nowhere else?), but the radio just calls them "1" and "2" with no real good explanation. I can navigate through these and choose to call someone, while I'm driving. This was NOT one of the features that was locked out by the "need to be in park" mode. There's a better interface -- my voice -- built into the phone, but Smart is making it hard to use it.

  • Note that siri defaults to having its audio be via the car rather than using the on-phone microphone which can hear me fine three feet away. This is perhaps something apple should add a preference for (use builtin mic for siri, but play output via bluetooth).

  • No access to the contact list in my iphone (this appears to be fixed in IOS 6).

  • When a call is active, the "CALL ACTIVE [NAME]" takes over the screen. That is to say, the NAV disappears, with no way to switch back to it while a call is active. The ONLY trace of the nav when you're on the phone is a single "next turn" indicator, which doesn't even include the road name.

Radio Issues

Where it gets truly annoying is that this device, for which I paid a lot extra, actually fails in several ways to be an actual car radio!

  • For some reason, Bosch felt the need to draw on the screen an actual dial with an actual needle (you know, a thing that any car radio over $50 hasn't had since 8-track players were an option), and made it a "feature" that you can tap on the dial to jump to a given frequency. It's about four inches wide. My finger is about 3/8ths of an inch wide. There are 101 possible FM channels, and I'm ostensibly driving when I'm using this thing. I don't think a brain surgeon or expert gamer could hit the dial that accurately, to be able to use this to jump to a specifically desired frequency. This feature is always visible, but...

  • There are only four presets visible on the main screen -- with no option to jump to the next four (in "dumber" radios, this is accomplished via either having a second FM station (fm2), or by pressing the button twice). Even old car radios from the 1970's with physical buttons had five choices. There is an option to go to a second screen and SCROLL VERTICALLY through up to 25 presets (of which I think six are initially visible, and four of which are your main presets).

    Suggested improvement: add a page two, or second row or presets, or the ability to press a button twice to get a second station. Rip out the stupid analog dial, and give me more buttons.

  • Braindead scan function. (I.e. start jumping stations, stop when I press a button). Even the most basic of digital radios 20 years ago had this!!! I found after a month it and it's buried three menu-levels deep [station list icon, magnifying glass icon, "Frequency Scan"], and doesn't actually show the station frequency when it's doing it, instead only showing the RDS text, which at times is something like "TODAYS TOP HITS!"

    Suggested improvement: (It would be more helpful perhaps to display the PS (programme service) field instead of the RT (radio text) field during this.

    Suggested improvement: put scan-forward and scan-backward buttons on the home screen, right in the same region as the "seek" buttons.

  • No HD Radio. Presumably, this could be because of lack of adoption outside the US (since the smart is sold in more countries than the US).

  • No satellite radio. (Again, sirius and XM are only available in the lower 48), so if you're Bosch and trying to make a radio that works everywhere, I understand that this is a non-starter. Also, one can justify the smart as a "city car" and not needing this option, but I certainly would do a road trip in it.

    Suggested improvement: Make it an OPTION. All you need to interface with a satellite module is an rs-232 and a line-in. The radio already has line-in and USB (and I suspect it's running linux), so I fail to see what's hard about making an expansion module.

  • The RDS text is highly inconsistent in the US (details here, but in many places, the radio doesn't provide the option to display station AND text on a button, unless you manually edit. For example, instead of a button saying "Public", you could say "88.5 (Nati". This happens in the stored station list, in frequency scans, in the four short buttons on the home screen.

  • This is minor, but the size of the frequency display REALLY could be bigger, in lieu of some of the other onscreen cruft.

  • They bothered to put a voice input module in the NAV but not in other modes (at least, that I've found).

  • Occasionally, changing a station will result in a screen pausing for up to five seconds and just saying "RDS SEARCH".

    Suggested improvement: Don't do this. Whatever's causing it, find it and don't make it a blocking operation.

  • Playing audio over bluetooth from an iphone was previously very buggy (not sending track data consistently, not having controls work reliably) but this seems to be much better in IOS 6.

  • Connecting an iphone via the USB port basically forces the phone to think there is an accessory attached. The best way to describe this is to say "try it". It makes using things like Siri problematic at best, it tends to mess with the ability to use third-party-apps (like Pandora) to play audio, although they work if you have the app running before you dock the connector. Since bluetooth is the superior protocol from the point of not-disabling-phone-functions, my workaround for this is to get a "charge only" cable that supplies power, but not data to the dock connector. Putting a second "power only" USB port in the radio would also work well.

Navigation Issues

  • Navigation input is not possible while driving. I understand this is a "safety feature" but the Smart has two seats, and some of us have passengers who can enter our destinations for us. Also, somehow, tapping in an address is dangerous, but having to tap at three different regions of the screen and then scroll though a list of 25 presets is safe? Heck, the car even has a detection mechanism for if someone's in the passenger seat (and handles seat belt alerts and the annoying "passenger airbag off" lamp), that could be used for this.

  • The voice detection for navigation is broken for the same reasons as "phone" above. It works well if you're at a dead stop with no air conditioning running. Otherwise, this potentially useful system is defeated by poor microphone placement, as well as a poor quality microphone.

  • The volume at which the Nav speaks over the radio is difficult to set. I'm not sure exactly what it means, but the setting seems to keep the nav at the same volume, and adjust the radio volume up or down relative to that, on some kind of 1-7 scale. Other systems I've seen have the simple metric of "turn the volume knob when the source is active" (so if you used the volume knob when the nav was talking, it would lower the nav).

  • The NAV is really chatty, such that attempting in my region to listen to a podcast is nearly unlistenable with the level of interruption. We've found hacks for this like putting an address in, but not hitting "start navigation" until we're most of the way there. When I say chatty, I mean at times I'm told every two minutes "keep left to stay on this highway, in point-six-miles, keep left to stay on this highway, keep left to stay on this highway, follow the road until further directions"

    Suggestion: In most other radios, turning the volume knob while a source is running (like while the NAV is speaking) affects that source. Implement that.

    Suggestion: When playing a selection from an ipod such as a podcast or song (over bluetooth or USB cable) it would be helpful to have the option to pause the audio rather than talk over it.

Overall Issues

  • No way to black out the screen without turning it off. Sure, you can drop into the settings and change the contrast manually (to a point), but there's no "display sleep". If you want any kind of entertainment, you are relegated to a glaring 4x6 rectangle in your field of view, all the damned time. You can't do nav with voice-only, you MUST have a screen in your field of view. Note that this is not the same problem you have with a phone in your pocket reading off instructions, or with a store-bought Garmin Nuvi, which you can place face down if you don't want to be distracted.

  • The fact that it's a touchscreen means that by design one has to take their eyes off the road to look at it. There are no "touch cues" to guide the finger to the right location, like you might find on some touchscreen ATM's.
    However, this could be deflected by putting some of the most-used commands in key areas on the Bezel, and by adding some indentations.

  • No remote. Seriously, going to an all-touchscreen interface makes the car radio FAR more dangerous. Even a HANDHELD (or steering-wheel-attached) remote would be useful. (Some thumb-buttons on the front of the paddle shifter, maybe? Something that clips on to the steering wheel, or on to the "wings" of the steering wheel, so we have the option to use them or not?

  • Whenever I turn the radio on, I have to click "OK" to a prompt that looks like "Do not let the system distract you from the traffic situation". I'm sure there's some lawyer that warranted this. However, the radio has video functions in that can only be used in Park. I understand that there's a liability issue here, but if I am doing a road trip with a passenger who wants to be entertained (think: small passengers) then please let ME decide that I think I can keep my eyes on the road if Spongebob is on. Modifying the radio to defeat this feature is as simple as cutting and splicing one wire, but I shouldn't have to.

  • This is admittedly minor, but I often close my glovebox door on the cable when I have my phone plugged into the USB port to charge. Giving me a place to cleanly route the cable without pinching it would be nice.


In case it seems like this is all negative, I should mention that the system SOUNDS great. When I play my music loud, it doesn't distort. Yes, it's six speakers and a subwoofer for a 2-seater car (so a maximum of four ears).
But in a car where everything else is SO well designed, they could do more.

I've noted that there is a new software update for the radio that MAY fix a few things. Let's hope.

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