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by Bill Braun

Reviewer Extraordinaire

on August 1, 2014
The Alpine X008U is a palpable upgrade from the previous model. Can a new look and improved functionality make the unit even more impressive?

The Alpine X008U and it's gargantuan 8” screen is the replacement to the INE-Z928HD.  While none of the competing  “major” manufacturers have ventured into a screen size this large, Alpine is not without the usual competition of Kenwood and Pioneer from a features and functionality standpoint. All of them offer undeniable benefits to the commuter and techno-aficionado alike. As with the Z928HD, all of the Alpine Perfect Fit Kits accommodate dozens of modes without custom work or permanent alteration to the vehicle.

The competition is admittedly close on Alpines heels in the Navigation Receiver category, but the differentiation between the smaller, more universally compatible 7” models and the large-screen 8” and 9” models is ultimately more of an aesthetic choice than a functional one. The Pioneer AVIC-7000 NEX and Kenwood’s DNX891HD tout idatalink compatibility and navigation capabilities.

The differences in their respective features are subtle, and rest in a combination of compatible apps (Pioneer offers dozens of them), navigation highlights like Points of Interest (Kenwood has about 6 million POI’s) and several other ancillary features. Choosing one over the other is as much a matter of degrees as it is personal preference of a given brand.

Design

Alpines signature white logo appears up on the power-up. After a moment, the startup screen gives way to the source you were on last. A special language selection screen takes you through the first of a few basic steps to setup your radio if this is the first time you’ve turned it on.

From a style standpoint the OS (Operation System) is decidedly less fanciful than it's competition, but what it lacks in the “modern art” department it more than makes up for in raw functionality, and speed of operation. Being pretty takes a distant back seat to comprehension and practicality when I’m driving.

The i-Personalize function is also present in the mix, and is geared towards crafting the sound to the speaker system your vehicle has.  Everything from they types of speakers to the shape of the vehicle – even the seat composition (cloth, leather, etc…) is taken into account.  The choices are in a well thought out order that leaves little to chance, and makes a significant difference in performance. I found this out first hand.

Form a physical standpoint, the charcoal color of the trim panel and black gloss frame are relatively minimal, as the screen takes up all but a very small percentage of the real estate. The shiny black plastic is easily cleaned, though it’s rare you’ll ever touch it.

The physical buttons are all easily seen even in direct sunlight, thanks in part to a flatter finish than the frame surrounding the other three sides of the screen. All buttons are also easily defined by a quick glance, except for the star-shaped My Favorites button. It took just a moment to commit it's definition to memory.

Different from Alpine’s previous models, the two standout icons visible on the bottom of the receiver are arguably the two most commonly used ones: music and navigation. Alpine went as far as adding a backlit light under each of the two centralized buttons, assumingly for aesthetic purposes.

Build Quality

The material on the face of the X008U is an improvement from last year’s models. Each button press is solid, with a satisfying click to confirm you’ve done what you're supposed to. I was also pleased with the amount of padding in the buttons, which offered a sense of confidence-inspiring solidity in the receiver. Even at a subconscious level the radio should be subject to evaluations like this every time the buttons are used, and solid is always good.

When I opened the receiver face to load a CD, I applied some side stress to the face. This is done to see if there is any “give” to the face and hinges. It was completely solid, without even a hint of play. The body of the receiver is also using some seemingly thick metal to support it.

The touch screen’s solidity seems to have been unchanged from last year’s model to this, with no detectable issues that could spell trouble down the road. All told, the receiver seems to built for the long haul – something I have come to expect from any receiver at this price point, and from Alpine as a company.

Usability

Selecting the setup screen is done by pressing the picture of the wrench in the upper right hand corner of the touch screen. Alpine calls it the “band display” – which is basically the list of sources you can choose from. This year the choices are customizable, so altering the order you see them in is an option. You can’t delete them. You can’t rename them.  But at least you can move the unused sources to the end of the list.

The way Alpine labeled the available sources has also improved. None of the descriptions I read seemed confusing, and the iconography is crystal clear. Like most competitors, these source lists include items like USB and AUX, which are greyed out when no source is available to activate. I’m more a fan of not offering choices that don’t exist.

The My Favorites feature is unique to Alpine – and is beyond cool - but let me preface that statement with something I find as a common thread in many products: having 80 of anything presents the user with the potential for too many choices. The point of having quick accessibility is based around user convenience, so having 80 choices may require that you take some time to make it convenient for you.

My suggestion is to segment the personalized icons by pages. Since Alpine took the time to add both colors and pictures for quick identification, it shouldn’t pose a challenge to anyone. Add the fact that you can personalize the order and titles of every icon, and it becomes easy to manage while driving.

Alpine systems can sense 2 Bluetooth signals and associate profiles to them. This means that the X008U’s personalization goes to the next level, and becomes an effortless process.  If both signals are present simultaneously, the system prompts you to select one or the other.  In a nutshell, you have 2 sets of contacts and My Favorites to choose from.  I’m a fan.

Another source made easily available is the use of a camera on the front and back of the vehicle. Most receivers of this caliber have a backup camera button, or it automatically appears when the vehicle is in reverse, but few have taken advantage of the obvious upsides of a front facing camera, and the icon should be present in every receiver that has the capacity to show a front facing image.

The simple truth is that unless you drive a bus, you can’t see your front bumper. Having a front-facing camera solves that glaring lack of visibility, especially when parking “head in” or when you have to turn into a corner with limited visibility.  Alpine got this one really, really right in my estimation.

Choosing different music on the X008U can be done by hitting the musical note button at the bottom of the radio (called the Source button by Alpine) or by selecting a source button on the top of the touch screen. Choosing sources is quite easy, and graphic selections are universally quick to use.

Playing most media was an absolute no-brainer. Once my phone was configured to the receiver, the Pandora, Bluetooth Pandora, and iPod icons lit up like a Christmas tree. One touch of the “soft” source buttons got me wherever I needed to go.

Switching sources is equally easy, and one button press got me to Pandora from the radio. When album artwork is detected, the graphics are quite good, although the picture is on the small side for my tastes. I would have loved to see a larger icon.

Selecting the iPod icon started my playlists running. The X008U defaults to the last item played, so in this case my 90’s playlist came on. Actively searching for a different song or playlist is the same as when you search on Pandora, where a magnifying glass was an obvious icon to use. For iPod (and iPhone of course) searching you may also use the three bullet points to get to the same screen. It’s a little bigger of an icon so it may be easier to find.

Typing in a search has not changed significantly from last years model to this years. But in fairness – last years was quite good, albeit not perfect. Case in point - when typing in search mode, I found the alphabet mode most useful. Similar to the iPhone’s own search functionality, you can choose to search by artist, song, genre, etc… When I tried to search for videos I have stored on the phone I did run into a bit of an issue, as I couldn’t find the any videos except for the ones stored in my iTunes folders. This was not a problem when I searched on a USB stick, but my advice is to use a USB for video anyway given the massive storage capabilities a thumb drive can offer.

Another challenge was getting to the last point of a video, as you can’t do it if it's not a DVD. In fairness I have never seen a brand that would automatically return to a point in a movie based on a mobile device.

Access speed could be marginally faster, but given the integration of Siri, using voice commands makes a lot more sense now for address book info. For searching within my playlist, Siri was not 100% as accurate at times. Bands like “inxs” are simply too far away from proper english for Siri to get right out of the gate. While I’ve heard that the phone’s software “learns” your linguistic tendencies & accentuations, I have yet to see proof of that.

Making a call with the receiver occurs without a hitch. Siri shines here, and even when I didn’t use it, I went straight to the alpha search and found who I wanted to call in about 3 seconds. Whether or not you have an iPhone, making a call from an address book is an easy process.

If you want to save yourself some effort, you can pre-program callers in the My Favorites section, plus there’s a separate set of 4 shortcuts on the phone screen itself. Between those 84 possible shortcuts, most people would be hard pressed to find fault with the system.

Calling while I was driving, the microphone quality was a little noisy, having a slight echo to it according to the person I called. Alpine suggests the microphone placement to be directly facing the driver, on the sun visor. Taking their advice, the call was acceptably clean. You can also adjust the mic volume as well as the caller volume from 1 to 11. Kudos for what I am assuming is a Spinal Tap homage. Everything should go to 11 as far as I’m concerned.

As has been the theme, Alpine integrated Siri Eyes Free for all of their higher end navigation units. Functions like hearing a text and dictating one back from Facebook, voice dialing, and quite a bit more now simply involves holding the phone button down for a moment on the radio or on your factory steering wheel (if it’s been linked to the receiver).

In playing a DVD to test the video quality, I find animation and action are the toughest tasks, so I played a Disney film to see how well the X008U performed. The action was smooth and the color quality was consistently accurate with no issues from artifacting (small errors you may see especially during moments of heavy action). The video quality is good, but there are better units out there in that department. The Pioneer AppRadio 3’s video quality for example is superb, but the Pioneer suffers glare issues in direct sunlight – a price they are apparently willing to pay for a high gloss screen.

Choosing the proper icons on the DVD’s top menu required I touch small areas in the past, resulting in a few mistakes on my part while driving. The “key” button, is available but it's a bit cryptic as to it's exact use unless you read the manual – so using the keypad is something I try to avoid.

Media Expander does a surprisingly good job to improve the quality of compressed audio (MP3’s, Internet radio and iTunes are all examples). It restores some of the lost data according to Alpine, and now I’ve heard evidence to support that contention. I experienced additional clarity, especially to vocals. Level 2 (of 3) was my favorite, and Alpine makes setting recommendations based on media type.

If you are one of the billion or so Facebook users, you can opt to have notifications dictated (called “text-to-speech”) to you while driving. You can also select a thumbs up to a given text on the fly. Another Facebook advantage is Alpine’s Tune-It app. Download it to your phone and you get a free, easy to use graphic equalizer, time alignment and audio presets available on Android, Blackberry and Apple phones.

The touchscreen itself is quite accurate. It could be my imagination but the screen seems to be more sensitive than in the past. This is a double-edged sword, requiring what I consider to be a less than reasonable amount of pressure to activate certain functions on the screen. A light touch is great when you're at a dead stop, but the majority of the time you're in motion. It's an admittedly subjective standard, as everyone’s going to use the screen with a slightly different amount of pressure.

The setup and menu system is often the weakest link in the chain. Too many controls and option upon option can feel intimidating, which is only slightly worse than having settings that are oddly described and less useful. This is where I find most often I have to have the instruction book nearby – something I feel should almost never be necessary. For the record, the instruction book is easy for anyone from a novice to an experienced operator to use.  Don’t be afraid to browse through it.

The setup process on the X008U is by and large a simple, un-intimidating process. As proof of concept, I let my wife loose on the setup screen.  As my unofficial name in our home is “tech support”, I was curious to see how this potentially confusing (and possibly infuriating) system translated to someone who wasn’t familiar with gear like this. She made sense of it with greater ease than I anticipated, setting the source bar preferences, syncing her phone and changing some of the audio settings with relative ease.

She hasn’t let me live that little test down, and I couldn’t be happier with the X008U’s setup system’s ease of use. Maybe now she’ll try to reset our router every so often, but I’m not holding my breath. 

Navigation

The navigation built into the X008U is powered by NAVTEQ, and now also comes with real time traffic updating, which and is an absolute godsend. I have to recount an experience for you to appreciate the importance of this feature….

Traveling here in So Cal, traffic is a forgone conclusion. It’s just a question of where it is and how bad it happens to be on any given day. One of my coworkers already has this receiver installed in his car. Bound for work on his daily commute, his journey is about 15 miles from end to end. On his way to the office the W957HD (same software as the X008U) recognized traffic, caused in this case by unannounced construction on a bridge that overpasses the highway on his route. This would have delayed him (putting this kindly) 20 minutes bare minimum.

Instead of suffering that inconvenience, a large orange traffic icon appeared on the screen - now showing his route in red. This happened when the actual road in front of him was completely clear, which for me usually plants a seed of doubt. Do I trust the receiver or my eyes? Let me tell you – the receiver can see a heck of a lot farther down the road than I can.

Wisely, he decided to trust the receiver. After allowing the system to temporarily reroute him on surface streets, he was able to completely avoid the traffic that everyone else had to “patiently” wait for. Alpine 1, traffic 0. Point proven.

Creating a route from scratch is an easy process. With more than half a dozen ways of defining the exact same place, defining where you want to go is basically just a matter of starting a new route in the menu. Where is gets potentially more complicated is defining waypoints (places along your route you want to go, but not the last place you want to go on the route), or mildly harder, creating a different starting point. This makes sense, as you rarely want to start somewhere other than where you are eat the moment.

With 80 potential memory locations, the “My Favorites” screen will probably be used to some extent to remember places you go to consistently. For example, I added a shortcut to my house to make the system evaluate the traffic. Now I instantly know the best route home at the end of the day.

Another factor in determining the mettle of a navigation unit is how difficult it is to find places on a map. Ask yourself:  What if I’m hungry while on my trip? What if I have to get gas? What if I need to fix a flat?

Addressing this, Alpine has about 7 million Points of Interest (called “POI”) available to reference, including gas stations, hospitals, food, hotels and entertainment just to name a few. All these POI’s are searchable by:

  • Location
  • Proximity to you
  • Preset category
  • Latitude/Longitude
  • Touching a spot on the map
  • Just by name

Short of psychic powers, I simply can’t imagine another way to call up possible destinations. They covered every conceivable base here.

As you have to make a turn, most navigation systems make this important data plainly visible. Alpine makes it available in two well thought out places: first is on the top of the screen, where the name of the next road is printed. Next is a box in the upper left hand corner. The box tells you the direction the next turn will be, and the distance you have to the turn. Traffic and ETA is below that in two separate boxes. On the bottom of the screen you see the street or highway you are currently on. As you get closer to a turning point (or your destination) the system zooms in gradually, which was both cool and completely necessary.

For map views, you have a choice of 2D, 2D flat and 3D options. The 3D function is available in certain markets, and while high on the coolness factor, it’s usefulness is limited in my opinion.

Another cool feature is the dual screen function. Pressing the icon on the lower right of the screen allows you to switch between a split screen (navigation and audio source playing) or a full navigation screen. When in split screen mode, swiping from one side or the other will swap the screen positions. I liked the navigation a little closer to me, so moving the half screen navigation to the left was a great little feature to have. Unless I’m turning (or doing something other than just driving in a straight line), I don’t really need to see every detail of the navigation screen anyway.

Overall I have to say I was elated with the entire navigation system.

Playback & Expandability

Alpine’s newest navigation receivers all allow audio, video, Pandora, Aha, playlists and now Apple’s Siri – Alpine has now added an HDMI plug to get HD video from your iPhone 5. You’ll still need an adapter that Alpine doesn’t provide (or sell for that matter), a breakout box that splits the lightning cable into USB and HDMI cables. You need to hook up both to allow video transmission and data/charging capabilities. 

Blackberry and Android functionality is also supported, albeit less so. Video isn’t supported via the USB cable (for charging, metadata and cover art purposes) and Bluetooth compatibility is pretty much audio only.

In addition to AM/FM, HD Radio and SiriusXM (using the SiriusXM SXV200 tuner), the Alpine X008U will play back audio and video from CD, DVD, or USB. Pandora is supported via Bluetooth with an Android, Blackberry or iOS devices, but you wont get cover art or be able to charge the phone unless you're connected via USB.

With the provided USB cable, the receiver will play audio or video directly from a device like a thumb drive.

Supported Disc Types:

•                 CD

•                 CD-R/CD-RW

•                 DVD

•                 DVD-R/DVD-RW

•                 DVD+R/DVD+RW

•                 VIDEO-CD

Supported Audio Formats:

•                 MP3

•                 Windows Media (WMA)

•                 WAV (AIFF)

•                 AAC  

Supported Video Formats:

•                 DivX

•                 DVD

Adding a Sirius SXV200 will allow you to add satellite radio to the receiver. This opens up nation wide reception to nearly 200 channels of music, sports, comedy and more. Cover art, artist, album and song info. There’s a monthly or yearly fee with SiriusXM.

The X008U also has 2 camera inputs, along with four Alpine cameras to choose from. The prices range from $150 to $600 MSRP, but more importantly the functions of the camera can save you from hitting something or someone. They have varying levels of night vision, and some come with multiple views built in, allowing you to see mere inches from the bumper as you get closer to objects behind you.

Any camera built to fit on a car will work, from the $49 models all the way up to the top end, motorized units – whether they are Alpine or not. What you're really paying for is video quality, camera size and features like multiple views and levels of night vision.

In addition to the camera inputs, the X008U has a video input and output. This means you can add another video source to the system, and route it to an alternate screen(s). A good example is using a video game system that can be routed to an overhead screen or headrest monitors.

General Features

The Alpine X008U has an 800x400 (WVGA) screen with about 1.1 million pixels, and a 16:9 aspect ratio. This is a common statistic, but the pixel count is on the high side, which ads to the video quality, smoothness and brightness.

The X008U Supports several Bluetooth Profiles:

  • Hands Free Profile (HFP) v1.5 - Lets you make or receive calls without touching the phone.
  • Audio Streaming (A2DP) – the receiver plays audio from your phone
  • Audio/Video Remote Control (AVRCP) – lets you control audio and video playback
  • Object Push (OPP) – allows pictures to be sent to the receiver.
  • Phone Book Access (PBAP) – caller ID displays on the receiver and allows the receiver to download the phone book

Bluetooth pairs with most smartphones and MP3 players, and can support streaming audio from a music library, Internet radio, or a phone call. Where available, the information you get from the audio stream includes the traditional song and artist info plus cover art. Syncing your phone with the receiver will allow it to memorize as many as one thousand contacts per user (there are 2 users the system can memorize), including their main number and as many as 4 additional phone numbers (i.e. work, mobile, home or pager).

When you place or receive a call you get a screen with caller name, number, and call duration. The screen allows you to change the volume of the caller or your microphone.

The physical buttons on the receiver can change color. You have five choices including Blue, Red, Green, Amber and Black. About half of the receivers I review have this many color choices, the others have a blendable palette with tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of colors. Usually the goal is to match the dash lighting, and with 5 colors to choose from you stand a mediocre chance of doing it spot-on, but you can get reasonably close on the majority of vehicles.

A few manufacturers make a steering wheel remote control adapter, and Alpine has a port to accept them. Not all makes and models will work, but many vehicles that have steering wheel controls can control some or even all of the commands available. Volume, power, band, calling (sending and receiving), and track up/down are some of the most common.

With the advent of idatalink, the feature sets have grown drastically. Depending on the vehicle, the X008U may be able to display a separate status screen with 5 gauges on it. The cool part is that you can choose from as many as 26 available options. This is on top of actively monitoring head and tail lamp status, door open/closed status, tire pressure and engine warning codes (whatever data your vehicle is able to provide). This inexpensive processor also takes the place of many steering wheel controllers that often cost twice as much money, yet perform nowhere near the same number of functions.

The idatalink can also add radio functions you wouldn’t normally have access to. By making any steering wheel button perform two tasks (hold a button down for about 1.5 seconds for the second command), you can effectively double the usefulness of the controls without taking your eyes off the road.

With the advent of idatalink, the landscape of available information on-screen has evolved dramatically. It was only a short time ago we were limited to entertainment and navigation. No longer. Critical vehicle functions are visible in an array as futuristic as it is logical, evolving the usefulness of the receiver into the something much more than a showpiece with a DVD player and an electronic map.

The X008U has three sets of 4-volt preamp outputs, which is in line with most receivers in the category. This means that the power going to an aftermarket amplifier is strong, and strong means clean. Nearly every amp on the market can take this amount of power (if not more), so this is a great first step in upgrading the overall sound of the system.

New for 2014 is an optional (and moderately expensive) optical output. The Alpine KWE-610A is a purist’s method of getting signal to a separate processor with an optical input, the main benefit being a true Dolby Digital (5.1 surround) environment with an appropriate decoder like the Alpine PXA-H800.

Most notably, the optical signal cannot pickup line noise, so running the cable right on top of the power wire is completely acceptable. You will also sidestep additional, unnecessary digital to analog conversion along the way, which will increase the sound quality markedly.

The receiver has a one year parts and labor warranty against manufacturer’s defect in parts or workmanship, which is easily the most common in the industry.

The warranty extends exclusively to the original owner of the receiver. Only Canadian bought and installed Alpine products have a warranty in Canada.

Value

The Alpine X008U is an outstanding deck. The graphics are solid even under stress, the navigation is very easy to use even while driving, and the sound quality is improved even from last years model.

There are some features to improve upon:

  • Add audio ducking for the navigation voice.
  • Making the Mute an actual absence of music, instead simply of lowering the volume.
  • Adding a security code for power-up (fewer and fewer manufacturers are adding security to their decks) as an anti-theft measure.

That said, for the money you’ll be hard pressed to find a better navigation receiver, especially given the My Favorites upgrades, which I love. The fact that it has Siri Eyes Free is icing on an already immensely attractive cake.

To be clear, the X008U, X009-U and X009-GM are exactly the same internally. Their menu system, on-screen look and feel, screen resolution – all identical.  The true differences are external ones: the screen size goes up to 8” for the X008U as we said before, and jumps to a monstrous 9” for the X009-U & X009-GM. As several vehicle manufacturers are offering similar screen sizes as a factory option, the reasonability of evolving an aftermarket receiver screen to this size starts to make more and more sense.

In the 9” screen category, the X009-U (the U is for “universal”) will work well for several vehicles, especially SUVs and trucks. In an effort to make such a large screen “workable” with as many vehicles as possible, the X009-U has a removable array of buttons. The mobility of the bottom assembly is an advantage that would allow the user to have the buttons moved to another part of the car, or even hidden behind a glove box or center console door.    

For Chevy and GM truck owners, the X009-GM comes complete with a special kit and wiring harness to retain the factory A/C controls, wiring harness, steering wheel controls, OnStar, the works… Alpine also just released a version for Ford trucks as well called the X009-FD1.

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