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by Bill Braun

Reviewer Extraordinaire

on November 7, 2014
The first of it kind, the Alpine iLX-007 is a dedicated Apple Car Play receiver. With the potential to change an industry.

Nearly everything is on our phones nowadays. It is our navigator, our personal secretary and our own private DJ. And now it can be the heart of your car stereo.

The question is if it should be.

After eight years of the smartphone’s existence, the car stereo industry has gotten wise to the fact that we rely on them about as much as the average person requires oxygen.

Unlike any other Digital Media Receiver on the market, Alpine has worked in depth with Apple to create both a radio and accompanying software that is almost completely dependent on versions of the iPhone 5 or 6. This may seem a bit limiting to some, but according to Forbes, Apple recently sold its half-billionth iPhone. Limiting is not the first word that comes to mind with those stats staring you in the face.

The competition to integrate the Apple Car Play into car stereos has been limited. At the time of this article going to print, only Pioneer and Alpine have added the software into any of their current receivers, with the iLX-007 being the only Digital Media Receiver to do so.

Build Quality

Every aspect of Alpine’s iLX-007 has an “Apple-esque” air to it. The obviousness of Alpine’s intentions is experienced the second you look at the box. Even before I see the receiver nestled inside, I am immediately reminiscing about the effort the iPhone’s creators made in creating an experience from the millisecond I set my eyes on the gear. I have to admit a tiny smile escaped as I opened the box.

Inspecting the contents revealed the receiver’s finish - a black plastic that’s nearly a spot on match to the phone itself. With no motorized door to accept a disc, the seams between the screen and the trim ring become nearly invisible. It’s a clean look that Alpine has used consistently.

The Home and Siri buttons are the only two physical buttons to touch, and given the regularity I anticipate using them, the buttons have to be both unusually durable and very easy to identify while driving. Qualitatively, the buttons are both stout with being stiff, and the “report” you experience when using them gives you sufficient feedback to confirm you’ve done enough to activate the button’s function without mashing it hard enough to split atoms. Well done.

Playback

The Alpine iLX-007 supports effectively any audio that your phone is capable of playing. In short, if you can hear it through your headphones, you can hear it on your stereo.

I tried playing a YouTube video, and got the audio only version. I got the same results with a video I had stored in my playlist, which is more proof that the deck is not designed to play a video while driving. My eyes stayed on the road, and my ears found what they were looking for.

For radio reception, a total of 18 presets are available for AM/FM (6 AM and 12 FM.)

Another way to allow more functionality is to utilize the AV Mini plug. The plug allows for an auxiliary audio and video input, which is the only practical way of making any stereo source play.

This doesn’t just mean an external DVD or a video game, but any audio or video source that isn’t an iPhone 5 or 6/6s. Like most Apple products – the proverbial gates are tightly sealed against unintended use, but once in the castle – Siri opens up its functionality.

General Features

The Alpine iLX-007 has a 7-inch 800 x 480 (WVGA) screen, with a 16:9 aspect ratio.

It should also be noted that the radio is amazingly thin. With barely a 3” mounting depth, this deck will fit into many motorcycles with ease as well as most cars capable of accepting a double DIN radio. It has opened the doors to a significantly wider market – desperate for a quality head unit that to this point was simply too deep to use.

On the back of the unit, the iLX-007 has six 2-volt preamp outputs, which is better than most digital media receivers, which usually have one or two sets. The internal power is a four channel 200-watt internal amplifier. This is a peak rating (50 watts per channel) with 18 watts nominal power. That’s enough wattage for most factory systems, but aftermarket speakers can take a great deal more power if you choose to upgrade the rest of the audio system.

The receiver has a 1-year parts and labor warranty from defects in workmanship. This is also the most common warranty in the industry.

Usability

The iLX-007 is essentially two decks in one. There’s the Apple Car Play side of the equation, built to support Apples mobile OS and Siri, then there’s the Alpine Operation System with Alpine’s unique features. When you want to change the sound quality (to use the EQ or the increasingly popular TuneIt App for example) or use Pandora, the Alpine side of the deck comes into play.

The Home screen is exceedingly simple, for now. As with most completely new products, Apple and Alpine will both doubtless add features and functions, especially from an app standpoint. As it sits, the iLX-007 has 14 possible icons.

It occurs to me that this is a case of asking not how many apps can by shoved on one screen – but what icons do I truly want when driving…

Navigation? Check.

Messages? Absolutely.

Alpines Top Menu? Only when I want the radio or to change the sound quality.

Music? Of course.

After some experimentation and taking the time to think about it, the list of what I want at direct access is limited to what I find useful, and the reality is that most of what I need I will ask Siri to do for me. I don’t need a button – but I do want one, and not all of them are available. At least not yet.

I was hopeful that the “Hey Siri” function would work. As long as the phone is connected to power (and you’ve allowed it in the setup menu), you simply say the magic words and the phone awaits your commands as if you’ve pressed the Siri button on the radio. No such luck. In fact using the feature does come up with the standard Siri screen, but somehow the commands themselves don’t work.

Using the Navigation function is as much a process of evaluating Apple Maps as it is using the iLX-007. The program as improved markedly from iOS 7 to 8 out of the gate, and is completely integrated with Siri. The latest generation of Apple Maps is good, albeit a bit more basic than some of its aftermarket competitors. The program offers turn-by-turn directions, traffic conditions and estimated time of arrival.

It lacks the ability to add waypoints (multiple destinations along one route), but as with the rest of this system, it does advise you about traffic conditions. It didn’t offer to re-route me as more expensive navigation systems routinely do, but at least I knew where the trouble spots were.

Navigating to a contact’s address (as you can do on the phone’s version of navigation) is possible if you know that the contact actually has an address attached to it in your phone, but there is no way to confirm that on the iLX-007.

I knew that a friend of mine had his address in my phone, so I pressed the Siri button and commanded it to calculate a route to the friend, which it did without an issue.

One the navigation has been calculated, the screen zooms in to your current location, which it assumes is you're starting point. There is very little in the way of flexibility on-screen. You can only zoon in & out, and cannot drag the screen in different directions once you’ve set a destination.

Unless you cancel the route, scrolling to one direction or the other is impossible. A set of arrows in “Map” mode allows you to scroll, but I would have thought the capacitive screen would let you zoom in and out, scroll where you want to, set a destination - do anything short of breakdance.

This is a very basic navigation system at its heart. Siri does add a great deal of ease to the searching process, as there is no other system that allows you to search simply by asking something like “where’s the nearest movie theater?” but it is not yet something I would classify as “elegant” but all in all, not bad for software no more expensive than the price of the phone itself. 

My very favorite thing was not having to endure the address entry process nearly every other navigation-enabled aftermarket radio forces you to endure.

“Give me directions to the nearest movie theater.” I said to Siri. A few seconds later, it’s done. The directions were laid out on the receiver. The process was completely painless, and as close to perfect as I could have asked for. It just worked, and it did so without my having to get anywhere near an alphanumeric keyboard while driving.

Touching the Alpine Top Menu icon revealed the AM/FM Radio. I wasn’t sure why the radio was hidden in a submenu when every other source was in the home page, but using the radio was plenty easy. Press seek. Find a station. Press a preset for a few seconds to memorize it and you’re done. I still wish someone would come up with a keypad to directly input a number, but no luck just yet.

Using the Phone function was essentially the same as using it on my iPhone 6, as was using the Siri function to both make a call and place one. Messaging was equally easy both from the menu screen and using voice activation.

You won’t see the info on the screen, as Apple worked with Alpine to make the iLX-007 dictate the information to you. The goal here is not to distract you with too many features. Why? So you can keep your eyes on the road without an overage of information plying your attention away from the turnpike.

As is seemingly Apple’s standard method of operation, they believe that the purpose of this deck should all be about communication, navigation, Siri and audio. They have constructed the software to support those functions with ease.

I was taken aback by the fact that there is absolutely none of Apples phone functionality discussed in the instruction book. This includes the details of using navigation or how to place a call. Nor is there any discussion on messaging. All of which left me surprised to say the least. In retrospect, it does make some sense. Alpine is undoubtedly assuming that you already know how to perform tasks that basic, but I still consider it an oversight.

While I have railed against instruction books in general as the manufacturer’s last attempt to educate a user on something that should have made sense to begin with, it still doesn’t excuse not discussing a feature set at all. I would say to any manufacturer: “It’s your gear – explain it. All of it.”

I’m a Pandora listener, so I found I hard to swallow the fact that Spotify, iHeartRadio and a few select others are the only extra programs currently allowed on the Car Play platform.

The only way around that is employing the AUX channel, but that seems an inconvenience for what should be a very simple (and completely integrated) task. In a nutshell: I shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to make one of the more common apps work on my stereo.

Will the software improve? Probably. If you consider Apple’s history, they are far from narrow-minded. There will doubtless be upgrades, fixes and changes – and the firmware will evolve into something that becomes much cooler over time.

Better yet, those changes will likely not cost you a dime if Apple holds true to form. Having owned more Apple iPods, iPhones, iPads and Macbooks than most people I know, I can’t remember the last time an upgrade cost me much more than some time to download it. It’s just how they roll.

Expandability

The expandability of the Alpine iLX-007 is supported via a 3.5 millimeter A/V plug in the back. This single plug can conceivably support nearly any stereo signal with it’s accompanying video. Portable DVD players, assorted digital video players, even other types of phones could conceivably have a connection to the receiver here.

Apple currently lists 8 Apps that work with Car Play. They are:

  • Podcasts
  • Beats Music
  • iHeartRadio
  • MLB.com at bat
  • Spotify
  • Stitcher
  • CBS Radio
  • Rdio

Apple does say more apps are coming, and I don’t doubt it. The question that may well be a secret (as most things in Apple seem to be, prior to release) is what apps will be available, and when? Your guess is as good as mine.

Value

The $600 Street Price ($800 MSRP) can be weighed against very few competitors at the moment.

Pioneer’s AVIC-5000NEX is Apple Car Play Compatible, has better navigation features as well as Bluetooth. It’s also compatible with idatalink, Android’s MirrorLink, and has a plethora of apps that are compatible with it.

The down side? Its asking price is 25% higher at $750, and as yet is not completely compatible with iOS 8 (at the time of printing this article). Plus the 5000NEX has a screen nearly an inch smaller at 6.1”.

In testing the Alpine Media Receiver, it becomes obvious that the deck is made to perform its functions with a minimum of driver distraction. This means that the graphics are large, the features are straightforward and the bells & whistles are kept to a minimum. Most of what you need to do, Siri does for you without the need for your eyes to stray from the road.

Also, understand that the iLX-007 was made for you to physically connect the iPhone 5, 5s, 5c, 6 or 6s to it. Bluetooth is not part of the system, and using the Alpine iLX-007’s video capabilities are only possible through the AUX audio/video input (not including the standard backup camera input).

The text info is really meant to identify who the sender is – not to tell you what was said in each text. Again – Siri dictates the info as you request it so you can keep your eyes on the road.

Using the contacts list is simplified, with the info available being little more than a name, number and a call/text option. I don’t find that as an impediment.

And here’s why….

There is just enough information to get the job done. Which, while I’m driving down the road, is all I need.

Simply put, if you want to:

A)   Listen to your playlists & use apps like Spotify, iHeartRadio, etc.…

B)   Let Siri make/receive calls and messages

C)   Let Siri use Apple Maps to get you from point A to Point B and

D)   Do all of the above while barely (if ever) having to look at the radio while driving...

...then this deck makes perfect sense.

If you understand the potential convenience and safety the receiver offers, then you’ve found what could conceivably be the perfect deck for you.

If you need something a little more traditional, you may want to check out a DVD receiver like the Kenwood DDX7701HD or the Pioneer AVH-4000NEX.  If you want navigation as well, check out theAlpine INE-W957HD.

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