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by Bill Braun

Reviewer Extraordinaire

on January 8, 2014
The days of needing a DVD player and navigation receiver are slowing ebbing away.

Smartphone users often use mobile apps like MapQuest and Google get us from point A to point B. Our playlists and media players have made dinosaurs out of CD’s and DVD’s.

This fact has not been lost on the mobile audio manufacturers of the world. Even mid-line radios now have hardwired options for most Apple and Android operation systems as well as Bluetooth for wireless connectivity. The Pioneer Appradio 3 (SPH-DA110) and the Kenwood KIV-BT901 are good examples of a trend quickly coming into the public eye.

Alpine recently released the ICS-X7HD App Receiver. This double DIN receiver offers a 7” touchscreen display, works with the newest Siri Eyes Free & MirrorLink technology, and is among the first in Alpines line to be mechless (no moving parts.)

The “App” in App Receiver is what to pay attention to here. The ICS-X7HD is relying on the user to produce media or an app that works for them – which in today’s age is far from an unreasonable request. I know personally that I have three different navigation Apps, about a thousand songs, plus the a few Internet radio stations like Pandora – which are already staples of the streaming audio world.

Build Quality

Alpine opted for a darker grey plastic as opposed to the shiny jet black of the old days. Smart move. This shade and texture makes dirt and fingerprints all but impossible to detect, and goes well with many of the more modern dash finishes.

With no motorized door to accept a disc, the seams between the screen and the trim ring become nearly invisible, save for small gap on the top. It’s a clean look that Alpine has managed to keep consistently throughout their line. The Home/Power button light is blue, with the Volume buttons, Media View, Media Control (multi-purpose buttons that work a few different ways depending on the application) and Mute to the right of them. You have 4 different color choices for the buttons.

The buttons could be a bit more solid in my opinion, as each one had a bit of “play” in them between the button and space they sit in the housing. The up side to this is that they take very little work to enable them. The down side is that you don’t always want to look at the receiver as you're driving, and pressing the wrong button as you're doing the “no looker” in-transit means there may be a small learning curve in figuring out what to press and how hard to press it. Is it a big deal? No. Is it worth noting? Absolutely.

The Home, Mute and Volume buttons are staples of the industry, so few people would have issues figuring out exactly what they do. The rest of the buttons play multiple roles, and may take a bit of investigation to figure out their purposes app by app.

Playback Support

The ICS-X7HD supports these Media Types:

  • AUDIO
    • MP3
    • WMA (Windows Media)
    • AAC
    • WAV

 

  • VIDEO
    • DivX

A total of 18 presets are possible for Satellite Radio, as well as 18 more for AM/FM (6 AM and 12 FM.)

Also included is HD Radio. With HD Radio, you can tag an artist - up to 50 can be loaded to the receivers’ internal memory. Tagging captures information about a song you’re interested in, so you can hear more about them in the future, or even purchase those songs. Attaching your iPhone to the receiver syncs the list of artists you tagged. When you open iTunes on a computer, the system instantly creates a playlist of tagged artists you can inspect. We liked the convenience of not being forced to have the phone hooked up at that moment to tag artists, and the receiver stores the data for you until you sync it to the iPhone.

General Features

The Alpine has a 7-inch 800 x 480 (WVGA) screen, with a 16:9 aspect ratio. I’ve always been a fan of the 7” screens as they are big without being obtrusive.

On the back of the unit, the X7HD has six 2-volt preamp outputs, which is normal in these receivers. 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 ever upgrade 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, and is not dependent on installation by an authorized Alpine dealer.

Bluetooth pairs with most smartphones and MP3 players, and can support streaming audio from a music library, Pandora, or a phone call. Where available, the information - called metadata - you get from the audio stream includes the traditional song info plus cover art. Syncing your iPhone with the receiver will allow it to memorize as many as one thousand contacts per user, including their main and all alternate 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 duration.

 The ICS-X7HD supports several Bluetooth profiles:

  • Secure Simple Pairing (SSP) - Lets you pair a phone without entering a security code.
  • Hands Free Profile (HFP) v1.5 - Lets you make or receive calls without touching the phone.
  • Object Push Profile (OPP) v1.1 - Allows pictures to be sent to the receiver.
  • Headset Profile (HSP) v1.0 – Allows a headset to sync with the receiver.
  • Phone Book Access Profile (PBAP) v1.0 - caller ID displays on the receiver and allows the receiver to download the phone book.
  • Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) v1.2 – The receiver plays audio from your phone.
  • Audio/Video Remote Control Profile (AVRCP) v1.4 – Controls audio and video playback.

The Operation System is touchscreen dependent, so the accuracy of the buttons is something to check out. The buttons do have to be hit nearly dead center to register, which is leaves room for a bit of improvement. To be fair, Alpine exercised some foresight in making the buttons large enough not to need pinpoint accuracy for the vast majority of the buttons.

The texture of the screen is something I was a big fan of. I expect almost subconsciously to see fingerprints all over the screen and I never do. I think most cell phone companies could take a notes from the engineers at Alpine in that department. This type of anti-glare/anti-fingerprint coating can have one drawback: video quality may suffer.

Usability

The Home screen is particularly cool on this unit, but oddly hard to get to. When working on this unit I was forced to go to the mini menu that appears when the Home button is pressed, selecting the Phone option (whether or not the phone was attached or activated) then pressing the back arrow in the upper left corner. After reading the instructions I figured out that the home button needs to be held down for a moment to get to the home page. It could have been easier to get to in my opinion, but once I read the manual it worked just fine.

The Menu system itself will – like most cell phones - offer you sources to choose from. A second page (if needed) is available by swiping to the left or right. Some are “greyed out”, like the USB stick if you don’t have one plugged in. I am a fan of only showing people what they can actually use, as opposed to options that they can’t, but it didn’t interfere with my use of the receiver.

The heart of any App Receiver will of course be apps. Alpine seems to rely on Harman’s “Aha” and Pandora for the majority of your iPhone entertainment and features. Pandora has the majority of the Internet radio market and works both wired to the KCU-416iV Audio/Video connector cable and by Bluetooth.

If you own an Android phone you’ll use MirrorLink via Bluetooth. This app allows you to effectively use the receiver screen as your phone, controlling music, navigation and the contacts.

For the iPhone users out there, you have a way to get on-screen navigation, and that is through a 99 cent app called MotionX GPS Drive. Powered by Navteq, your iPhone has to be hard wired to the receiver using the 416iV cable. The GPS Drive comes with traffic by Inrix as well as several other neat little perks, and does have an optional “premium” service offering turn-by-turn voice navigation, better maps, automatic re-routing and optimized multi-stop routing for $9.99 per year.

For the price of a nice lunch, it’s a no-brainer to have the info available to you on-screen. Even if you don’t buy the premium service, spending a dollar for an app like this didn’t bother me at all.

To cover my bases (and to open my brain to the endless possibilities of the Interwebs) I set up an account with Aha, and played with it for a bit. Considering it’s a free App that lets you choose a bunch of radio stations, podcasts, traffic, navigation to attractions and a bit more. In a nutshell – not half bad!

When the 416iV cable is attached you get cover art and of course the phone charges. It’s just a loose cable (like every other manufacturer out there) but I’m hoping one day to have access to a more sophisticated mount. Maybe it’s my OCD talking but loose cables seem sloppy unless they’re mounted out of sight – like in a glove box or center console.

The sound quality is pretty decent, but I don’t get a pause button with Pandora, nor could I easily figure out how to navigate between the channels I created. The screen in the instruction manual didn’t actually exist in the receiver itself, which prompts me to believe there is a firmware update I need to use.

The video quality is good. Notably absent is an HDMI video input, so the video options are relegated to USB or the component 3.5mm plug. Other competitive models don’t have the anti-glare coating and therefore a marginally better picture, but that won't matter if the sun makes the screen all but invisible to you while trying to navigate from point A to point B, so while I have to admit that it IS a trade off – it’s a good one.

Expandability

One thing that borders on awesome is the degree of expandability. The ICS-X7HD has a USB slot, a single camera input, and is able to recognize two different Bluetooth devices. It’s also capable of using a CD or DVD changer (to my surprise Alpine still has one) and the Sirius SXV200 satellite radio.

Want a back up camera? Done. Satellite radio? We’ve got two for you (Sirius or XM.) How about playing a video off your smartphone? Go for it. It’s a level of convenience that the industry as a whole seems to finally just “get.”

Value

The Alpine ICS-X7HD has some bona fide strengths. Like some of the better smartphones, the X7HD has the gift of usability and simplicity wrapped up in a usable source screen.

One of the biggest reasons people will like this receiver is what you don’t need – a CD/DVD player and separate navigation processor chief among them. It would have been nice not to have had to spend a dollar to get the navigation app to work, but apart from that I have little to complain about.

This phone is built for the majority of us, but not all of us. For the hardcore audio purists, the lack of a CD/DVD slot may constitute a deal-breaker, plain and simple. But given that Alpine has other models to accommodate those people, it's not what I would consider a failure on their part. It’s just not the right model for them.

For nearly everyone else – who is just fine with the video and sound quality coming out of their smartphones – this is a strong option for their ride.

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