The unit is able to play back MP3, WMA, and AAC audio files from portable audio players and mass storage devices. A 30-pin iPod dock connector to USB cable is included in the box to allow full-speed browsing of an iPod's metadata (album, artist, genre, etc.).
Unlike many "made for iPod/works with iPhone" multimedia receivers for cars, the iXA-W404 has the capability to play back video directly from your video-capable iPod or iPhone, thanks to a separate video breakout cable that connects to the back of the unit.
Alpine's Ai-NET BUS allows for the integration of external digital audio sources, such as a CD changer or HD Radio receiver.
In addition to the included USB and Ai-NET connections, the W404 also includes an AM/FM tuner, analog AV RCA inputs and outputs, three sets of preamp audio outputs, a dedicated video input for connecting a rearview camera with reverse lead, and dedicated connections for external navigation and Bluetooth wireless modules.
Installation of the iXA-W404 is slightly more involved than your average double-DIN multimedia receiver. For instance, the Alpine unit requires tapping both the parking brake and the foot brake to enable video playback, where most units only require the parking brake.
The reason for this is that Alpine requires that users go through a complex dance to prove to the unit that the car is actually stopped before it will display video content. First, stop the car with the foot brake, then engage the parking brake. Without lifting off of the foot brake, disengage the parking brake, then reengage to activate video playback. The whole process is a bit confusing at first, but eventually we got quite good at it. Video playback through the video output to external monitors doesn't require this fancy footwork, presumably because Alpine expects that it will be used in conjunction with rear-seat entertainment.
Once we parked and got the video playing, we were slightly underwhelmed by the video quality of the W404's touch screen. Images had a slightly grainy quality, with colors that seemed a bit washed out during the daylight hours. However, when viewed at night, the lack of ambient lighting helped the display to pop a bit more.
The way the interface mimics CoverFlow made us expect it to behave like CoverFlow, which it doesn't exactly. For example, switching panes requires long, deliberate finger swipes--nearly from one end of the screen to the other--to register, where CoverFlow carries the inertia of short, quick swipes.
As stated earlier, the interface can be a bit sluggish registering touch-screen inputs. However, the physical buttons are more responsive and the combination of the double-action encoder and full-speed iPod/USB connection allowed us to search large music libraries faster than any other non-Alpine unit that we've tested.
With an RMS output of 18 watts x 4 channels, the iXA-W404 supplies good sound for most factory and entry-level speaker components. Those with higher-end speakers can use the unit's three 2-volt stereo preamp outputs (front, rear, and nonfading subwoofer) to power external amplifiers.
The Alpine iXA-W404 adds a good deal of eye candy to Alpine's "mechfree" receiver formula, with its slick, sliding menus and video playback. However, the form comes at the cost of function, as the W404's touch screen is not as easy to use from a moving vehicle as the simple double-action encoder.
While the W404 doesn't offer very many features out of the box, its price point is quite low for a touch-screen double-DIN unit, and add-on modules allow you to add the features that you want, when you want them. However, this means that as many as two to three additional black boxes will need to be hidden during installation, which can be an issue for do-it-yourselfers.
Overall, we think the Alpine iXA-W404 shows promise, but we'll wait to see if Alpine can make the interface more intuitive and responsive in the next generation.