Note: We will be producing a separate, complete review for the Blackbird PMD-B200.
With the launch of the IVA-W205, Alpine becomes the second aftermarket manufacturer to combine mobile- and in-dash navigation. Unlike the Eclipse AVN2210p, which uses a similar combination of in-dash dock connected to a portable TomTom GPS device, the IVA-W205 can be purchased--and used--independently of its portable Blackbird PMD-B200 component. Without the Blackbird portable, the IVA-W205 becomes a simple--but versatile--multimedia player in the vein of the Alpine IVA-W200.
The standalone in-dash system, which comes with a 6.5-inch touch-screen display, can support a range of media formats including DVD video and compressed digital audio codecs. With the Blackbird PMD-B200 installed, the IVA-205 becomes a useful in-dash navigation system as well as a ready-made Bluetooth hands-free calling device. We like the system's innovative two-piece design and the way in which both components can be used independently, although we do have a few niggles with the some of its usability.
In its physical appearance, the IVA-W205 uses a similar design to that of its predecessor in the Alpine lineup, the IVA-W200. A number of hard buttons across the bottom of the bezel can be used to switch between sources and different screens, as well as for controlling volume and power. Most other controls are available on the system's 6.5-inch LCD touch screen, which, like that of the IVA-W200, features Alpine's "Pulsetouch" tactile feedback--a physical vibration designed to let users know when they have made a selection. In general, we like the size of the touch screen and the large, well-labeled soft buttons, which make it easy to make selections while driving along or when stopped in traffic. The Pulsetouch feature can take a while to get used to: We found that it works fine if you push a button quickly, but, if you hold it down, the screen throbs with a disconcerting machine-gun-like noise.
The unique design aspect of the IVA-W205 is its ability to swallow whole the separate, standalone Blackbird PMD-B200 portable GPS device, which turns it into an in-dash navigation system. With a push of the eject button, the LCD display rolls down revealing a large dock, into which the Blackbird is inserted headfirst. We managed to get the Blackbird in without any difficulty (make sure you push it right up to make the connection), but getting it out using the mechanical eject button was more difficult, and we often had to use a considerable deal of effort to extricate the portable.
For media playback, the IVA-W205 provides a very intuitive selection interface, with a straightforward source-selection menu called up using the hard Source button on the bottom of the faceplate. In each of the three standard media source modes (radio, disc, aux), the screen displays two soft buttons at the top right-hand side: Visual, for changing display between media and navigation, and Setup for audio tweaking. With the Blackbird PMD-B200 inserted, audio selection becomes less straightforward, as pressing the music button on the screen in navigation mode activates music playback from the portable device's SD-card rather than in-dash audio source--this quirky design flaw confused us more than once when trying to toggle between navigation and disc-based audio.
For disc-based audio playback, IVA-W205 supports Red Book CDs, as well as MP3- and WMA-encoded discs, all of which are inserted in the single disc slot behind the motorized drop-down faceplate. For compressed audio format discs, the display shows complete ID3-tag information for track, artist, and album. One of our favorite features of the system's media playback functionality is its Folder List function, which displays folders on a disc five at a time. With a folder selected, the screen then shows a list of tracks within the folder, also five at a time; a one-touch scrolling feature allows drivers to browse their entire music libraries with ease. For those who want to skip songs and folders one at a time, there are also dedicated soft buttons for navigating discs without using the Folder List. The IVA-W205 can also be used to play audio from iPods and USB drives using optional add-on connecting modules.
The IVA-W205 impressed us with it audio customization features. Standard output of 18 watts per channel can be enhanced with separate front-, rear-, and subwoofer 2-volt preouts. Bass and treble can be adjusted according to level and frequency, and a high-pass filter setting for front and rear lets users fine-tune their EQ. A touch-screen graphic for setting fade and balance is also an attractive feature.
For visual media, you can play DVD video and VCDs on the IVA-W205. To operate the video function, drivers need to perform an elaborate procedure, designed to ensure that the unit can't be used to play DVDs when on the move: First depress the foot brake; then activate the parking brake; then, with the foot brake still depressed, release and re-engage the parking brake; finally, let go of the foot brake. Viewers can fine-tune video output using a number of Visual EQ settings including adjustments for tint, brightness, and contrast, as well as settings for between -15 and +15 for image softness and sharpness.
All navigation functions of the IVA-W205 are controlled by the Blackbird PMD-B200 portable navigation device (which we will be reviewing separately), which fits into a dock behind the roll-down LCD display. The Blackbird serves as the "brains" of the IVA-W205's navigation system, with all the functions of the portable transferred to the in-dash touch screen. With the Blackbird docked, the IVA-W205's screen shows a blown up image of the maps and menus from the portable device, giving the in-dash system a less well-rendered, grainier visual quality than the smaller-screen portable. Nevertheless, the IVA-W205 retains the Blackbird's colorful maps and intuitive programming interface.
Entering destinations is straightforward thanks to a clean, touch-screen interface with well-laid-out menus. In both portable (Blackbird) and in-dash (IVA-W205) modes, the navigation system displays an impressively quick refresh rate and routes are calculated with a similarly quick response time. One of our favorite destination-setting functions of the Blackbird/ IVA-W205 is its point-of-interest search feature, which enables drivers to search for a POI business name by entering a keyword. Unlike Web-connected local search, the Alpine system compares the keyword only against a directory of names in its memory--it is not possible to get to McDonald's for example by entering "hamburger"--but this system will have its uses, especially for those looking for a specific store without going through the whole POI menu structure to find their destination. Another nice feature of the navigation system's destination entry is that users are given an option to search for POIs in the vicinity of a specified destination.
When under route guidance, the display shows colorful, uncluttered maps, which can be configured in 2D or 3D bird's-eye views. When approaching turns, half of the map displays a bright green transparent overlay with a bright yellow arrow, showing distance to and direction of next turn--a feature that we particularly like, as it makes it easy to see where you are going at a glance. The system does not feature text-to-speech functionality for calling out names of individual roads, which is something of a disappointment for a modern navigation device.
However, we do like the one-touch button on the touch screen that enables drivers to call up turn-by-turn voice directions on demand. On a test run, we were less than impressed with the navigation system's ability to get us to a destination west of downtown San Francisco using the quickest route: Instead of skirting the city center, the turn-by-turn directions suggested a route via Market Street and Kearny Street and through Union Square--perhaps the most congested part of the city in the middle of a weekday.
The IVA-W205 and Blackbird B200 come with an optional subscription-based traffic service provided by Navteq. Unlike traffic services from satellite radio providers such as XM, the Navteq traffic service puts less emphasis on traffic flow conditions and focuses more on accidents and other factors likely to impede you en route. Traffic information can be called up for the current navigation route, or can be listed according to proximity to the car's current location or by incident name (accident, blockage, construction, danger, debris, sports event, traffic jam, weather).
We found the traffic information to be surprisingly detailed--an info button on the screen gives drivers a description of the incident and an estimation of the length of time that the incident is likely to remain. Those wanting to option up the traffic service with the Blackbird unit docked in the IVA-W205 will have to invest in an extra RDS receiver to pick up the relevant data stream, while those who just want to use the Blackbird unit separately are spared this expense thanks to a traffic receiver integrated into the portable's 12-volt cigarette-lighter adapter.
With the Blackbird PMD-B200 inserted and an external microphone connected, the Alpine IVA-W205 can also be used as a very useful Bluetooth hands-free calling interface. With a phone paired (and the "Bluetooth In" setting on "Nav"), the system can be used to place and receive calls. As part of the pairing process, the IVA-W205 copies over all phone book and recent call activity information from the cell phone--a feature that we particularly like. To initiate a call, users can either dial a number on the on-screen keypad or select a name from their phone book by either searching by first letter or scrolling through their contacts.
The Alpine IVA-W205 is an innovative device, giving drivers a range of car tech options. In its standalone configuration as an in-car media player, it provides a good selection of supported media formats, an intuitive interface, and some advanced audio and visual EQ tweaking options. When connected to the Blackbird PMD-B200, the system is upgraded to a usable navigation system, albeit with less-than-stellar map resolution and a couple of usability glitches. With a price tag of around $800 for the in-dash IVA-W205 and around $750 for the Blackbird, this tag-team portable and in-car navigation system will compete with the comparably priced Panasonic Strada CN-NVD905U and Pioneer AVIC Z1 and the cheaper Eclipse AVN 2210p.