Pioneer may have been the first to the market with Apple CarPlay compatibility, but it did so by adding the feature to its existing NEX series of multimedia and navigation receivers. Alpine's first Apple CarPlay receiver takes a different approach. Rather than adding to an existing model, the manufacturer started from scratch with the all-new iLX-007.
Built from the ground up with CarPlay at its center, the iLX-007 lacks many older, legacy audio sources (such as a CD player), but also features a more focused interface for the driver that only cares about Apple CarPlay. However, this "less is more" approach also makes justifying its high price a bit trickier.
The unit is built around and behind a 7-inch capacitive touchscreen that displays an 800x480-pixel resolution. This essentially standard-definition resolution may sound low to users accustomed to Retina displays, but the imagery has a good level of sharpness when viewed from the driver's seat. Below the screen are a pair of central physical buttons for Home and Siri that are flanked by capacitive buttons for volume and skip. All of the buttons are illuminated in a noncustomizable white. The Home button doubles as a power button when held for five seconds.
The iLX-007 is what we call a "mech-less" receiver, which means that it has no moving or motorized parts. Alpine takes advantage of the lack of a motorized face or internal CD transport to give the iLX-007 a much shallower chassis (and a much shallower mounting depth) than the average DIN receiver.
Around back, an installer will find a port to receive the iLX-007's mostly standard wire harness with the regular connections for power, ground and speaker, as well as leads for a power antenna, a reverse-gear sensor (for rear camera), a remote amp turn-on connection and a parking-brake sensor. The built-in speaker connections are amplified at 18W x 4 channels RMS. System builders who'd prefer external amplification can hook into the iLX-007's three pairs of 2V stereo preamp outputs; one of those pairs is a dedicated subwoofer output.
There are also other rear-panel connections, but not many. There's a microphone input (mic included), a connection for remote steering-wheel controls (which are not included) and a standard car-stereo terrestrial radio antenna input. Finally there's a single video input for adding an optional rear camera.
The iLX doesn't feature any pre-amp audio inputs, not video inputs (aside from the camera feed), and is not upgradable for satellite radio. Its terrestrial radio receiver does not support HD radio. And the iLX-007 does not have its own dedicated GPS receiver like Pioneer's AVIC units do, which means that navigation relies on the connected phone's A-GPS receiver.
Works (only) with Apple CarPlay
The iLX-007 doesn't do much on its own. The receiver features an AM/FM tuner and can accept an auxiliary audio or video feed if you've got the right adapters. It doesn't have a Bluetooth connection for audio streaming or hands-free calling. Drivers can't even connect a USB drive full of MP3s; the iLX-007's software simply can't read or play the files. However, the receiver comes to life when connected to an iPhone.
Plug an iPhone 5 or better running iOS 8.1 or better into the iLX-007's USB port and the Apple CarPlay icon on the receiver's home screen lights up. Tap that icon to give phone full control of the iLX-007's interface.
CarPlay presents the driver with a simplified, car-friendly version of Apple's iOS. Via the CarPlay interface, drivers can make hands-free calls, receive text messages as spoken audio and reply with voice recognition, listen to music and podcasts playable by the iPhone's iTunes software, and navigate with Apple Maps.
Recently, a handful of car-friendly, low-distraction apps have joined the ranks of the CarPlay-compatible including Beats Music, CBS Radio News, iHeart Radio, MLB at Bat, Overcast, Rdio, Spotify, Stitcher and Umano. You may have noticed a theme that these are all audio streaming apps that you listen to, rather than watch. (Full disclosure: CNET and CBS Radio News are owned by the same parent corporation.)
With the touch of the Siri button (or the steering-wheel voice button if connected to the iLX-007 with an optional adapter), the driver can gain access to Apple's voice-command software to access almost any function of the CarPlay system with commands like "Navigate to the nearest Jamba Juice," "Text Wayne, I'm running late because of traffic," or "Listen to the Queens of the Stone Age."
Because all of CarPlay's heavy lifting, navigating, texting, streaming and talking is handled by our connected iPhone 5C testing device, the performance of the iLX-007 was pretty much identical to that of the Pioneer AVIC-8000NEX that I tested last year.
The Pioneer systems feature a dedicated GPS receiver that is mounted away from the dashboard where it can get a clear view of the sky. When connected via CarPlay, the iPhone is able to take advantage of this more powerful GPS receiver for more accurate positioning. The Alpine iLX-007 lacks this feature, so it is truly 100 percent reliant on the iPhone's internal A-GPS antenna, which may not have the best skyview from its position in a cupholder or dashboard cubby. During my testing mostly away from the tall buildings of downtown San Francisco, I noticed no major inaccuracy, but depending on the host car and the iPhone's position within, your mileage may vary
Price and competition
The Alpine iLX-007's primary competition at time of review are Pioneer's AVH-4000NEX CarPlay compatible receiver and new AVH-4100NEX, which boasts CarPlay and Android Auto. Both of Pioneer's receivers also boast a full loadout of digital and analog audio sources and inputs, as well as physical CD/DVD players. The iLX isn't exactly a one-trick pony, but as a purely Apple CarPlay driven experience, it has a more niche appeal.
The Alpine's dedication to CarPlay means that if you forget or lose your iPhone (or convert to Android or Windows down the line), you're stuck with just terrestrial radio. At an MSRP of $800, choosing the Alpine iLX-007 sort of seems like paying more for less functionality than you get with the $700 Pioneer. (Both units can be found discounted at retailers for as much as $200 off.)
On the other hand, for dedicated Apple purists, the iLX-007 presents a much cleaner interface with virtually no learning curve and no barriers between the driver and the CarPlay goodness that they seek. My experience seems to dictate that these Apple hardcore are generally OK with paying a bit more (and sacrificing features they view as superfluous) for a smoother, higher-quality experience.