Our experiences with Alpine's "mechless" car audio receivers have been mostly positive. So, when we received the iXA-W404, which ups the ante with the inclusion of a larger display and touch sensitivity, we naturally assumed that bigger would be better.
True, the W404's larger screen facilitates the playback of video from capable iPods, but the touch screen interface is unintuitive at times, relying on an iTunes CoverFlow-like paradigm to navigate its menus.
The additional eye candy of the interface seems to have adversely affected the Alpine's responsiveness when compared with its simpler siblings.
However, we do like the W404's snappy high-speed USB/iPod connection that allowed us to quickly scrub through large digital-audio collections.
Like the iDA-X305 that came before it, the iXA-W404 features Alpine's double-action encoder, a knob with a centrally located select button that activates various quick-search modes when the outer ring is depressed and twisted. Just to the left of the encoder is a back button. Also like its smaller sibling, the iXA-W404's encoder is made of high-quality metal and feels great in the hand. However, that is where the similarities end.
Unlike the previous models, which featured a centrally located double-action encoder, the W404 moves its knob to the left side of the faceplate, where it is more easily reached by the driver. The unit's form factor has been increased to double DIN to make room for the larger 4.3-inch color touch screen. The screen's 400x234 pixel resolution is lower than your average portable navigation device of comparable size, which doesn't do any favors for the video quality.
Along the unit's lower edge are physical buttons to access the navigation, rearview camera, hands-free calling, and Imprint audio-processing functions (all of which require add-on modules). Below the screen, a source-select button and left- and right-mode-select arrow keys find their homes.
The iXA-W404's interface can be best described as a series of panels, laid out in a virtual grid. Each column of this grid represents a function, with individual rows representing subfeatures. Panels are selected by swiping one's finger across the touch screen, much like in the iPhone's CoverFlow mode. So, for example, to select FM radio as our source, we would first swipe horizontally until we came across the AV panel, then swipe vertically through the list of available sources until we came to FM radio.
Adding external modules, such a navigation module or Bluetooth module, adds more panels to the mix. However, the only panels available out of the box are the AV panel and an info panel that displays the current date and time, the current song playing, and--oddly--a calculator.
Moving from panel to panel requires a good deal of visual attention and isn't something that can be readily done without looking. Fortunately, Alpine has seen fit to include physical buttons for most functions. In fact, after a few days, we found ourselves using physical controls almost exclusively, which caused us to question the point of the added cost and complexity of the touch-screen interface.
As a "mechless" receiver, the iXA-W404 lacks an optical media drive and, as a result, relies on digital audio sources to connect to its USB pigtail or Ai-NET proprietary BUS.
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.