Pioneer's goal with the AVIC-U310BT, the entry-level model in its AVIC in-dash navigation line, was to meet the three major needs: GPS navigation, digital audio playback, and Bluetooth hands-free calling.
The AVIC-U310BT is a double-DIN unit, which takes up twice the vertical space of a standard DIN-size car stereo, so make sure that your vehicle has room to support it before going out and purchasing it.
At the top of the mostly fixed faceplate is a single CD slot. Below and to the left are the physical controls. The primary physical input is a control knob, which can be twisted to adjust the volume or scroll through lists, nudged directionally like a joystick, or pushed like a button to make selections. The knob doesn't feature much tactile differentiation between a directional press and a center press, causing more than a few accidental fumbles when attempting to navigate the U310BT's menus.
Above and below the control knob are buttons for Mode, which toggles between navigation and audio playback modes, and List, which puts the U310BT into browsing mode for exploring digital media sources, iPod taxonomy, and radio presets. Finally at the bottom of the unit's faceplate are buttons for Source selection that double as a power button, and an AM/FM Band selection that doubles as a Back button when browsing audio menus and digital media lists.
Occupying the majority of the faceplate is the removable touch-screen display. The full-color screen measures 4.3-inches diagonally, about the same size as the screen on the Garmin Nuvi 205W or the TomTom XL 340 S. The screen is quite responsive to touch inputs.
The detachable screen has a rechargeable battery of its own, so it can be used independently of the rest of the U310BT to input destinations, plan trips, and store favorites. However, the detached screen lacks a GPS antenna of its own, so it cannot be used as a portable navigation device. Along the top edge of the faceplate is a power switch and an SD card slot that can be used to load data for use with the navigation function, but not media. Along its bottom edge is a Mini-USB port for connection to a PC.
Behind the scenes, the Pioneer features inputs for your car's AM/FM antenna, a 1/8-inch analog auxiliary input, an input for wired remote adapters, and Pioneer's proprietary connection for add-on modules. There are also inputs for the included GPS antenna, external microphone, and USB connection. Although the AVIC-U310BT supports iPod playback, it does not come with a 30-pin dock connector, so BYO-Sync cable.
Although the AVIC-U310BT is a big double-DIN unit, it doesn't support video playback from DVD, digital, or analog sources.
The unit features no preamp inputs and only two sets of preamp outputs--front and switchable rear/subwoofer output--so users will have to choose between a dedicated subwoofer output or in-dash fader control of external amplifiers. This isn't much of a big deal for the average user who will probably drive their speakers with the U310BT's internal amp, but it could be an issue for system builders.
The unit ships with a standard USB cable for connecting digital audio players and storage devices, a Mini-USB cable for loading data from a computer, an external GPS antenna with magnetic mount, an external microphone for Bluetooth hands-free calling, a standard wiring harness, and a CD with instruction and the AVIC Feeds software.
Starting with navigation, the U310BT uses solid-state storage to hold its navigation data, so searches and map rendering are quick. The unit features text-to-speech, which reads proper street names aloud for easier navigation, and highway lane guidance, which displays an indicator of what lanes are valid for the current route when approaching highway intersections. Traffic is not available with the U310BT.
The unit ships with a dismally small set of points of interest. There isn't even a category for restaurants; one of the most often used POI categories. Instead, Pioneer expects users to connect their U310BT's faceplate to their PCs and load custom POIs using the AVIC Feeds software that ships with the unit and is available for free download. People who want more preloaded destinations can opt for an additional POI pack SD card, but that adds an estimated $100 to the U310BT's bottom line.
Moving on to hands-free calling, the Pioneer connects to your phone with Bluetooth wireless. Pairing can be initiated on the unit or on the phone using a four-digit PIN code. Once paired, the AVIC-U310BT can automatically pull your contacts into its memory. We were able to quickly pull our entire 100 contact phonebook onto the Pioneer in seconds. The receiver does not support stereo Bluetooth audio streaming.
Audio sources include AM/FM radio, a single slot CD player with MP3/WMA playback, a rear-mounted 1/8-inch analog auxiliary input, and a USB port that supports storage devices, and digital audio players such as the iPod.
When connected to an iPod, the U310BT lets the user quickly browse by artist, genre, album, song, playlist, and so on with the control dial. The U310BT supports audio book playback with variable speed control. A special "passenger control" mode lets the user select songs using the iPod/iPhone's onscreen controls while still retaining the full digital audio connection and onscreen metadata. This is a useful feature for when a friend jumps in the car and wants to hear a song on their iPod without having to figure out the U310BT's interface or for passengers who want to multitask on their iPhone without interrupting the music.
Starting--again--with navigation, the Pioneer's start-up time was extremely quick, about 45 seconds for a cold start and instantaneously for subsequent reboots, no doubt thanks to the solid-state storage's quick read times and the detachable faceplate's battery allowing it to always be in a standby state with the navigation data ready to go.
We were thoroughly annoyed by the U310BT's deficit of preloaded POIs, but were pleased with how easily we were able to add our own POIs using the AVIC-Feeds software and Google Maps.
Bluetooth hands-free calling is nearly flawless in execution, with super simple pairing and idiot-proof automatic syncing of contacts. We were able to quickly search through our 100 plus contacts using the AVIC-U310BT's alphabet search. The system is powered by Parrot hardware, including a noise-canceling microphone that, when mounted near the driver's head, delivers crystal clear call quality. During our test calls at highway speeds, we received no complaints about echoes or road noise.
We only have two minor complaints about the way the U310BT handles calls. First, the hands-free calling volume is adjusted separately from the audio playback volume using a touch-screen button instead of the more intuitive spinning volume knob. Secondly, entering a call doesn't pause audio playback, it merely mutes it. So, if you're listening to a podcast and a call comes in, you will miss all of the content that happens for the duration of the call and have to rewind.
Audio playback from the Pioneer's 14 watt x 4 channel amplifier (50W x 4 max) can be adjusted with a three-band EQ with three levels of loudness control, and a bass booster function. High pass filters for the internal amplifier and low pass filter for the subwoofer output can both be adjusted from the unit's interface. Each audio source can be assigned a Source Level Adjustment value for consistent volume control between audio sources.
After connecting an iPod or digital media source, users must wait for the U310BT to read the device, which can take a few moments. After the initial load, navigation of digital media libraries is relatively quick, with only minor pauses here and there.
One minor annoyance that we ran into during our testing is that there is no centralized place to adjust the U310BT's settings. The navigation menu has its own touch-screen-based settings menu, as does the phone system. The audio controls are also on a separate screen and are accessed and navigated wholly with the control knob. Finally, more esoteric settings can only be accessed by removing the faceplate, connecting it to a PC, and adjusting the settings using the AVIC-Feeds software. Even then some settings never took. For example, by default the unit's key illumination color is set to cycle through a spectrum of colors, but we were unable to get the unit to stop cycling, even though the AVIC-Feeds software has an RGB setting for a solid illumination color.
Overall, the AVIC-U310BT is a very easy way for most entry-level users to add all of the cabin tech they need with one box. At an MSRP of $699, it is also one of the cheapest ways to do so.
The Pioneer earns extra design points for its detachable, powered faceplate that let us input our destinations from the comfort of our home, rather than in an idling car. We also liked the Pioneer's all-in-one approach, but had to dock a few design points for the interface's lack of integration. For example, the multiple menus were particularly frustrating.
The U310BT feature set is also quite good, including navigation with text-to-speech, hands-free calling, and digital audio playback. The unit earns bonus points for iPod integration and the neat iPod passenger control feature. However, the navigation system's dismal POI catalog in many ways limits the unit's usefulness for impromptu trips.
Although its feature list is long, the AVIC-U310BT is still an entry-level unit that makes a few sacrifices to advanced features in the name of providing a good basic tech experience at a great price.