When we got our first look at the Pioneer AVIC-Z1 head unit at CES 2006, we were impressed. The double-DIN in-dash system incorporates a 7-inch touch screen and brings in all the functions you would expect to see in a top-of-the-line factory-installed head unit: Bluetooth cell phone integration, voice-activated GPS navigation, and a range of audiovisual media playback options.
And the AVIC Z-1 goes one better by incorporating a built-in 30GB hard drive enabling users to rip CDs to disc to create a mobile media library. There are those who will question the value of such a function, considering the fact that most people who are interested in creating music libraries will probably already have one on their computers and/or on their iPods. The AVIC Z-1 addresses the latter by offering a dedicated iPod interface, which enables those in the car to devolve control of their iPods to the touch screen while driving. (As usual, we expect there will be howls of disapproval from owners of portable digital music players other than the iPod, but at the moment it looks like Apple is the only one making the vendor deals.)
For our test-bench review of the AVIC Z-1, we got a number of the available add-ons, including the Bluetooth and iPod adapters. Wiring up the main head unit is pretty straightforward, and we managed connect it to four main speakers and its additional media modules without the need for any special equipment. In addition to the four standard speakers, the unit has separate RCA connectors for two more pairs of speakers and a subwoofer, all of which require separate amplifiers. There are also RCA connections for a rear video display, external video components, and a rearview camera, which is sold separately.
As a multimedia receiver, the AVIC Z-1 supports a broad range of formats: as well as being an FM/AM receiver, the head unit supports standard RedBook CDs; MP3- and WMA-encoded files; the aforementioned iPod input; and DVD video and -ROM, with video playback via the 7-inch display in one of three screen configurations. There is also an optional satellite radio connector and a dedicated XM NavTraffic module to provide real-time traffic data in conjunction with the navigation system.
Making a mobile library is worth the wait
The first thing you notice when you fire up the AVIC Z-1 is the amount of time the Pioneer-branded start-up screen stays on--we counted at least 30 seconds before we were given a menu, putting it down to initial calibration, but we found that this wait is compulsory every time it is turned on. This start-up delay did give us time to configure the screen angle to our satisfaction--a process that requires you to hold down the eject button to bring up the screen enabling forward and backward tilt.
Use of the AVIC Z-1 as a car stereo is straightforward: hard buttons on the base of the double-DIN bezel let you skip through radio frequencies and CD tracks and control volume, with all other functions carried out using the touch screen. Discs are loaded into the unit by pressing a hard Eject button on the bezel, which causes the screen to retract, revealing a single CD slot. After loading a standard CD, the screen reverts back to its original position automatically, while the head unit digests all the information it can from the disc. An icon appears on the screen informing you that the AVIC Z-1 is equipped with Gracenote, an embedded software and metadata service, which enables devices to identify and catalog audio files for the purposes of building digital media libraries. The default on the AVIC Z-1 is for Autorecord mode, which sets the unit to automatically start ripping audio files from store-bought CDs as soon as they are inserted for playback. As with Apple's iTunes, the music files are then simultaneously played and recorded to disc.
Each track takes about one minute to record to the hard drive, then it can be played back at any time. One small frustration we found with the unit set to Autorecord was the delay that precedes playback of the disc as the reader prepares itself. In addition to Auto mode, the record function can be set to Single and Manual modes, which respectively record the first track of a disc and allow users to choose recording on a track-by-track basis. Using the touch screen to control audio--either directly playing from discs or an iPod, or from the library--is relatively straightforward, with dedicated buttons for random playback, repeat, and search. For homemade digital audio discs (such as MP3s and WMAs), a search button enables navigation of music by folder, track, and artist.
Voice recognition avoids putting the brake on
While its music capabilities are plentiful, Pioneer markets the AVIC Z-1 primarily as an in-dash navigation system. Destinations can be entered via the touch-screen keypad or by voice command using the included microphone, which is activated by a voice icon on the screen. Destinations can be entered by address, by phone number, by manually selecting a point on the map, or by searching a database of more than 11 million points of interest. We found the voice-recognition capabilities to be flawless, despite a few initial misgivings about the basic appearance of the mic. Unlike some factory-installed units that we've reviewed, the AVIC Z-1 does not require users to push the voice-command button for each stage of the destination-entry process, opting for a more user-friendly succession of beeps. The system does, however, make users push an onscreen button for final confirmation of a destination. Another quirk of the navigation system is that the parking brake has to be engaged for many of the features to be operable. While this is admirable in its safety-consciousness, it means that users of the system will be unable to reprogram a route while stopped in traffic unless they crank on the parking brake to activate the screen--a practice that will soon become frustrating. Some functions, including Address Book, are enabled without parking-brake engagement, presumably because searching a database is deemed less distracting than inputting new information: a case of differing shades of gray in our opinion.
When on the road, the AVIC-Z1 has text-to-speech voice guidance, letting it tell you the names of roads you need to look for. Trip routing is also adaptive so that if you consistently choose a different route than that suggested, the nav system will set your preferred route as the default. Maps are clear and bright and can be configured in a variety of views. One feature of the AVIC Z-1 that we especially like is the option of integrated live traffic data from XM Satellite Radio. This function, which requires the addition of the GEX P10XMT module, as well as an active subscription to XM's NavTraffic service, works by acquiring traffic information up to 100 miles in diameter from the vehicle's current location. As well as giving information on the location and nature of potential traffic disruptions, NavTraffic provides a clear indication of affected areas by color-coding roads according to the severity of congestion: red denoting an average speed of 5 to 15mph, yellow denoting 20 to 40mph, and green showing roads with an average speed of 45mph and over. A list of icons also serves to inform drivers of the nature of a traffic disruption.
The final major function of the AVIC Z-1 is its voice-activated Bluetooth hands-free calling function. Pairing our phone to the system was not as easy as we have found with some factory-installed systems, due to an extra step of phone registration. Users are given the option of pairing a phone using their handset or the head unit itself. We found it easier to let our BlackBerry 8700g search for the head unit, which it discovered quickly. When paired, calls can be made in variety of ways: by using the same effective voice-recognition system as with the navigation (say, "Call, number," then punch in the digits), by using a numeric keypad on the touch screen (although, as with the navigation, the parking brake must be on for this to work), by dialing favorites (no parking brake required), or by selecting point-of-interest icons on the map that have registered a phone number. Incoming calls to the phone can also be answered using the AVIC Z-1: a single ring and a cartoon graphic on the screen notify users of inbound calls, which can be answered by pressing a green phone button. Sound quality through the front speakers was good, if a little tinny, and we were assured that we were coming through clearly on the other end of the line.
The AVIC Z-1 has come down significantly in price since its release in May. Including $200 for both the ND-BT1 Bluetooth adapter and the CD-IB100 iPod adapter, and another $200 for Pioneer's GEX-P10XMT for XM NavTraffic, the unit with all its main features can now be had for less than $2,500. At that price point, the AVIC Z-1 looks very competitive when set against factory-installed options with a similar number of features.