Friday, October 07, 2005

Alpine KCA-420i Interface Adapter for iPod is the buggiest piece of consumer electronics that I’ve seen in years.

Ok, so normally on my tech blog, I mention fixes and solutions to technical problems. Unfortunately no such fixes or solutions exist, so this amounts to a review of the Alpine iPod interface along with the CDA-9853 head unit. The review, unfortunately for me who has already invested in the product, is not favorable.

First the basics
Here is Alpine’s info on the iPod connection kit they sell
and here is information on the 9853 head unit to which I connected it.

And lastly my iPod is the 60GB Photo version. I don’t store many photos on it and have about 7.8GB free. Some of that music was purchased off of iTunes although most has been ripped off of my own personal CD collection. Yes, all of my wife’s music that I don’t like is on there too.

Now previously I was using my iPod with a cassette adapter in a cassette stereo. This worked as well as can be expected. It sounded much better than any FM transmitter I tried and it charged my iPod. It wasn’t integrated in any way, however, so that I had to have my iPod out and handy, and navigate using the iPod’s scroll wheel and screen which is not as easy while driving as operating an in dash stereo.

Enter Alpine
I purchased the Alpine 9853 CD player (in dash head unit) and the 420i iPod connection kit at the same time. They MSRP at $400 and $100 respectively. I was very exited to have integrated control of the iPod and to be able to keep the iPod out of site. I had the dock cable installed in my center console where my iPod would spend most of its time.

The KCA-420i does work about as well as the cassette adapter. It provides high quality sound (actually better than the cassette adapter) and it charges the iPod. However, it doesn’t do much more than the cassette adapter did.

Navigating Playlists, Artists, and Albums
Alpine claims the KCA-420i will allow you to control your iPod with the head unit. Well, sometimes. When connecting the iPod to the Alpine deck it always sees the iPod and will play songs from it but for some reason that I haven’t been able to identify about 50% of the time the Alpine deck will not display playlist information, allow you to search, or scan, or do anything other than skip to the next or previous song. It seems to default playing from the whole library in this case, instead of a play list. The navigate button (which looks like a document icon) is supposed to bring up all the items you could normally navigate on the iPod screen such as Artists, Albums, and Playlists. However, in this case it simply doesn’t function. It beeps, so you know it’s being pressed, but it does nothing. Power cycling the head unit doesn’t solve the problem either. I have found the only thing that works is disconnecting the iPod and reconnecting it. This has always solved the problem, and suddenly you will be able to navigate your songs and playlists as expected. Very frustrating but at least we found a work around.

Shuffle and Repeat Settings
Most people I know listen to their iPod music in shuffle mode (or random or as Alpine calls it MIX or M.I.X. mode, I’ll call it shuffle from here on out) so the songs are never played in the same order and I too personally always listen in shuffle mode. I also always have repeat turned off. When I’ve listened to an entire album or playlist, I want the iPod to stop playing, so I know it’s time to choose another album or playlist instead of thinking to myself later… “did I hear this song already?” Of course the Alpine controller understands these functions and has the same settings.

That would be great if it remembered your settings. I expected the head unit to use whatever settings the iPod was currently set for. So for example, after connecting my iPod I expected it to active shuffle (shows up as MIX on the Alpine display) and make sure repeat was off based on my iPod’s settings. It doesn’t. It starts out at the factory default of shuffle off and repeat All. Ok, so I have to manually go through the process of changing those on the deck. It requires a total of 5 presses of three different buttons to make those changes. A bit cumbersome, but you figure, you’ll only have to do it once, right? Wrong! You’ll have to do it, not only every time you disconnect your iPod but every time you turn off the car. That’s right. It remembers these settings for CD playback after you’ve turned off and parked your car, but even if you leave the iPod connected in the vehicle, after you turned off the ignition it goes back to the default settings. That’s an example of how CD playback works better than iPod playback.

Messes the iPod's Settings
While that’s annoying, I’ve saved the best part for last. Ok, so right now you are thinking, “Wow, Alpine didn’t debug their product very well, and has a lot of issues, but still, it seems like maybe it’s ok.” After you’ve used your iPod in the vehicle connected to the KCA-420i, when you remove it, you’ll find not only does the Alpine not remember the settings you gave it correctly, it modified the settings on your iPod to be repeat All and shuffle Off. Every time I disconnect my iPod I have to turn these settings back on. Even when I already turned them back on in the Alpine head unit. Amazing! So not only does the Alpine not handle its own settings correctly, it messes up your settings on your iPod. Seems to me a playback device should not write data to the iPod, it should only read data from it. Anyway, the cassette adapter never had THAT problem.

So in summary of my review…the KCA-420i promises a lot, and delivers very little. It’s obvious it was rushed to market with little debugging and will not operate as expected, or even as the Alpine instruction manual claims. If all you care about is getting the sound from your iPod into your Alpine stereo, it works, however, if you expect flawless song and playlist navigation or consistent playback settings, you will be disappointed. So in conclusion, it really doesn’t work as well as a cassette adapter.

I contacted Alpine. They are aware of all of the issues. The customer service person on the phone was very friendly and said he owned an iPod and had the KCA-420i product in his vehicle as well. He said Alpine engineers were aware of the issues. He also said they would post information on their web site when a firmware update was available. I asked him, “Oh, so a consumer can update the firmware on the KCA-420i? You supply them with a downloadable CD ISO image they can burn and load into their deck and it’ll update the firmware or something like that?” He replied, “No, it would be an Apple firmware release for the iPod to fix the issues.” At that point I asked him how an update to the iPod would improve how the Alpine product worked. He insisted all the logic of the KCA-420i was handled on the iPod. If that’s true why does it cost $100? Anyway, so it doesn’t sound like Alpine has a way or any plans to fix the issues I’ve listed. Seems like false advertising and misleading marketing to release a product that doesn’t perform as stated, and then not try to solve the issue.

I’ll post here if an update or solution to any of these problems are found.


K said...

Aric, I have a 9831 and the Ipod adapter. I just put them into a new vehicle and Im having nothing but sporadic problems. One thing that my be my issus, is that I installed the lastest ipod firmware(10/12/05). Im think that this may be my problem. THis afternoon, it was working great, then 3 hours later, the ipod screen says "ok to disconnect" with a large check mark. WTF? I wish that Apline's website would take support questions, such as mine. Keep in

Adrian said...

Aric, interesting comments.I am also struggling with the KCA-420i. I tend to leave my ipod plugged into the KCA-420i all the time. When I get back into the car, after 24hours or so, the KCA-420i in unable to wake the iPod up! You have to either press the center button on the iPod or disconnect / connect the cable. I spoke to Alpine customer support and they just blamed Apple .....

Giles said...

I too am driven mad by my KCA-420i. However, I've noticed various faults that seem to come and go. I have not kept a careful track of when they come and go but the latest is like adrian's.

I 'do' a lot of podcasts and I've noticed that the sleep (=pause) function doesn't always work properly. This sometimes results in stuff seeming to play while I'm away from the car and then iPod hangs when I get back in - needing a reset. If left in 'sleep' for long enough then the battery sometimes goes flat on the iPod - confirming I belive my theory on the pause not working.

There doesn't seem to be any pattern to the problem and stangely (but helpfully) it doesn't seem to mark the podcasts as played.

I don't remember this being a problem when I first owned the unit and I suspect the Alpine might have a point that Apple's firmware may be partially at fault.

However, let's be honest. GREAT idea, sensible price but poor implementation.

neslobisnor said...

ok i have spent about 6 hours over the past 4 days working on this problem with cda-9856 head unit. Thank you for lending some insight. To complicate matters on my end, my older ipod nano seems to be working pretty well with the head unit. My newer nano, my wife's birthday present, is having more problems. I have reload the latest update about 10 times. For some reason it is currently working. No doubt Alpine has done a sorry job documenting and developing their product. Their instructions say nothing of the repeat and shuffle functions. If I can not resolve this soon, I will be returning the head unit with considerable anger, and I will be sure to educate the people at Best Buy.

kevin said...

soo..i have the 9847 head unit and the 420i interface. the problem i am having is my ipod keeps freezing. it's not the ipod that has the problem. it works perfectly fine when not connected to the interface. however when connect to the interface i can listen/scan through about 12 or so songs before it just automatically pauses. the only solution for me to continue to listen to music is to remove the connection and perform a soft reset on my ipod. the ipod has the latest firmware and works properly otherwise. so somewhere along the line from my ipod to my head unit there is a little malfunction. suggestions?

msuwa said...

I had KCA420i interface for my Alpine CDA9831. The sound quality is good I should say the same as playing with CDs. My only problem is that UP and DOWN Folder buttons doesn't work. It only beeps and do nothing. I am disappointed now since I would have to look at my head unit everytime I try to switch album and playlists!

packy64 said...

i have just bought the latest ida-x300 and i can say that alpine hasn't fix faults from the past....there are still 'ghosts in the machine'!

Aric said...

I am really sad to hear that the newer Alpine units with built in USB integration and digital audio connection to the iPods appear to have similar issues.

Specifically the iDA-X300 and CDA-9884 as well as many others fail to turn off the iPod nano causing its battery to drain when you turn your car off. The only solution is to unplug the iPod every-time you get out of your car.

Also I've been told (haven't seen it myself) that the IDA-X001 has trouble with the iPhone and iPod Touch.

packy64 said...

i'm trying different options,one is to pause ipod play back on the ida-x300 before turning off the igmition key.....seems to work.....the other is to sellect a different source prior to turning unit off?

packy64 said...

have just read some where that alpine has an inline adapter for it's ipod cable that supposedly fixes the 'no pause clause' when connecting the new ipod classic 80gb...anyone known where to get one?

Warhol said...

I have a 9855, just bought the KCA-420i interface, and an iPod touch 16gb with latest software update 2.1, my problem it´s quite simple the Head unit, recognizes the ipod, reads folders, lists, etc, the ipod display reads "Accesory Connected", ohh, the head unit displays the time advance numbers of each track, but hey NO SOUND WHATSOEVER..... anybody knows how to solve this, or at least has the same prob.

Crunchywolf said...

I believe my head unit is a 9847. My biggest gripewith the KCA-420i so far is that when I am trying to do a shuffle of all the songs on my iPod (30GB iPod Video), it randomly hangs up and starts shuffling within a specific album or artist. Very annoying. Oh yeah, and since I have several hundred artists/albums on my iPod, I have found it's pretty much a lost cause to try to select an artist/album that doesn't start with A. Especially while driving. If I had paid for this unit I would be irate!