Choose Your Car Radio Upgrade Wisely

There’s no denying that replacing the radio in an older or base-model vehicle can enhance the information, connectivity and entertainment options available to make your commute more interesting. Whether you add GPS navigation, Bluetooth audio streaming or want the features of HD Radio, a new multimedia receiver can modernize your vehicle in terms of technology.

When shopping for a new radio, some of us get hung up on cool and fun features like fancy album art displays, personalized backgrounds, smartphone integration and audio processing features. While these different technologies are fun, they aren’t necessarily the only factors to consider while shopping. How the radio works and how you’ll use it are crucial to safe driving.

Tesla Touchscreen – Is it Safe?

Car Radio
As cool as it may appear, using the touchscreen display of the Model 3 requires the driver to take their eyes off the road.

If you’ve ever been in or driven a Tesla Model 3, then you know it has a giant 15-inch touchscreen in the middle of the dash. This display looks cool and provides a clean look to the interior. However, if you want to check how fast you are driving, you have to look down and toward the center of the vehicle. This design has you taking your eyes off the road for at least a second. The car should have a conventional instrument cluster in front of the driver with an analog speedometer, a digital display out near the base of the windshield, or ideally, a heads-up display.

If you want to change the climate control settings to reduce the temperature in the vehicle or adjust the fan, once again, you have to take your eyes off the road and look at the screen to find the icon or bring up the climate control menu. Only after you’ve found the right area of the screen to push can you reach over and initiate the change. Even if you’re accustomed to the display, this will take a second or two.

Vehicles with knobs and switches are exponentially safer. You can find a temperature control dial and turn it down without taking your eyes off the road.

Choosing a New Car Audio

Car Radio
Radios like the Sony XAV-AX1000 that include a rotary volume control is intuitive to operate.

If you are shopping for a new multimedia receiver for your car, truck or SUV, then spend some time using the radio without looking at it. Can you change radio stations or skip to the next song without looking at the screen?

Let’s consider the most basic function of adjusting the volume. In a multimedia receiver, there are five options for volume controls. First is a rotary volume control that uses a digital encoder. This design is by far the most intuitive and it’s easy to use without looking at the radio.

Next, we have radios with physical buttons for volume adjustment. Assuming the buttons are well-located, these controls can also be operated safely. Most companies use a rocker-type switch for the volume up and down functions. Some radios mimic this control in a second location for tuner and track adjustments.

Car Radio
The Pioneer DMH-1500NEX uses a simple mechanical pushbutton design for volume adjustment.

Up next are radios with membrane switches. These may offer some small bumps or dimples that will help guide your fingers to the right location in order to make adjustments. We’ll call this technology borderline in terms of its safety.

Though rare these days, some radios have capacitive-touch panels that would respond without any physical movement. Once you touch the plastic panel, the change would happen. These controls were often paired with source and tracking adjustments. While they look cool in terms of cosmetics, the design isn’t safe to use without looking.

Finally, we have touchscreen controls. As almost every multimedia receiver has a touchscreen display, it’s easy for the manufacturer to dedicate an area of the screen to adjust the volume. You’ll need to look for the icon on the screen before you make an adjustment. This isn’t an ideal design.

Test Your Radio Before Buying

If you’re planning on purchasing a new radio, make sure you take the time to try it out on a display board or in a vehicle first. Being able to use the controls safely while keeping your eyes on the road is crucial. Drop by your local car stereo shop and check it out.