Infotainment Goes Epic
Months ago we were in Seattle visiting friends and went for a ride in their new Tesla. One of the car's signature technologies is a console display larger than two oversized iPads. That evening, after they dropped us off at our Navion, my eyes kept looking at our front dash and then I came up with an idea.
I took my iPad, turned the screen on, carefully balanced it on the dash where our current infotainment systems was, took a picture of it with my iPhone and texted it off the the president of Xite Solutions of North America with a simple message, "I'd like to have something like this."
In a matter of moments a text replied, "I think we can do that. Stay tuned." A few months later my Navion's dash was in pieces as a prototype display (electronics temporarily tucked under the passenger floor mat) was installed. Now, after seven months of testing and 10,000 miles driven, the new Xite MB9 is now being installed as an option in all of Winnebago's Sprinter-based products (Era, View, Navion) and if you're getting a 2017 model, you're going to want one.
Currently this product can only be found in Winnebago products as the company has worked closely with XSNA to develop this next-generation system. But, before we jump into the deep end of the pool with an in-depth review I think it would be useful to explain that I've been using mobile GPS products for 16 years starting with a teeny black and white Garmin GPS III. I've used external and in-dash systems from Garmin, Tom Tom, Rand McNally and Magellan. I've installed all-in-one infotainment systems from Pioneer, Kenwood and Alpine. I think I earned my graduate degree figuring out the interface box to make steering wheel controls work with a Kenwood I put into our former Honda Fit.
I've also had premium infotainment systems in cars I've owned including units by Mark Levinson and Bose. Currently our tow car is a 2016 Ford Focus and we have the upgraded Sync 3 GPS/infotainment system in it. Ford finally got it right with Sync 3 and I think it's truly one of the best systems out there. Winnebago will be using Sync 3 in their two Ford Transit products the Fuse and Paseo and it's a winner.
And while the Xite MB9 may not currently have some of the features of the Sync 3, it has many, many other RV features that makes it a must have in the coach.
An Epic 9" Screen
This is the one single thing that simply changes the whole operating experience of the Xite. Both the driver and passenger can see it from either angle. All that screen real estate also means that text is bigger and more readable. There's an industry term called projected capacitance. It's the highest quality touch technology (like an iPad) and the Xite display uses pro-cap, so when you tap on the screen it is highly responsive.
The screen is also exceptionally bright (400% over competitive products) with very high contrast (20% more). And that gets to the number one complaint with almost all automotive displays - not being able to see the screen when it's in direct sunlight. The first thing that pinged my heartstrings is that, even in bright sunlight, the screen is readable -- and that was with the sun directly on it. In real world driving that doesn't happen much, but the incredible brightness of the screen still makes a big difference just going down the highway on a bright day. And that "Dim" button on the screen isn't just for show - you'll appreciate the automatic dimming feature when driving at night - which can also be manually controlled if you want to keep the display brighter.
The big 9" screen also yielded another completely unexpected benefit: larger virtual keys. Whether you are the driver or co-pilot, if you've ever tried to peck out an address to program a GPS with a tiny on-screen keyboard, especially while you're jiggling down the road, you'll know what I'm talking about. With bigger virtual keys it's sooo much easier to accurately tap in a street address. Fat fingering be gone!
With the larger screen you also see a wider view of the GPS map and that's a very nice feature that gives you a better sense of what's around you and where you're heading.
The Xite MB9 receives AM/FM and Sirius XM signals. It does not receive hi-def FM or digital AM. While I enjoy the digital broadcast quality in our cars in the city, the reality is that these are features that are best enjoyed by commuters in urban areas. For traveling we pretty much stick to Sirius XM.
For higher fidelity you can use Xite's bluetooth or hardwired USB input to play from your phone or portable player like an iPod. Often overlooked is the 8GB of internal memory where you can load in many hi-res audio files to enjoy music without external devices (more on fidelity later in this story.)
The technical specs on the Xite radio are much higher than aftermarket units you see in the $500 to $1,000 range. However, if not paired with good speakers, it really doesn't matter. When Winnebago was considering the addition of a high performance audio option I was lucky enough to be the guinea pig. My side door speakers were replaced by much higher performance tweeters and a big sub-woofer was installed in our dinette bench (production models have an even better placement right behind the front seats). Additionally a high powered in-line amplifier was added to drive the speakers. An engineer from Harman International (JBL) then spent an afternoon with audio analysis equipment "tuning" the sound spectrum for maximum clarity and dynamic range.
This was a huge improvement, but in all honesty it does fall short of systems I've had in past Lexus and Infinitis. The big difference is the higher ambient level cab noise in a Sprinter. Though not loud, it's van design heritage still shows up with wind noise at higher speeds. Cars simply are better sound insulated and more aerodynamically quiet. When stopped, or at low speeds, the premium sound system is a joy to listen to. At higher speeds there are two significant benefits. The first is that speech (like NPR) is much easier to hear and, with just a little more cranking of volume, you can actually hear the melody of soft jazz tracks instead of simply the "splish, splish" of percussion.
On our last road trip we were dead heading home through Wyoming and I plugged my iPod in and cranked up the music louder than normal. Even at freeway speeds I was surprised at how vibrant the sound was, though my co-pilot made it clear that "being in concert" in the front row of the auditorium was not going to be a standard down-the-road behavior.
With this new design there is one omission: no CD/DVD player. To free up the maximum screen real estate all the electronics have been mounted lower in the dash. Owners of existing Views and Navions will notice that the electronics now take the place of the battery boost and house power buttons which have been relocated. If you're still shoving CD's in to to play music, maybe you should be rethinking your audio life. We live in an MP3 world and it's time to retire the discs!
Not all GPS is created equally and when it comes to RV specific GPS your two choices are Garmin and Rand McNally. I know I'm wading into a near theological discussion here (I like both - he said with his most politically correct font), but after thousands of miles using both Garmin and Rand McNally my take is: Garmin is initially easier to use, but once I came up the Rand McNally learning curve I find it a much better navigating companion.
The Rand software does a lot of very cool things, but that also means it's more complicated to use. Look, nothing is about as simple as asking Siri "How do I get to the closest supermarket?" Where Siri will not help you out is if you're in a marginal cell service area wanting to know where all the commercial RV parks are within 25 miles. Rand McNally, unlike Garmin, has multiple databases built in to help in searches like that. It can also do some pretty fancy tricks like tying into your smartphone or hotspot to perform over-the-cell-system data queries to bring in additional information like the price of gas at a station twenty miles up the road. For an extra fee the Rand software can also provide realtime highway traffic congestion monitoring. I could go on. . .and on. . . about many other very helpful features of the software, but that's a topic for another day.
RV Specific Features
There is one huge difference between Xite and it's competitors. Xite is a true OEM (original equipment manufacturer) product designed specifically for RVs. Unlike generic aftermarket infotainment systems that have stereo and GPS the Xite MB9 has some very unique RV features. It starts with being currently the only approved unit that directly interfaces into Mercedes vehicle control network. This means rock solid integration into steering wheel controls for volume and bluetooth connection to your cell phone, direct temperature feed from the Sprinter thermostat, and flexibility for future feature enhancements. Tied to the thermostat, the Xite provides audible temperature warnings when conditions are near freezing and you need to be wary of ice.
The beautiful display also shines when it's being fed a high-definition signal from the rear camera where the driver can see a lot more detail. The hi-def image makes a big difference in your confidence in backing up. It will help you judge what's behind you with far greater accuracy. If your vehicle is equipped with MobileEye for collision warning and lane departure, the MobileEye warnings will appear and you hear the sound warnings directly through the unit. Xite takes this one step further by enhancing audio warnings based on severity. This can replace the external MobileEye display and help reduce dash clutter.
And of course, as I touched on it earlier, the Rand McNally RV-based GPS software provides very helpful RV specific data that's excellent in helping monitor trip progress, environmental conditions (ex. sunrise/sunset, altitude), campgrounds, and upcoming exit services. All of this is done with an impressive mixture of on-board data and real-time wi-fi additions like live weather overlays.
In 2015 I gave a seminar at the Grand National Rally on how to get the most of the Xite system. The room was packed. I had my outline, PowerPoint and live demo all set to go. Before I even started a hand went up, then another, and then several more. My presentation plan went out the window and I just started fielding questions that, with a few exceptions, were all about frustrations using the Xite.
Later that evening I wrote down all the "tough" issues that came up and I saw a definite pattern. I've seen similar comments on the Yahoo View/Navion forum too. The substantial majority of "problems" people have can be easily solved by one thing most owners are loath to do: read the manual.
Hardware-wise the Xite unit's circuit fidelity is excellent, but that didn't stop one forum poster from claiming that the sound quality of the Sirius/XM was terrible. He "proved" his theory by playing the satellite channel and then plugging in his iPhone to stream the same Sirius/XM programming via his home wifi network. The "fault" had nothing to do with Xite. You see, many people don't realize that the Sirius/XM satellite signal is highly compressed which dramatically cuts it's fidelity. The same programming streamed via the Internet is not compressed and therefore sounds much, much richer. In computer lingo it's referred to as "garbage in -- garbage out."
Another person complained about a huge lag between where their rig was and what the GPS was displaying. This was a known Rand McNally software bug that could be fixed by using Rand's free software updating system (called The Dock) where you remove the SD card in the Xite and plug it into your computer (some may require an inexpensive USB to SD card adapter) and download the latest software.
During college I worked part-time in a mountaineering store. When customers would come in and buy a tent I would recommend to them that right before they went on their next camping trip that they set the tent up on a sunny day in the back yard. That way if they got to camp late and were setting up in the dark and the wind they'd know what to expect under adverse conditions.
While all the radio, satellite, iPod and accessory functions on the Xite are easy to quickly figure out, the Rand McNally software absolutely requires some learning. A little time spent with the documentation opened up and sitting quietly in your driveway, parking lot or campsite would be time well spent in learning how to set a route and search for points of interest. And, like learning any software or skill, you need to work at it consistently to be proficient.
It's a keeper
Right next to the Xite I have a Wilson cell booster cradle for my iPhone. Before we dropped the big screen in, I'd sometimes just use Siri to get directions. I'd squint at the display and cock my head to hear her tiny voice give directional commands. Now, after thousands of miles of having my giant Xite screen next to me (and audio cues through the better sound system) I don't want to use any other method for navigation.
Bigger isn't always better, but in the case of the Xite MB9 bigger is better than better. As I said earlier, it's awesome.