Toyota's Entune System: Up Close

By Kelsey Mays  on January 19, 2011

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Toyota’s new Entune multimedia system, set to debut in the Prius V this year, represents the automaker’s bid to offer a credible rival to in-car systems from Ford, Chrysler and Kia. Introduced two weeks ago at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Entune was on display at the Detroit auto show last week. Brian Inouye, Toyota’s national manager of technology and engineering, gave me a rundown.

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Like much of its competition, Entune doesn’t really do anything that a smartphone and Bluetooth streaming audio couldn’t accomplish just as well. It does, however, integrate various functions onto a fixed screen on the dashboard, giving you more real estate to work with than even the largest smartphones.
 
Entune is set to debut in the new Prius V this year. Buy a Toyota with this system, and you’ll need to download the Entune app to your smartphone and register your vehicle identification number. Inouye said Toyota will offer Entune through “all the family smartphones,” including Android, Apple, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7 operating systems.

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At launch, Entune will include five applications that show up on a submenu in the navigation display. Using your wireless signal and data plan, Entune will run the apps in much the same way a smartphone would. You can buy tickets or read reviews with MovieTickets, reserve a table at a nearby restaurant using OpenTable, or stream one of your favorite music stations through Pandora. In its first automotive integration, Clear Channel’s iheartradio app allows you to stream more than 750 AM and FM stations from across the country. That means a Giants fan could catch the game from Dallas. Satellite radio allows for some of this, but it charges a monthly fee; iheartradio is free.

Entune also will read incoming text messages to you, a must-have in our book for systems like these.
 
Entune also comes with Microsoft’s Bing search engine, but it’s tied to the car’s GPS location and searches geographically. It works like an advanced point-of-interest finder — not, say, a way to look up which year MTV’s “The Real World” debuted.

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“It’s not a full web browser,” said Inouye, adding that it’s more intelligent than the navigation system. “If I just inputted a hardware store, the navigation system wouldn’t find it in its POI.”
 
Like many nav systems, Entune disables a lot of functionality when the car is moving. The app even locks out certain functions on your smartphone until you stop. Toyota wants to encourage drivers to use Entune’s voice recognition features rather than revert to their mobile device, Inouye said. Some will find that a deal-breaking annoyance, but smartphone-pawing drivers are distracted drivers. Toyota’s in the right here.
 
I’m not convinced the automaker has a winner with voice recognition. Inouye went great lengths to differentiate the feature from its competition (read: Ford’s Sync). Entune takes a recording of whatever you said and ships it off to a remote server, which decodes it and decides what you wanted. That should make for a more agile system, as it allows Toyota to frequently update the vocabulary from the back end and create workarounds for the top misstated commands. Sync’s voice engine is based in the car, and it receives updates only when you choose to reflash the system. But Entune also requires a signal to ship the data to Toyota’s servers. Drop into a tunnel or parking garage, and you might be out of luck. (So would your smartphone, which would render the apps temporarily useless.) Inouye said Entune will keep trying to resend the command, but you’ll get a no-signal message until you emerge from the dead zone.

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In the demonstration, Entune wasn’t the quickest to respond, often taking a few moments to launch an app. Latency issues are tied to your smartphone — and, more importantly, your network, Inouye said. Upgrade to a 4G network, and Entune should dial things up pretty fast.
 
Toyota will decide what additional features to add down the road, but once they become available, you’ll add them via an app update on your smartphone, Inouye said. The holy grail of automotive integration is Facebook and Twitter, but both pose huge driver-distraction issues. Will Toyota find a way to bridge the gap?
 
“If we can figure out a way to do it safely, yes,” Inouye said.
 
At least for right now, Entune will require adding Toyota’s nav system — a pricey upgrade many buyers may not want. The Bing app requires a GPS signal, but most smartphones have one built-in. Asked if Toyota will make Entune available without navigation, Inouye wouldn’t give a definite answer. “We’re discussing that,” he said.
 
All told, Entune doesn’t do much that a smartphone in a car with Bluetooth streaming audio couldn’t accomplish. Nor does it offer much functionality beyond a few popular apps, so don’t expect to be able to read the latest David Brooks column from the dash of your Prius anytime soon. But by simple virtue of aesthetic in-car integration, Entune could provide a better user experience for its five apps than a mere smartphone would.

The key differentiator, I suspect, will be voice integration. For all their improvements, too many voice-recognition systems these days are still befuddled by simple commands. If Entune can bring quick access to Pandora stations, nearby restaurants and the like, we’ll be impressed. Until then, we can’t get too excited about a system that replicates what any smartphone user could do on his or her own. You could say the same thing about a lot of in-car multimedia systems these days — and we’d agree.
 
Oh, and by the way, “The Real World” debuted in 1992.

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Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price.  Email Kelsey