Following the recent success in using a Zune for the kids to watch movies in the family vehicle, I decided it was time to update the music system in my car. I was a very happy customer of a Kenwood Keg which had been professionally installed in my Boxster years ago, but frustrations with that system, combined with my new-found Zune-love led me to an upgrade path.
Out With The Keg
The Kenwood Keg was a great hard-drive based system in its time (I think I got mine in 2003) and I got the 20GB system along with a new Kenwood head unit to drive it, speakers and a sub woofer. The original Boxster head unit (a CDR210) had no provision for aux-in (did anything in 1997?) though could connect to an over-priced CD changer (which I did not have). This, combined with the trashing of the factory speakers (due to excess volume I guess) led me to replace everything. The Keg software was primitive but did work, and was required to get MP3s onto the hard-disc. It served me well for several years, but since upgrading to Vista 64-bit the software was unavailable to me. It looks like it is possible to get it to work on Vista so long as you have a USB 2.0 cradle for the hard-drive (as it requires no drivers), but I was stuck with a driver-less USB 1.0 cradle. The newer cradles go on eBay for around a hundred bucks, which I did consider for a while, before my affair with Zune started.
Before I could go further I needed to get an aux-input on my Kenwood head unit. This turned out to be a $5 cable that plugged into the same connector the Keg used, the CD changer input. I also needed the magic tool that pulls Kenwood radios out of dashboards, and Frys Electronics in Renton just gave me a set when I asked, gratis. [Frys rock]. So far so good.
Zune Car Kits: Not Much Choice
I knew it was tricky to even get a car charger that worked on a Zune, so I relented and bought the Microsoft Zune Car Kit, and instantly regretted it. Although it could at least charge a Zune, it used an FM transmitter to get the audio to the head unit, which I didn't want. There is no other audio-out mechanism, I even checked the internal pictures on the FCC web site to see if there was a "secret" audio-out but couldn't see one, so I stopped short of breaking open the car kit to investigate further. I had forgotten that my cigarette-lighter outlet was Always On, and that the outlet was close to useless anyway after wearing it out with my Valentine One years ago. From what I can tell the Monster car kit is no better. Fortunately some heavy web searching led me to the Soundgate site, and they have what I consider to be a real Zune car kit. It did recently show up on the official Zune web site, but its still hard to find (here's an Amazon link).
There appear to be exactly zero Zune car kits that offer a remote, or an external screen that can show anything, with the exception of the Ford Sync stuff (buying a new car was way out of the budget for this plan). The Soundgate kit does have a socket for a remote and several Sony wired remotes are claimed to work. However my anti-Sony feelings remain, plus the model that looks decent costs $100, so I'm holding off on that for the moment.
As I need to see the screen I couldn't hide the Zune away somewhere under the dash, but on the other hand I couldn't leave it out for all to see as its a convertible and would be too tempting a target for some miscreant. I explored some options, like getting a cassette holder and putting the Zune in there, but that looked like it would be too small (plus Boxster cassette holders are hard to find in 2008). However the perfect location exists in every Boxster: the ashtray, which is in the center console so easy to get to while driving, and it has a very cool motion-damped flip-up lid on it.
I'll spare you the nasty details but I spent many hours dremeling away the ashtray itself and the dashboard part it plugs into, and I reasonably successful. The Zune is hidden under it, but the cool flip-up action is not quite as smooth as it was, due I think to the loss of weight of the [bakelite?] ashtray (3/4ths of which I removed to make room for the 16GB Zune). The good news is I still have all my fingers, which was looking to not be the case a couple of times with the dremel.
Soundgate ZNCBLPAK Installation
The electrical install of the Soundgate kit was relatively painless, once I got comfortable with dismantling chunks of my dashboard: I got the aux-input cable from the head unit down to the lower front console by dremeling a tiny hole in the dash (under the left-hand panel), and mounted the Soundgate box on top of the airbag control box. Power came from the spare carphone socket that hides in Boxster dashboards - details of the dashboard mechanics can be found here, though I only found this particular site after I figured most of it out myself. I wired the Soundgate to the ignition-power cable, giving the benefit of an automatic Pause whenever the car is turned off. The Soundgate comes with a cigarette plug power cord too if you aren't able to hard-wire it, plus a bunch of audio cables I didn't need to use (the aux-in cable ended with a 3.5mm jack which went straight into the Soundgate box). If you have the requirement for in-car video the Soundgate will give you that from the Zune too, but I don't (in this vehicle anyway). As the Zune connection is via the sync plug and not the 3.5mm AV jack, no messing with volume on the Zune is required to get a decent level into the head unit.
Keg vs Zune
Although I was pretty harsh on the Zune software's handling of video in my previous posting, for audio I am much happier with it. Its easy enough to find things, can handle large collections (after the several-hour painfully-slow initial sync time) and is easy to buy music (I stick to MP3 format tracks so I can play them on my various other devices). Zune wins.
In the car the Zune is pretty good, but it's harder to see what's playing on the screen compared to the much larger text display that I had from the Keg. The Keg also had the great ability to announce the names of playlists as you cycled through them while keeping ones eyes on the road. I haven't even figured out a way to cycle through playlists on a Zune (without looking), so Keg wins.
To sync the Keg I had to pop the front trunk, remove the HD, plug it into the cradle and use the crappy software to get the songs on there at USB 1.0 speeds. To sync the Zune I have to pop the ashtray cover, unplug it from the car and plug it into my Vista machine and use the much better Zune software at USB 2.0 speeds. I can in theory sync it while its still in the car using my home WiFi network, but I get no coverage in the garage so I need to fix that first. Zune wins.
I disabled the Touch feature of the Zune pad as it was impossible to use it accurately while keeping my eyes on the road. With the recent Zune 3.0 upgrade you can tag songs from FM radio stations for later purchase online, which is a fabulous idea. However I can't get very good radio coverage from the ashtray area, as I think the Zune uses the headphone cables as an antenna and I don't have any plugged in of course.
The Zune is generally poorly supported in the car integration area by Microsoft and 3rd parties, but the Soundgate system is better than anything else and is reasonably priced. Dismantling your dashboard and dremeling your car can be nerve-racking but resulted in a pretty nice installation for me. I miss the voice prompting of the Keg, but for everything else the Zune rocks in comparison.
[Updated 10/2/08 as I got the flip-up action working a lot better by re-routing the cable that was fouling it]