Our experiences with Alpine's "mechless" car audio receivers have been mostly positive. So, when we received the iXA-W404, which ups the ante with the inclusion of a larger display and touch sensitivity, we naturally assumed that bigger would be better.
True, the W404's larger screen facilitates the playback of video from capable iPods, but the touch screen interface is unintuitive at times, relying on an iTunes CoverFlow-like paradigm to navigate its menus.
The additional eye candy of the interface seems to have adversely affected the Alpine's responsiveness when compared with its simpler siblings.
However, we do like the W404's snappy high-speed USB/iPod connection that allowed us to quickly scrub through large digital-audio collections.
Like the iDA-X305 that came before it, the iXA-W404 features Alpine's double-action encoder, a knob with a centrally located select button that activates various quick-search modes when the outer ring is depressed and twisted. Just to the left of the encoder is a back button. Also like its smaller sibling, the iXA-W404's encoder is made of high-quality metal and feels great in the hand. However, that is where the similarities end.
Unlike the previous models, which featured a centrally located double-action encoder, the W404 moves its knob to the left side of the faceplate, where it is more easily reached by the driver. The unit's form factor has been increased to double DIN to make room for the larger 4.3-inch color touch screen. The screen's 400x234 pixel resolution is lower than your average portable navigation device of comparable size, which doesn't do any favors for the video quality.
Along the unit's lower edge are physical buttons to access the navigation, rearview camera, hands-free calling, and Imprint audio-processing functions (all of which require add-on modules). Below the screen, a source-select button and left- and right-mode-select arrow keys find their homes.
The iXA-W404's interface can be best described as a series of panels, laid out in a virtual grid. Each column of this grid represents a function, with individual rows representing subfeatures. Panels are selected by swiping one's finger across the touch screen, much like in the iPhone's CoverFlow mode. So, for example, to select FM radio as our source, we would first swipe horizontally until we came across the AV panel, then swipe vertically through the list of available sources until we came to FM radio.
Adding external modules, such a navigation module or Bluetooth module, adds more panels to the mix. However, the only panels available out of the box are the AV panel and an info panel that displays the current date and time, the current song playing, and--oddly--a calculator.
Moving from panel to panel requires a good deal of visual attention and isn't something that can be readily done without looking. Fortunately, Alpine has seen fit to include physical buttons for most functions. In fact, after a few days, we found ourselves using physical controls almost exclusively, which caused us to question the point of the added cost and complexity of the touch-screen interface.
As a "mechless" receiver, the iXA-W404 lacks an optical media drive and, as a result, relies on digital audio sources to connect to its USB pigtail or Ai-NET proprietary BUS.
The unit is able to play back MP3, WMA, and AAC audio files from portable audio players and mass storage devices. A 30-pin iPod dock connector to USB cable is included in the box to allow full-speed browsing of an iPod's metadata (album, artist, genre, etc.).