Entune has similar features to Sync, but costs almost $700 more.
Toyota's new system is a work in progress, but it will be a welcome addition to many owners

On Tuesday we had a chance to play with Toyota Motor Company's (TYO:7203) new "Entune" infotainment system at the unveil of the 2012 Toyota Camry.  

Thanks to the pioneering work of 
Ford Motor Company's (F) SYNC, which consolidated scattered in-car info and entertainment system into a single cohesive platform, infotainment systems are a hot topic in the auto market right now.  Entune will join a growing pack of systems, which includes Ford's SYNC and MyFord Touch, Kia Motors Corp.'s (SEO:000270) UVO, and Fiat SpA's (BIT:F) Blue&Me.  Like these other systems, Toyota will use the same underlying Microsoft Auto operating system from Microsoft Corp. (MSFT).

Entune will cost $1,050 and come with the Tier III and Tier IV audio/entertainment option on Toyota-brand vehicles.  This is much more expensive than the base Ford Sync, which costs $295 USD, and more even than MyFord Touch, which costs $1,000.

Our first impression of the system was okay, but not great.  

The unit does cover all the basics found in the latest version of Sync -- sports scores, weather, cell-phone enabled directions, points of interest, voice command of music, etc., albeit at a substantially higher price.  Toyota engineer Ken Glasser states, "We plan to differentiate ourselves by offering superior voice command."

Indeed, while we could not fully test the system, Mr. Glasser's voice directives were carried out without a hitch.  That's more than we could say in January about the MyFord Touch system, which was unresponsive to a handful of our engineering contact's pre-planned commands.

Toyota is also working with Nuance Communications, Inc. (NUAN) for its voice input, but it's also enlisted VoiceBox, another voice startup.  Further, we found that the MyFord Touch system seemed to be held back by the application implementation, rather than the underlying voice command.  It's possible that Toyota's application -- done by Denso Corp. (TYO:6902) and Harmon International Industries, Inc. (HAR) -- may give Toyota the boost to one-up Ford in voice command responsiveness.

Toyota was a bit cagier about the hardware than Ford, refusing to tell us what was in the system.  It claimed that knowledge would offer a "competitive advantage" to its rivals -- something we debated, given that Ford has released its system specs.

That said, most customers who've experienced Ford's infotainment system may find the features versus price of the Entune to be a bit underwhelming.  First, the touch screen included was relatively non-responsive requiring you to forcibly press it ("fat-finger it") to get it to respond to touch.

Second, the interface itself looked bland -- almost ugly.  And the display itself didn't seem to have a great viewing angle (again this could change in the final unit).

Third, while the device does lock you out of navigating past a certain level in the menus (for example, you can't go to a second page in the music lists), the lockout seems somewhat arbitrary, as you can still use the touch system to a degree.  In that regard the system may receive much the same admonishment for distractions -- fair or not -- as Ford did.

Lastly, somewhat troubling is the fact that Toyota is putting off subscription pricing until the launch of the system in October.  It would be nice to give buyers more advance knowledge of what they were getting into.

Of course, these are only very rough impressions.  We're hoping to get some extended in-vehicle time with the system -- the only real means of drawing final conclusions on an infotainment platform.

While much is still unknown about the platform, we did find out that customers will receive three years of free subscription to the Entune applications and that Toyota will not initially be opening the gates to third party applications (though it is accepting customer recommendations for requested apps).

Further, the platform will launch exclusively on the 2012 Prius V hybrid and the 2012 Toyota Camry at the start of October.

"A politician stumbles over himself... Then they pick it out. They edit it. He runs the clip, and then he makes a funny face, and the whole audience has a Pavlovian response." -- Joe Scarborough on John Stewart over Jim Cramer

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