We’ve been using our Kenwood DNX-7120 daily for over 9 months now, so we thought it was time for an update on our original January 2009 article.Kenwood 7120 topo maps screenshot
Published in October 2009

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xWhiteTRDFJCruiserMany FJ Owners have painted the silver on the outside of their FJ. The most common mod of this type is to rattle can the mirrors, door handles, bezel, and bumper wings in flat or matte black. TRD’s that are ‘blacked’ out are very popular, so we thought we’d try something different. When we started discussing doing this mod to our TRD, Angie reminded me of an awesome FJ we saw on the trail. Early in 2008 we did a couple of runs with Jock (RockyMtnHigh), who has an awesome ‘whited out’ Brick FJ. Instead of the traditional black, he painted most of his silver trim pieces bright white. What Angie & I both loved about this mod is that it not only makes the truck stand out more, but it also really enhances the ‘retro’ FJ-40 look. Which we feel is commemorated in the “white out” of our TRD.

 

Published in April 2009
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This method of install will take about six to eight hours to complete, so make sure you have plenty of time. You will need basic tools and help from the feminine persuasion if available (I’ll explain that detail later). Wear hospital type gloves when working around the headliner to keep it clean. As each component is removed, use painters tape to wrap the threads to secure the bolt or screw to the component (Fig 1). If you’re going to paint the radio mounting bracket, it’s best to do that several days before you start the install.

 

Read all instructions before you start!

Published in April 2009

We’ve had the 7120 installed for about a month now, and so far so good. I’ve organized this review into a few sections: Entertainment, Navigation, and Phone integration.

Entertainment
The “Entertainment” category includes iPod integration, DVD/MP3 Audio, USB Audio, DVD Video, and DivX Video. The 7120 handles just about every type of media you can imagine. The unit is also satellite and HD radio ready, but I don’t use either of those services so I cannot comment on their performance.

The standard MP3 audio (WMA and unprotected AAC are also supported) from a DVD or USB thumbdrive sounds great. The interface is only as good as the organization on your disc or drive. I was impressed that you can use a full 4gb DVD of music, but if it’s all in one directory it’s difficult to find a specific song. This also applies to a USB thumbdrive. The largest I’ve tried is a 1GB, so I’m not sure how large of a drive can be used. I suggest that if you’re going to use either of these to play music, organize the directories in a manner that’s easy to find what you want.

I popped in a standard DVD and after about 20 seconds, the movie was playing. The interface for playing DVD or DivX movies is pretty standard as well. You can fast forward 1x-3x, but you cannot scroll through the movie. The chapter skip works fine for DVD’s, but pressing the same button on a DivX movie jumps to the next movie. The nice thing about DivX compression is that up to 4 movies can fit on 1 DVD. This is handy when on a long trip & space is limited. Keep in mind that video only works when the parking brake is pulled. It’s illegal in most states to watch video while the vehicle is in motion.

The iPod (in my case iPhone) integration is top notch. While you don’t get the ‘standard’ iPod interface, the Kenwood interface is intuitive and works well. I was very excited to plug my iPhone in for two specific reasons. First, I’m glad that this system charges the 3G iPhone right out of the box, many aftermarket accessories and head units do not. I was also excited to see a ‘Videos’ button on the Kenwood interface. I keep a couple of movies and video podcasts on my iPhone at all times, and the picture looks just as good as it does on the phone. Some aftermarket systems don’t support video through the head unit, so I’m very happy that this one does. Every once I a while the iPod connection will drop and I either get an ‘Authorization’ error or it just stops working. Most of the time simply unplugging the phone & plugging it back in fixes the error, but a few times I’ve had to completely power off the system (which means turning the engine off) to reboot the 7120. Even with this minor bug, the iPod integration is excellent.

 

Published in January 2009

In the last issue, we discussed several options for in-dash navigation suitable for on-trail use. In that article we chose the Kenwood 8120 as our favorite pick for FJ owners, mainly due to the Garmin navigation and integrated media features. We also briefly touched on the Kenwood 7120, which is virtually identical to the 8120, but with a few less features. When it came time to install a system in our FJ, we ended up going with the 7120. Why? Well, the 7120 can be found for well under $1000, even after adding the Bluetooth module. For our purposes, the additional upgrades on the 8120 (more input/output options, higher end pre-amp outputs) did not justify the additional $300-$400. As it turns out, the 7120 meets our needs perfectly.

Published in January 2009
Today Tuffy announced availability of their new FJ Expedition Partition. It's designed to work with the Tuffy FJ Security Drawer (which is required). The barrier keeps cargo on top of your drawer safe & secure, and can also be used as a pet barrier. The rear seats can still be folded down with the partition installed as well. If you already have a security drawer, or are thinking of getting one, this can be a great addition. Details at the Tuffy website.
Published in Latest News

While most of the articles in FJC Magazine focus on off road and mechanical performance, every once in a while an ‘aesthetic’ mod comes along that’s just too good to pass up!
We first learned about the LED Dash Mod from TinCan several months ago, but I knew there was no way I was taking my dash apart and unsoldering several LED’s. Luckily TinCan (BJ) came out to the FJ Summit and graciously agreed to dew a few dashes for Summit attendees. By the time he was done (ours was his last) he was functioning on about 10 hours sleep over 5 days, and did over 20 dashes – quite an amazing accomplishment!

I can’t begin to explain how cool this modification is! It completely transforms the inside of your FJ and really makes it stand out. We chose to use red LED’s to match our black & red TRD theme, but the LED’s are available in just about any color. The most popular color at the Summit was blue, but several other trucks used red as well.
When it was our turn for the mod (at nearly midnight), BJ jumped in the truck and had the dash completely apart in less than 5 minutes. It’s really not that difficult to remove the gauge cluster, gauge pod, and colored control panel; so don’t be intimidated if you would like to have your dash modified. Once he had everything apart, he began the process of unsoldering the old LED’s & soldering the new ones on. I can solder two wires together, but I don’t have the steady hand or the patience to replace such small LED’s. BJ did an amazing (and quick) job and in just over an hour, we had our new dash and were on our way.

Published in October 2008

It doesn't matter if you're few hours or a few days from home, the ability to communicate with others can bring added enjoyment to your adventures and greatly increases safety. Radio communication while on the trail comes in many forms. In this article we will focus on the three most common types of radio communication available to you: the Family Radio Service (FRS), Citizen Band radio (CB), and Amateur Radio also known as HAM Radio. The first thing to understand is that each of these use the same basic technology as the AM / FM radio in your car. It’s all radio waves. What makes each type a little different is the power you can transmit with and the frequencies they use. As you dial up or down on your car radio you might use the term ‘radio stations’, but a radio station is simply transmitting on a particular frequency, for example 105.1 FM.
Here are a couple of other concepts to consider before we discuss each option in more detail. Radio waves travel at the speed of light, so there is virtually no delay in most situations. Radio waves also travel in 'line of sight'. This means the more obstacles between you and the one are communicating with, the more interference you will experience. Radio waves can penetrate objects, but different objects will require more or less power to penetrate. The type of radio wave also determines how well it will penetrate objects. The last thing to note is that antennas make a difference. There is a huge difference between transmitting using 5 watts of power with a cheap antenna and transmitting 5 watts of power with a great antenna.

Family Radio Service or FRS (also called two-way radios) is a simple solution for very basic communication needs. FRS radios generally cost from $50 to $200 and they do not require a license to operate. FRS radios transmit using .5 watts, which by radio standards is very low. This is why in real world scenarios you should only expect to be effective with FRS at ranges of a mile or two or less. The packaging might tell you the range is much more and in very good or perfect conditions it might be true, but don’t count on it. FRS radios are very common and have a limited set of 22 channels. Don’t be surprised if you hear others talking on the same channel you are using. One of you will simply need to move to another channel or enable the 'privacy' features on your radio. FRS radios use FM frequencies which are good. FM frequencies are clearer than AM frequencies (think AM radio stations vs. FM radio stations).

Citizen Band or CB Radio is a very common form of communication among truckers and off-roaders. CB radios generally cost from $80 to $200 and also do not require a license to operate. CB radios transmit using a maximum (legal) 4 watts of power, providing greater range than FRS radios. Generally speaking, one can expect about 3-5 miles of range using CB in good conditions. However, CB radios use AM frequencies which are more subject to interference. CB radios also use the concept of channels and most modern CBs offer 40 channels. CB is by far the most common form of radio communication in the off-road community.

Amateur Radio or HAM Radio is no longer for old men in basements with outdated technology. HAM radio has kept up with technological advancements and has a lot to offer. HAM radios generally cost from $120 to $1000 and do require a license to operate. Obtaining your license is now easier than ever. The test is 35 questions and is quite easy. You do not need to know Morse code to obtain your license. The fee for the test is about $15, and your license is good for 10 years.
HAM radios transmit using 5 watts up to 1000 watts depending on the radio you purchase. These radios can easily reach 40 miles or more. HAM radio does not use the concept of channels like FRS and CB radios do. Instead, HAM uses specific frequencies. So instead of tuning your radio to channel 12, like you would on FRS and CB, you tune your radio to a frequency like 147.555; this provides for greater flexibility and the ability to find a completely private channel. HAM radio can also use repeaters to make them even more useful. A repeater is an antenna that listens on a certain frequency and repeats what it hears on another. This greatly increases your range, in some cases up to several hundred miles. There are hundreds of repeaters across the United States. Repeaters can also be linked connecting one repeater to another. Using linked repeaters, HAM radios can communicate all across the country.

There are additional features available to HAM radio which we won’t go into in detail, but here are a few of the key ones: APRS – This is a feature that allows HAM operators to use the radio to include GPS information in the signal. Using this feature and GPS devices you are able to see on the where others are located. AutoPatch – This feature, which is available on some repeaters, allows the HAM radio to connect to the public telephone system and make a normal phone call. So you can be out in the backcountry, connect to an autopatch repeater and call your loved ones. Editor's Note: In times of emergency, HAM radios are almost always the only method of wireless communication that works. When cell phone networks become overloaded, HAM radios will still work fine. There is much more to HAM radio that can make for a lifetime hobby but we will save that for future articles.
In summary, consider what your needs are and get the radio equipment that will meet or exceed those needs. In best case scenarios, communication can greatly enhance the enjoyment of your adventures and in the worst case scenarios communication can be a life saver. Happy transmissions!

Taft Babbit is a technology professional and avid blogger. He's very active on FJCruiserForums.com and can be found online at http://mountainthinking.blogspot.com/

Published in October 2008

We’re finally ready to discuss my favorite off-road navigation topic: full navigation systems. In this article we’ll discuss both in-dash and other permanently mounted options. Before I get into the details, I quickly want to mention paper maps again. Please! Please, don’t rely solely on electronics for your navigational needs. Always carry paper maps as a backup.

When it comes to permanent navigation options, off road capability is almost overshadowed by the need for great on-road and entertainment features. These systems will be used for finding directions and gas stations probably more often than they will be used off road. Features like custom points of interest (POI’s), multimedia playback, cell phone integration, and map upgrades become very essential features for any permanent solution. Our list of “must have” features is relatively short, but in these systems the ‘bells and whistles’ will certainly hold more weight.

Must Have’s
-Autorouting, turn by turn directions for door-to-door navigation.
-Upgradable Maps
-Suitable POI (Point of Interest) database

Other Features
-MP3 & DVD playback
-Bluetooth integration
-USB ports
-Voice Directions
-iPod integration

 



Editor’s Note: The first option I’ll discuss is the Lowrance Baja 840 navigation device. This unit is very unique in that it’s built for off-road navigation. It’s not an in-dash unit, and does not include multimedia features. This is the choice for virtually every off-road racing team, so we wanted to include it in our Off Road Navigation options.

Lowrance Baja 840

The 540 features an 8.4” screen that produces great 16 bit color at a resolution of 600 X 800 pixels. It’s a TFT screen with SolarMax technology which means it can be seen clearly in direct sunlight. The built-in background map covers the continental US and Hawaii, and includes more detail than most GPS base maps. The unit also includes 2 MMC/SD slots for adding more detailed maps. The case of the 540, like all Lowrance Baja models, is ruggedized and shock resistant. The screen and keypad are also back-lit for easy day and night visibility.

The Baja 540’s GPS is a 12 channel parallel receiver, so you will have no trouble getting a great position lock even in narrow canyons or forested areas. The external antenna is also WAAS enabled which can provide even greater accuracy. You can store 1000 waypoints and another 1000 event markers. The unit also features an ethernet port that can be used to add other accessories (mostly for water navigation).

All Lowrance Baja units are compatible with MapCreate 7 software. This program allows you to create custom topo maps for the area you’ll be visiting and load them to a MMC or SD card.
MapCreate includes over 2 million points of interest, public hunting areas for 46 states, game management units for 22 states, and national forest / national park boundaries. All these points and features are fully searchable on the unit. It also includes all interstates and local/state level streets. The software itself is fairly easy to use, but only certain cards and card readers will work with it, which limits the area you’ll be able to add to the GPS.

None of the Baja units support auto-routing, so if you’re looking for turn-by-turn, this may not be for you. If, however, you’re looking for great off-road detail in a rugged system and plan on keeping your stock radio or going with an inexpensive non-navigation stereo, the Baja would be a great solution.

 

 

 

 



Pioneer AVIC Z3

One of the most popular navigation systems among FJ Cruiser owners is the Pioneer AVIC series. We took a look at the AVIC Z3, since it’s the closest to Kenwood’s flagship system (the 8120, below).

The Pioneer is a multimedia powerhouse. It plays DVD’s & MP3 files, but it really shines with it’s 10GB hard drive for music. After inserting a regular audio CD, the unit can rip the files into MP3 format and add them to the built-in library within a few minutes. You can then pop out the CD and your songs are ready to go. This is a great feature for anyone that doesn’t want to carry a large CD collection around. If you’re an iPod user, the additional iPod adapter will allow access to all your playlists and music seamlessly. The Z3 even displays album artwork from your iPod on the screen.

The navigation system covers the US, Alaska, and Hawaii and includes 12million points of interest. It includes highway information for 50 cities, and detailed maps for 60 cities. The Z3 has a very cool 3D map view that includes 3D buildings in some areas. This latest version of the AVIC line also uses Point Addressing, which provides far greater accuracy for point-to-point navigation than in previous models. If you decide to add the traffic information module, the system shows both traffic icons and traffic flow lanes that display current traffic conditions.

The voice command feature is included with the Z3, but we found that more times than not it’s quicker (and less frustrating) to operate the unit with the touchscreen. The unit does do a fairly good job with voice directions. It almost always pronounces the names of streets properly. If you add the Bluetooth option, you can pair the Z3 to your phone and use the built-in contacts directory to voice-dial any of your contacts.

The menu system on the Pioneer has many options, but we found it a little confusing. I’m sure once you have the system for a while you’ll get used to where everything is, but we didn’t find the settings/configuration or the navigation menu’s very intuitive. It took us nearly three minutes to find the nearest Shell gas station the first time we tried it. Once the navigation was setup, we liked the map view and the different view options. Additionally, some of the custom configuration options that we like in high-end dash units seem to missing. I was not able to find a way to change the menu colors or add any custom icons.

When the time comes to update the maps on your Z3, it’s a complicated process. All of Pioneer’s hard drive based systems can be upgraded by purchasing a DVD and loading the maps into your system. The Z3 is new enough that updates are not available yet. When the updates are available, they’ll run about $120 and the DVD will require online activation. The Pioneer website states that it may take ‘several hours’ to download all of the map data to your Z3.

For FJ owners that spend 95% of the time on the road, the AVIC Z3 is a very good solution. We wish the voice recognition worked better, and the menu system could be a little easier to use. At a retail price of $1799, it would be nice if Bluetooth was included. Updating the maps also will be a chore as well. Overall, I’d say the Z3 is a fine choice for some FJ owners.

 

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Kenwood eXcelon DNX-8120

Just a few years ago, Kenwood navigation systems were the least popular option. Recently, however, Kenwood has made some strategic partnerships with leaders in the navigation and electronic integration community that set their new options apart from the crowd. Kenwood's current feature unit is the DNX-8120. This nav unit sports a full 6.95” touchscreen display, integrated Garmin Navigation, integrated Parrot Bluetooth, and a very customizable interface.

The 8120 supports the standard multimedia formats, DVD & MP3. It also includes support for AAC (unprotected), WMA, DivX, VCD, and even JPEG formats. You can also add satellite radio, HD radio, and of course an iPod to the sytem. The standard iPod interface works great, displaying song, title, artist, and album art. Like most car audio systems, it does lock your iPod when in use as a safety feature. There is no built in hard drive for music storage on the 8120, so you'll need to bring your CD's or iPod with you to access your music. You do have access to an SD card slot and USB inputs, so you can bring your media with you on cards or USB keys as well. The DVD playback was excellent, but you have to be parked in order for movies to play properly.

As I mentioned Kenwood has partnered with one of the most popular GPS companies for their navigation: Garmin. The Garmin system in the 8120 is virtually identical to anyone who's ever used a Nuvi device. The system is intuitive and simple to use once you learn it. It took less than a minute to find the nearest Shell station and plan our route. Once our route was in the system, we were unable to move the map around, we could only zoom in and out. The system supports standard 2D view as well as 3D 'birds eye' view. The 3D view is very helpful when navigating in large cities as it helps to give 'depth' to your route. The system is completely customizable as well. You can add custom POI's, change the icon (even to an FJ Cruiser), and our favorite feature: you can add TOPO maps to this system.
This, to us, is the number one feature on this unit. You can purchase any of the Topo maps series from Garmin and load them right into your 8120 (the 5120 and 7120 support this as well). Since I own a Garmin handheld, I spent about 3 months creating a very detailed set of custom Topo maps for Colorad. I was able to successfully load these maps into the 8120 using the SD card slot as well. When you enable the Topo maps, you may lose the auto-routing features, and your POI's may not be visible. Those are small compromises that we're more than willing to live with to have in-dash, 7” screen Topo maps when we need them. The great thing is, you pop the card out of the unit when you hit the pavement and you're standard navigation system operates perfectly.

The Kenwood supports voice prompted navigation, but not voice commands. In our opionion, most voice command systems (we even tested an '08 Acura) are not reliable enough for everyday use. I'm sure future units will include voice commands, but we're in no hurry to use it. The voice prompts in the navigation system are very similar to standard Garmin units. They work well and get you where you need to go.

The menu system in the 8120 is very detailed. It will take more than a few days to get used to it, but once you have it setup as you want, you won't have to use it much. We really like the fact that the 8120 is fully customizable. You can set your own color scheme, change background photos, and even change your startup logo (to the FJC Magazine logo, of course). You can adjust virtually every setting you can think of, and unless you go all out on upgrading your stock FJ speakers, you may not notice a huge difference in the EQ functions. Still, it's good to know that if or when we upgrade all of our components, we'll be able to tweak everything.

Just as with adding custom topo maps, updating the 8120 couldn't be easier. You purchase an SD card from Garmin specifically for your unit, pop the card in, and go through a quick update procedure. We couldn't test the update time since the unit is so new, but if it's like most other Garmin units, it shouldn't take more than 20 or 30 minutes. Garmin usually published updates for their nav units about once per year, so you'll always have the option to update your nav to the latest version.

The DNX-8120's fully customizable interferface, integrated Bluetooth, wide variety of media formats, and great navigation system make this about the best choice for FJ owners that enjoy back country driving.  There is no other in-dash unit that has such great features all in one package. The 8120 does a great job at everything it does, probably due to partnerships with industry leaders. There were very few minor issues that we found with this unit, and hopefully we'll have an install article in a future issue of FJC Magazine.

If the 8120 is a little out of your price range, we've heard of Topo maps working on both the 7120 and the 5120 which are older models but are less expensive.

 

 

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No matter which navigation option you choose, always remember to Stay the Trail, Tread Lightly, and take paper maps as a backup. We sincerely hope that this Off Road Navigation series has enlighted you and helped you decide what's right for you.

We would like to thank Car Toys of South Colorado Springs for all their help in creating this article. Their efforts were key in helping us learn of all the different options and their product demonstrations were top notch. Contact them if you need any assistance in Colorado or elsewhere.

 

Published in October 2008

In the first article of Off Road Navigation, we discussed the need to carry good paper maps with you wherever you go. Paper maps will always be a necessity, regardless of which GPS option you may use, so don’t leave home without them.

This time, we'll discuss some of the Portable GPS options available for off road use. Portable GPS’s refer to units that can be mounted in the vehicle but are not necessarily permanent. Since there are literally hundreds of options, we narrowed the list of candidates by identifying models that meet these specific requirements:

#1 – Mapping: Any modern GPS that we’ll be using in conjunction with paper maps must support maps. We would prefer topographical maps, but this is not absolutely necessary
#2 – Expandable Memory: Maps take up space. A GPS with very little built-in memory and no expansion capability has limited usefulness.

#3 – Batteries + External Power: The unit must use standard batteries, have a decent battery life, and must support an external power supply.

#4 – Price: A portable GPS unit should be able to meet all of our requirements without breaking the bank. While we didn’t set a specific budget, cost is considered.

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Published in July 2008
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