This review of the Audi MMI system was conducted in an Audi A8. MMI systems in other Audi models will differ in specifications and interface.
As before, the controls at the heart of the MMI system consists of a push button dial flanked by four control buttons. To simplify matters there's a series of shortcuts to the radio, entertainment media, navigation, telephone, car and traffic information (not available in Australia) functions. On either side of the central set of controls is a volume knob grouped together with the audio switches, and a multi-purpose touch pad. These controls manipulate the large LCD screen that rises out of the centre of the dashboard.
Using the central push button dial is pretty self-explanatory, although we never did warm to rotating the dial counter-clockwise to move down a list. The four buttons flanking the dial correspond to the menu items, if any, that are listed in the respective corner of the screen — this also takes a bit of getting used to, as other computer interfaces don't require you to look at all four extremities of the display.
Depending on which screen you're in, the touch pad lights up with different controls. For instance, it can be used to scroll around the navigation map or as a data entry input. Most of the time, though, it serves as an easy way to access the six radio station presets. That said, it's far too easy to graze the pad and accidentally go from the current batch of beats to a long block of non-stop rock.
When entering nav destinations or searching through the phone book, you can scroll through a batch of letter or numbers to get where you're going. Alternatively, the touch pad jumps into handwriting recognition mode, with words entered letter by letter. Recognition speed is on the slow side, but the most obvious flaw (for most of us) is that in right-hand drive cars, writing is done with the left hand.
Two screens are better than one
A second smaller, but pleasingly high-res screen resides between the tacho and speedo. It's controlled by a scroll wheel and a few buttons on the left spoke of the steering wheel. In addition to the comprehensive trip computer, the driver has access via this screen to the active cruise control, telephone and entertainment systems, and can also view nav instructions and the infrared camera.
With the ability to switch between different types of media, as well as change tracks and albums, twiddling the left thumb became our preferred method of music selection. Whether we were stopped at the lights or spending another hour on the highway, it allowed us to perform simple tasks without taking our eyes too far off the road.
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The voice recognition system proved to be another successful way of keeping our eyes on the road while interacting with the MMI. Simply press the talk button on the right steering wheel spoke and the system will helpfully display on the central LCD screen a list of relevant commands for the current MMI function. Mind you, in the interests of on-the-go safety this list would be better off in the instrument display.
Unlike on Mercedes-Benz's Comand, users can issue orders for a screen that they're currently not on. So, for instance, if you're in the telephone section and you utter "cancel navigation", MMI won't shrug its shoulders at you.
Voice commands work fine without any training and the success rate with menu items was very high. It's also able to understand with a high degree of accuracy contact names from your phone book, although it struggles with the names of music files stored on the hard disk and requires you to spell out navigation destinations letter by letter, which can be tricky for places such as Wollongong, Woolloomooloo or Wollondilly.
There's a bountiful array of entertainment sources available to the A8's MMI system. Hidden under a flap in the centre of the dash lay two SD card slots and a CD/DVD disc drive. In the centre console bin there's an iPod/iPhone adapter and hidden away somewhere behind shrouds of plastic and leather is a 60GB hard disk, 20GB of which is at the user's disposal.
Compressed music formats recognised include MP3 and WMA, and files stored on disc or SD card can be copied onto the hard disk; disc ripping and copying from iPods isn't part of the equation, however. An advantage of accessing music from hard disk or iPod is that it can be navigated by album, artist, genre and track name instead by the directory structure. A Cover Flow-style carousel of album covers is available too for music stored on the hard disk.
Standard-definition digital TV channels, DVD video discs and DivX files can be viewed on the main LCD screen when the car is at a standstill. An optional rear-seat entertainment package (AU$9845) gifts those at the back with their own screens and MMI controllers.
In Europe the A8 uses Google Earth nav maps replete with terrain info and building models, but it's not offered here due to the fact that there's no local service provider capable of transcoding the Google information into nav-screen-friendly chunks. In lieu of this, the system has the latest Whereis maps preloaded on the system's hard disk.
Features-wise, it's not bad for a factory fit nav system. There are 3D map views and lane guidance for most roads (these are displayed only on the instrument cluster display). Text-to-speech for spoken street name instructions — a feature found on even the cheapest portable nav device — is still absent from MMI and despite the presence of a Traffic Info button, traffic information is a non-starter for Australian A8s.
Route calculation times are good; the routes themselves will get you from A to B, but not necessarily in the efficient nor logical manner. GPS reception is excellent and because the nav unit is hooked up to the car's drive systems, it can keep track of you when satellite reception is poor in the CBD or non-existent in tunnels.
Telephony and Bluetooth
The Bluetooth hands-free system can be paired with up to five mobile phones. Initial pairing is relatively quick and painless, and MMI is able to transfer your phone book over to the car to make dialling easier. Thanks to the quiet cabin and good sound quality it's easy to hold quite in-depth conversations.
Should your mobile be a Bluetooth-free zone or you simply want to have a dedicated mobile number for your car, there's a SIM card slot in between the two SD card bays in the centre of the dashboard.
Music can also be streamed via a compatible A2DP Bluetooth device. One word of warning here, if you've got Bluetooth hands-free set up for an iPhone and you're using the supplied wired iPod connector, disable Blueooth media streaming. If you don't, conflicts are bound to occur and all you'll enjoy will be the sounds of silence.
The MMI system is tightly integrated into the car's core functions. As such it allows the driver to tweak important driving settings, such as suspension tune, ride height and certain safety features.
Fripperies, like the colour and intensity of the interior ambient lights, can also be changed to your heart's content. Fiddle with the air-conditioning system or electric front seats and they'll take over the MMI screen for a short period of time.
As far as integrated entertainment, navigation and car control systems go, Audi's MMI is one of the best. Yes, some functions that are the height of simplicity on a basic AM/FM/CD stereo, such as switching radio bands, are more complicated, but it's a fair price to pay for the sheer range of options available. Sit with it for an hour or two and you could easily become the master of your car's domain.