I’ve just spent an hour or so helping a neighbour accessing MP3 files in his car. He’d spent a lot of time over the weekend scratching his head over why he was having troubles, and wishing he’d opted for a CD player or cassette player or maybe just going with a plain old radio, but no, playing digital files in-car is so much nicer.
Why had it gone wrong?
He’d gone for an expensive USB memory stick. That wasn’t the problem, but he’d in effect wasted money on getting a USB 3 compatible unit. Cars are (in my experience) perfectly happy with USB 2.0 which is generally cheaper.
Plugging his unit into my Mac showed the first potential issue. Cars seem to have very little in terms of a music management system. You can follow the link and read some thoughts on Apple’s iTunes as a music manager, which is what he’d used to place his music onto the USB stick.
My experience of cars is that this level of sophistication is seen by the vehicles computer, along with most cheap portable music players, as being a level of complexity too far. My neighbour’s USB stick was supplied with a couple of folders and files put there by the stick’s manufacturer. He’d used iTunes to get the music across and in so doing that created its own folder, then within that folder a Music folder, which in turn holds more folders (one per artist plus Compilations).
Then .. within each Artist folder is another sub-folder for each Album. It’s only when the poor little chip inside the dashboard had drilled all that way down, does it find the MP3 files to play.
That’s simply a level of confusion your car doesn’t need – so we copied the individual files off the stick onto one of our Macs, deleted the myriad folders and subs, then just put the tracks “piled up” onto the memory stick. The car liked that and we were almost there.
The last question, and in technical terms it’s the hardest for many users to handle, is file naming. Great as they are USB sticks conform to Windows file format constraints. Even the most expensive, while they may be superior in being NTFS formatted out of the box, they still can be incompatible with the way programs from Ford, BMW and Bentley behave compared to iTunes.
In essence there are two restrictions to overcome. Macs will happily work with long file names and file names comprising characters that Windows (and cars) don’t like. So when we opened up the memory stick in-car rather than the full 652 tracks we’d loaded there were only 615 visible to the driver. Why?
The explanation was either that in the case of the missed files they were too long, or they contain what the car thinks of as “illegal” characters. For example iTunes will regularly use [ and ] such as in [feat …] and that isn’t supported. For this reason we have software that can both check file names for length and illegal characters, shortening and substituting as necessary. When I ran this software over the USB stick the names were suitable modified and the “missing” 37 tracks were visible.
If you’re planning to play your digital music in your car go for a simple flat file structure, keep the file names short and stick to simple letters, numbers and basic symbols in your file names.
SD Cards in Cars
Quick Update: several calls in the last week or so from people whose vehicle has an SD slot rather than a USB interface. Pretty much the same considerations apply. Keep the file structure flat, remove non-audio files, check with the manufacturer for any special instructions. People seem to have a feeling that SD cards are in some way inferior to USB sticks. I think that mainly comes from the idea that SD cards were designed for holiday snapshot cameras. Certainly today SD cards can match USB sticks for capacity – a quick look on Amazon shows 32 and 63 GB capacities in plentiful supply and at reasonable cost. If you’re using MP3 that can easily be 300 or 600 CDs. Maximum available capacity from mainstream, reputable suppliers looks to be 128 GB. There are two units at 256 GB, both from well known manufacturers, but they’re costing over £100 each but then, hey, how much did you pay for the wheels?