The new BMW K1600GT and K1600GTL provide a great example of best practice integration of the latest high end tech communication and navigation gadgets.  Using my bike as an example, the system is comprised of:

  • audio preparation (factory option),
  • GPS (BMW accessory – a rebranded Garmin Zumo 660),
  • docking connector cable (BMW accessory)
  • Bluetooth Communicator Headset (BMW accessory that only fits in BMW branded System 5 and System 6 helmets)
  • iPod Touch (purchased separately and interchangeable with iPhone or iPod)
  • HTC Desire Android Smartphone (already had this)

These toys are not new, and similar after market comms kits (usually under seat mounted) have been available for some time now.

But it is the integration of the components, user interface and in-dash display that puts this kit into the high end category.

The Bluetooth Headset is probably not critical as there are in-dash speakers on the bike, but  my experience is these are all but useless once you get a bit of speed up.

Most of you will be familiar with the functionality of each of the component parts and the reality is most of these are currently available on most Smartphones using a few basic preloaded apps (i.e. music player, radio, navigation).

Let’s focus on how the rider controls all these gadgets while riding, or put more simply, the user interface.  It’s the rotating cuff switch, or multi-controller, cleverly located on the left handle grip, in conjunction with a nearby menu button  that drives most of the menu options.  Both are easily controlled by the left thumb when riding, enabling the user to control the volume, select tracks or radio stations, scroll through a selection of screens on the GPS and zoom in/out the on-screen moving map.

There are 4 more buttons on the left fairing that come into use on occasion also, but not as frequently as the clever rotating cuff switch and menu button which are also used to control many of the K1600’s other electrical riding focused goodies (on board computer, heated grips, heated seat, electronic suspension settings,  display options etc).

The Multifunction Display, centrally positioned on the dash in between the Speedomoter and Tachometer/Rev Counter provides the rider with feedback during album, playlist, artist and track selection or displays the selected radio station or track name currently being played when in iPod mode.

All of this is quite intimidating the first time you get on the bike, and there are a few hefty looking manuals that you really do need to study before you really get the hang of it.  For many the Multifunction Controller will be familiar, as its operation is similar to that of the Click Wheel on an iPod Classic.

In many ways the end result is almost as if BMW have dissected an iPhone and put it in various places on the motorcycle so they are most accessable to the rider.  But excluding apps and sms and neither does it display the Album art,  but I suspect this is only a matter of time.

The device connecting/pairing instructions alone are enough to put most people off.  They are sequentially critical and vary depending on how many devices being connected.  Phones, helmets, and GPS all need to be paired and connected in the right order.

Although extremely daunting and a little frustrating at first, I soon got the hang of all the buttons with only an occasional check of the manuals to see how to set the iPod Touch to shuffle or random play mode.  My advice is to get used to them little my little, and gradually build up your knowledge, rather that trying to do it all at once.  Otherwise it’s a bit like getting into the cockpit of an F1 racing car.

It is possible to change playlist/artist/album/track selections or switch to the preset radio stations while riding.  But not when going hard through tight corners.  Best wait for the straight road when traffic is light with little chance of hard braking.  Common sense must prevail, as any activity of this nature can take your focus off the road ahead, particularly as you need to constantly check the Multifunction Display as you scroll through the menu options and album/artist/playlist selections and tracks.

Most of my button pushing is to select albums or playlists loaded onto the iPod touch, or else to switch between the radio and the iPod Touch.

And your music, navigation instructions, speed camera and traffic alerts, incoming phone calls or conversation with the pillion gets transmitted wirelessly, to speakers hidden in recesses inside your helmet.

I have read on forums where K1600 owners in the US have also connected two way radios, CB Radios and radar detectors.  I think the Honda Goldwing can be similarly loaded with audio and comms optional extras.

The forums also note the temperamental nature of the connections/pairings with sudden drop outs not uncommon.  For the most part my kit has been ok but I have had to do the occasional reset and re-pair.

This kit does not come cheap.  And is it really worth it?  For many yes, but it is not for everyone.

Apart from budgetary considerations, the strength of your appetite for this high end audio/nav/comms kit will likely depend on your preferred style of riding.  As an extreme example not much of this would be necessary for scooter rider who undertake short commutes in cities.  Sports bike riders are also unlikely to be rushing to have this type of kit fitted for their next track day.

But if touring is your thing then kit like this can make a long journey a little more comfortable and perhaps even a little more palatable to a reuctant pillion who doesn’t share your passion for hours in the saddle.

These days I never get on the bike without hooking everything up (once correctly paired the devices all auto-reconnect when in range) – but I like listening to music when I ride.  I figure if I’m going to put in earplugs then they may as well have sound piped into them!  I enjoy singing along to my favourite songs, secure in the knowledge that no one can hear how bad I sound.

While I’m a huge fan of this kit and find the user interface very impressive and most of all functional,  I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.

So if you are new to riding with tech, start small, with maybe just a Smartphone, headphones and music player app.  More on this coming soon.