Modern infotainment goes well beyond the traditional car stereo.

The role of the vehicle infotainment system— the car radio, changed like everything else after the onset of rapid advancement of computer and internet technology.

What used to be a simple self-contained radio frequency tuner and amplifier wired to a set of speakers, evolved into an interface between the passengers and the vehicle.

It now provides navigation, the ability to run applications used on cell phones, find the nearest gas station and in some cases even update critical vehicle systems.

The next step has become including vehicles as part of the Internet of Things (IoT). That inclusion into IoT, means a newer and more important role for what most commonly call the ''car stereo'. In fact the car stereo has transformed into an infotainment system.

It now combines important vehicle information with the traditional entertainment features.

Upgrading or replacing that unit brings with it an entirely new set of potential requirements that have to be considered.

Head Units, When All That Mattered Was Sound

The head unit of old didn't have all the responsibilities of the modern infotainment system.

The old head unit stood alone, as a full independent unit that never interacted with other vehicle systems. That paradigm changed as vehicles became more computer reliant. Current vehicle subsystems now have their own micro-computer that controls functionality.

The current head unit now interacts extensively with other vehicle systems. The transmission tells the head unit the car has shifted into reverse. The backup camera turns on, and the head unit screen changes input feeds to the backup camera. When the vehicle shifts back into drive, the transmission system informs the head unit to now display normal entertainment screens.

The head unit got its name because it controlled the sound system. An array of audio configurations could be installed behind the head unit, as long as the wires could be connected.

Now, the so-called head unit must communicate via network with more than just an amp or speakers. It must also be programmed to function based upon the vehicle's makeup.

If no backup camera exists for a particular vehicle, there will be no need to change the screen feed, the passengers would only see a black screen.

Car Stereo Hardware, Aftermarket or Factory

Can the infotainment system be replaced or upgraded in modern vehicles? Yes it can.

Replacing will usually be easier than upgrading due to programming—though both require programming in most cases.

Remember that the infotainment system has its own computer that must understand the layout of the vehicle's trim package. Then that computer must communicate with various other members of the vehicle network.

The next decision will be whether to go with factory or aftermarket equipment.

Factory provides the advantage of being native to vehicle design. The biggest upside being it will fit the form and function of your interior layout. The downside being that factory equipment may be more difficult to find. Most vehicle manufacturers don't supply an option to buy infotainment systems individually.

Junk yards, ebay and forums can usually yield results with consistent effort. These options could potentially mean cutting and crimping wires, especially if upgrading to a unit with greater functionality. Always remember that cutting wires will void your contract.

Aftermarket infotainment systems will be much easier to find. A simple search will produce hundreds or thousands of options. Aftermarket can also be a very good way to find a cheap alternative to a factory unit.

The catch with lower costs will be that the hardware will generally be more generic, and might not give the best factory look and feel. Aftermarket units do come made to fit specific vehicles, but will generally come with a higher price tag.

The downside of aftermarket radios usually will be the wiring. Because many of these units have been designed to fit multiple vehicles, there could be lots of wires. All those wires will generally lead to cutting and crimping. Remember the warning from earlier, and consider the ramifications of cutting wires in respect to the vehicle warranty.

Car Stereo Programming, More Important Than Hardware

Whether installing an aftermarket or factory infotainment system, programming will be key.

All components of any modern vehicle will be associated with a computer that provides control and proper function. As noted in the example above, the new unit will have to communicate and function in the environment for the particular vehicle in which it is being installed.

Just because the radio came from a 2017 Ram 1500 and will be going into the same vehicle, doesn't guarantee a plug-and-play fit.

  • Did the previous setup have satellite radio?
  • Does the new vehicle have power folding mirrors and where the old one did not?
  • Does a system upgrade come with additional modules the old system did not?

If upgrading, additional hardware may be necessary, usually another micro-computer, for proper function. With Aftermarket options, sometimes the additional components will be included, in many cases they will not.

All those pieces have to be programmed to work in harmony. If not programmed properly, functionality of the infotainment unit itself, or periphery accessories may no longer work as expected. The most common sign of a system in need of programming will be volume controls that don't work.

Vehicles can be programmed in one of three ways; via the dealership, purchase software for DIY or use a third party programmer like OBD Genie.

The dealership will be accessible and most likely reliable. A trip to the dealer service center will be required and the standard shop fees will apply.

Software can be a low cost option, though simplicity will greatly depend on the software used to program. Expect that the simpler and easier the software, the higher the cost. An OBDII dongle will also be necessary. The dongle allows the software to communicate with vehicle's network.

Third party programmers can be quick and simple solutions. These little tools plug into the vehicle's OBDII port, and program the vehicle for specific functionality without any input from humans. They usually come in price wise above the software solution and below the dealer visit.

Buying a Car Stereo—Infotainment System? What to Look For

Look for a fully-engineered solution when replacing or upgrading a vehicle infotainment system.

The head unit itself should come with all mounts, screws, wiring harnesses and programming. If it doesn't, find where they can be bought and what's required for installation. Always verify any equipment meets compatibility for the specific year, make and model of the installation vehicle.

Finding complete factory kits can often be very difficult. With aftermarket, finding complete solutions can be much easier, but then wiring and installation issues tend to be a more complicated matter. Oftentimes, aftermarket solutions will still need that trip to the dealer for programming.

If the replacement system will be an upgrade to a higher model, be sure to confirm the new equipment will be compatible.

For the Ram, the very popular UAQ radio fits all model years from 2013 - 2019. Ram also has a 12-inch radio option for the 2019 and up year models. Unlike the UAQ, the 12-inch unit will not retrofit previous years.

Always check customer feedback. Because current vehicle networks sometimes need time to integrate programming changes, problems might not arise immediately. It make 2 or 3 days for issues to appear. If this situation does occur, who will provide assistance to get the new system up and running?