Audi's all-new Multi Media Interface – Click above for high-res image gallery

Audi's Multi Media Interface, or MMI, may not have been all things to all people when it launched in 2004, but Audi has been continually improving the system, making it the defacto way to access media in your Quattro-equipped sled. It's getting better still, with the third generation MMI (3G MMI) getting a boost courtesy of NVIDIA mobile graphics and providing some impressive visuals in the process. While attending CES, we took a bright green Q7 TDI for a spin and then walked inside to check out what's due to arrive later this year: the 2011 Audi A8's dashboard with Google Earth integration.

Naturally, Audi and NVIDIA are touting both systems' ability to enable a rich user experience while minimizing driver distractions. That's great in and of itself, but we were more interested in how the upgraded system performed. The 3G MMI experience is buttery smooth, whether scrolling around the Strip from above or zooming out to get a satellite view of the nation. The default view is an isometric perspective that, up-close, includes 3D representations of buildings. Back it up a bit and the buildings go flat and the terrain and coloring take center stage.

The tweaks to the interface are minor compared to the earlier versions, with the same iDrive-style dial flanked by four buttons, along with a "Return" button below and rows of buttons on either side to toggle through functions. A small joystick built into the top of the knob is new and allows the user to scroll through the navigation system and other screens. Although the MMI stands in good stead compared to other luxo-wart operated systems, we're not so sure about the new joystick. The position on top of the dial is less than optimal and not particularly intuitive; we'd prefer the dial to move side-to-side rather than fumbling with a little thumbstick.

Thankfully, Audi seems to realize this, ditching the joystick for the 2011 A8 and replacing it with a small touchpad. You can use this to type in numbers, scroll across maps and even write letters using character recognition. The rest of the physical interface is much the same, with the major change being Google Earth integration, providing a satellite view and a much nicer looking interface. The system pulls data through an integrated modem, either using a SIM card inserted into the dash or by cloning the owners' phone (in the European market). Exactly what Audi will do in the U.S. remains to be seen, but the hope is something similarly straightforward will be available to avoid additional monthly data fees.

Overall, the experience on either system is impressive. The screens load and display quickly, and scrolling around the 3D map shows off the NVIDIA Tegra chipset's added oomph. Unfortunately the truly good stuff is only hitting the flagship A8 and not until later this year, but it's sure to filter throughout the range in due time.

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