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Featured Review: Android Auto

May 23, 2015 - Written By Alexander Maxham

In June 2014, Google took the stage at Moscone West in San Francisco for Google I/O 2014. We got all kinds of goodies, including a preview of Android L, which later became Android 5.0 Lollipop. We also were reintroduced to Android Wear – which then launched at Google I/O – as well as introduced to Android TV and Android Auto. Android Wear launched right after the Keynote, with Android TV coming in the fall in the form of the Nexus Player along side the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9. However, Android Auto took a bit longer to come out. It actually launched in March with Pioneer having the first head units available. No cars that are currently on sale actually have Android Auto, many cars from Volkswagon, Hyundai, GM and others are slated to get an update to the existing infotainment system however.

We’ve spent about a month with Android Auto, and have mostly great things to say about it. But of course, as comes with every first-generation product there is room for improvement and with Google I/O taking place next week in San Francisco, we could likely see that improvement there. Or further down the road.

It’s worth noting that our review unit is the Pioneer AVH-4100NEX unit. Which is currently on sale on Amazon for about $550.

Installation

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Installation actually took a bit longer than I expected. It took them about 2-3 hours, and a good majority of that time was waiting on the Android Auto update to download onto the head unit. I had Car Tunes install it for me, that way it would be done right. Now since you do have to have the phone plugged in, the cable actually comes running out of the glove box. Looks a bit ghetto, but it works. There are two cables, one for CarPlay and one for Android Auto, you can’t mix them up either as the first port is only good for Apple CarPlay and not Android Auto.

Android Auto Setup

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It took me a few minutes to learn how to setup a phone with Android Auto. It was actually pretty simple. Obviously you’ll need the Android Auto app downloaded, which is in the Play Store. You will also need to pair it via Bluetooth to the head unit. Which is simple, however if you have multiple Android devices like myself, that can be an issue. As the head unit can only keep about 3 smartphones in memory at once. So I often have to go through and delete a number smartphones so I can connect a new one.

To set up Android Auto, first pair your device with the head unit. Next up plug it into the head unit. Now switch the input to USB 2. It should take a few seconds and then launch Android Auto, and you should be all set. Sometimes it doesn’t like to start up if the car is not in Park, or if the emergency brake is on. It doesn’t seem to be consistent there.

Navigation

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Since I’m mostly driving in the Detroit area, and I’ve lived here most of my life, I don’t really need navigation. But I did use it a few times. I actually found myself using Google Maps more to see how traffic is in certain areas. Living in the suburbs, traffic is a much bigger concern than it is in the city of Detroit, at least here. Navigation is pretty spot on. You can easily tap the microphone and say “Navigate to Five Guys” or another place and it’ll quickly find the place you want to go and start navigation.

It does do navigation through your phone. So if you pick up your phone while it’s being used for Android Auto, you’ll probably notice that it’s a bit warm. That’s because it’s charging, using Google Maps and Navigation and possibly streaming music, if you’re like me.

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One thing I’d like to see changed is the ability to choose different mapping apps. I understand that some like Nokia’s HERE maps better than Google Maps. And Android is all about choice, so it would make sense that Google would allow that.

Music and Podcast Apps

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One of the other popular features of Android Auto is its media capabilities. So you have Google Play Music by default of course. But what if you don’t use Google Play Music, what if you use Spotify? Or iHeartRadio? You can use those. Simply tap the headphones icon in the bottom row and you’ll be able to choose which app you want to use. I, myself, use Spotify for everything and it works great with Android Auto. Again it’s running through your phone, so be careful streaming music if you aren’t on unlimited data or have T-Mobile’s Music Freedom.

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There are a number of apps that support Android Auto now, including Pocket Casts, Beyond Pod, Spotify, iHeart Radio and many others. There’s actually a list now in Google Play. However, I’ve only been able to find that list by hitting “Browse Compatible Apps” from the Android Auto companion app. Currently the list is pretty short, but I think that’ll change soon.

Apps Period.

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There’s not a whole lot of Android Auto compatible apps out there just yet. And that’s mostly on the developers. As they can easily make their app compatible with Android Auto, and have been able to since shortly after Google I/O last year. Just to give you an idea of what apps are available, for media we have Spotify, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, NPR One, Umano, Joyride Podcast, Pocket Casts, Google Play Music, and TuneIn Radio. For messaging we have a bit more including WhatsApp, Skype, Text Me!, textPlus, Kik, Contacts+, Hangouts, Talkray, Threema, and ICQ Messenger. And that’s it. There’s a pretty good number of apps for both those categories, but that’s all we’ve got. Not alternatives for maps. No way to add extra apps like roadside assistance, etc. It’s something I really hope Google works on for an upcoming update. Because having roadside assistance built in is going to be a big one.

Performance

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The performance of Android Auto solely depends on your device. For instance, I used the LG G Flex 2 and the HTC One M9 with Android Auto. The One M9 for example, got really warm and thus began throttling. Making Android Auto lag, and lag pretty bad. However, if I plug in the Google Nexus 6 or the ASUS Zenfone 2, they work without any problems, even if I’ve been driving for a few hours. With the HTC One M9, I had Spotify streaming and then opened up Maps and tapped the microphone to tell it to navigate somewhere, it took much longer than normal, and then it couldn’t tell what I said.

The main rule of thumb here is that if you have a capable device, you should be fine. If not, you may run into issues. But that is something I think Google will fix in an upcoming update to Android Auto, at least I hope so.

Voice Commands – Sometimes they work, Sometimes not so much

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A big part of Android and even Google’s services as a whole, moving forward is voice. There are all kinds of voice commands used on our smartphones, tablets and even desktops – especially if you have a Chromebook or Chrome Box. Like the “OK Google Now” that can be used anywhere in the Android OS. But not in Android Auto. That’s right, the “OK Google Now” hotword detection is not present in Android Auto. To me, that’s a minor complaint, as I can easily tap the microphone. But Google wants to make Android Auto as least distracting as possible, and that doesn’t really help.

If you use Voice Commands in the car and have the air conditioning or heat on, there’s a high chance it won’t recognize what you said. I’ve had to turn off my fan and talk to it, before it would know what I said. So obviously, if you’re trying to use voice commands in a car full of people, you’ll have even less success.

Voice Commands need work. Hopefully that’s on Google’s roadmap or ToDo list. As that should be a HUGE part of Android Auto. Especially where Google is touting how safe Android Auto is and how distracting other infotainment systems are, in comparison.

Final Thoughts

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I’ve been asked many times on Google+ and Twitter whether Android Auto is worth the investment. I’ve been purposely ignoring those comments until my review was done. And even now that it is done, I’m still unsure. I usually tell people to stay away from first-generation products, unless they are geeks, or it’s needed for their job – like in my case. As first-generation products typically lack some features, some performance and sometimes just don’t work like they should. Android Auto is one of those products. I do love Android Auto, don’t get me wrong, there are things that need to be worked on. And I think it’s all on Google and not Pioneer.

So should you go out and buy an after-market head unit, just for Android Auto? No. Not just for Android Auto. But if you want all the other bells and whistles that come along with that head unit, sure, be my guest. It’s a great head unit, with HD Radio, Pandora compatibility, and a ton of other cool features, while the higher end models (AVIC-7100NEX and AVIC-8100NEX) both have Nokia HERE Maps built in with space for saving maps offline.

If you don’t like the head units that are available now, just wait, there’s more coming. JVC Kenwood and Panasonic are also doing head units, which should be available at some point this year.