By John R. Quain, Editor-At-Large
Everything you wanted to know about CarPlay and Android Auto but didn’t know who to ask
Starting this summer, car makers are cozying up to Apple and Google in an attempt to make it easier to connect your phone to the dashboard. Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto are super apps designed to aggregate smartphone apps on a car’s LCD display in order to make the experience more seamless and hopefully safer. Hyundai and Chevy are both pitching their 2016 models’ compatibility with the software, with many other major automakers not far behind.
What you need:
Aside from a compatible car, such as the current Hyundai Sonata (starting at $25,700) or a new infotainment system, such as Pioneer’s $895 AVIC-8100NEX, you need a compatible phone: an iPhone 5 or later model in the case of Apple’s CarPlay or an Android phone using 5.0 of the operating software or later for Android Auto. Autos will begin featuring Apple’s CarPlay first, but most will add Android Auto compatibility later.
What they offer:
Once you plug your phone in, it essentially beams the main app to the car’s
screen and within it you’ll find a collection of logically arranged apps that includes navigation from the phone, messages, music (from streaming services) and a few other offerings. Google supports a wider variety of apps than Apple. Android Auto’s list includes Skype, Google Maps, Google Play Music, Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and Stitcher. Google plans to add more but will control them more closely than the apps on its phones.
Apple’s CarPlay is more limited. It offers just a handful of apps so far, including iHeartRadio, Rdio, Spotify and Stitcher.
Neither company includes possibly the most popular app used in the car, Pandora. Furthermore, several car companies, such as Ford, already offer a greater number of phone-based apps on the dashboard using their own software.
What they can’t do:
Neither CarPlay nor Android Auto can control any of the standard functions in a car’s infotainment system, such as the radio, AC, or diagnostics like checking the tire pressure. To perform any of these functions, you have to switch out of Apple or Google’s uber app, go the car’s own software, and then switch back. It’s annoying and it is not likely to improve any time soon, if ever.
How they perform:
In CarPlay, there are the familiar Apple icons — eight icons per screen. A swipe takes you to the next screen, and a tap on the phone icon invokes Siri. Most operations are simplified or limited, although you can scroll through an alphabetical list of music tracks on your phone while driving, something I found distracting.
Android Auto focuses on navigation, incorporating the Waze traffic information into its maps. Along the bottom of the screen are icons registering incoming messages, a switch for making phone calls, and entertainment.
Both companies offer cloud-based voice recognition, which means you need a cellular connection to make them work properly. They both allow you to search for an address, dictate a message, and ask questions that the software answers by searching the Internet and then spitting back what sounds like a coherent response. But the shortcomings of both are more apparent than when you’re just using them on a smartphone, mainly because any delays or misunderstandings are magnified when you’re traveling down the road at 65 mph and need an answer right away.
Overall, Google’s voice recognition is much faster and more accurate than Siri. Google’s system is also context aware, whereas Apple’s Siri is location aware. In other words, if you ask Google about the San Diego Zoo and then say, “Navigate to the zoo,” Google will assume you mean the San Diego Zoo. If you follow the same steps with Siri while you’re sitting in New York City traffic, it will direct you to the nearest zoo in NYC. It may seem like a minor difference, but in practice it can make Siri seem schizophrenic.
Surprisingly, Apple’s CarPlay offers more attractive phone-based maps than Google. There are nifty 3D perspectives of some metropolitan areas and Apple automatically populates a list of possible addresses you might want to visit by pulling locations mentioned in emails. It’s handy if someone texts you an address.
Google is a better navigator, however, if only for its inclusion of Waze live traffic information, which is culled from other drivers currently on the road. Unlike the standalone smartphone version, Waze will not let you report on police checkpoints or speed traps (doing so could prove distracting)
Both navigation apps worked well enough, but they share a critical weakness: If you don’t have a cellular connection, you don’t have directions. So built-in nav systems and portable navigation devices still have the edge when it comes to finding your way in remote rural settings.
Both systems do a fair job of integrating apps with the dashboard. Both mute the music when there’s a warning alarm from the car, such a lane departure alert. And both lock a connected phone’s screen, removing dangerous temptations. However, Android Auto’s designers have a better understanding of driver needs. Google is faster and more focused on behind-the-wheel tasks; Apple is cuter but more aimed at potentially distracting manipulations like messaging or swiping through playlists.
Of course, if you’re an iPhone owner, you’re going to use CarPlay. Anyone who owns, say, a Samsung Galaxy S6 is going to use Android Auto. No one is going to dump their existing phone because one car interface is better than the other. At least, not for the moment.
While promising, if you’ve already got a car with connected services, such as models from Ford, Dodge, BMW, or Mercedes-Benz, there’s no compelling reason to get a new car this year (or next) just to get CarPlay or Android Auto. The software doesn’t yet offer enough advantages. Our advice: wait until version 2.0.