Android Auto Review

When Android Auto was first announced way back in 2015, along side Apple CarPlay, I didn't fully understand why anyone would want this as a feature. If your car's infotainment system works well, it should do everything fine without needing your phone's interface. However, that's the huge issue with infotainment systems: a lot of them suck. So Google, and Apple, decided to save automakers the trouble, and design a system that works every time your phone is plugged in to your car, giving you complete control over your phone through your radio, without distractions, giving you access to your music, maps, and the controlled text messaging complete with voice commands. The question becomes, is Google better than my automaker's infotainment system?

Comparing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto isn't like choosing between which trim level to get when buying a car, you either have one or the other. Yes, phones can be switched easily, but for most people, they use the same phone for 2 years, so it's important to factor this into your phone buying decision, should you purchase a car or aftermarket stereo with Apple CarPlay and/or Android Auto.

On my Pioneer aftermarket stereo, Android Auto loads up with a tap of a button on the home screen. The first thing you see when loading Android Auto is a Google Now-style card display, with the time at the time, the weather, although that doesn't always show up, and whatever Android deems as important enough to show you given the time you normally do things. So, if the car knows you normally go to work at a certain time, it will tell you how far work is, with directions ready to go. The same goes for your home location. It also loads up the last music app you were using, so long as it's Android Auto compatible, and missed or recent calls and text messages. The idea is great, giving you relevant information and nothing else, but Android Auto doesn't always know what I want. Apple's CarPlay just has buttons to take you to apps, and you make the decision as to what is relevant. If Android Auto forgot to show you that text you needed to hear, or if you need to call someone back, you're left fumbling with voice commands, which are incredibly unintuitive. Sure, if you're driving, you shouldn't be using your screen to go through menus, but I think the rage I get when voice commands have no idea what I'm asking for is far worse. Navigation across apps inside Android Auto is well handled with a button bar at the bottom of every app, showing buttons for maps, phone, home, music, and radio settings. This is great so you don't have to hit the home button every time you want to switch apps like in Apple CarPlay. What's also great is you aren't limited to Google's apps, clicking the maps or music button allows you to switch to a different Android Auto compatible app, so when I want to use Spotify instead of iHeart Radio, or Waze instead of Google Maps, it's an option. Google Maps is awesome in Android Auto, it's just as great as it on the phone, it could just use speed limit information like other map apps do. When choosing a music service, not everyone uses the same music apps for the same things. Spotify is great, I tell voice commands to play my music, and it only plays the music in "my music," which is what I want. Google Play Music, however, is far more annoying to speak to. There is no button to play my music in the menu. Only playlist choices, and other buttons to get me to stream music I don't have in my library. There seemingly isn't an easy way to say to Google Play Music to just play my library, because when I do, it plays the "I'm Feeling Lucky" playlist, or whatever the hell it thinks I want. That is annoying as hell when I'm just trying to play music I like while operating a motor vehicle. This really shouldn't be this hard. Otherwise, the interface for music in any app is well positioned, I just wish I could split screen maps and music.

One thing that may be unique to my LG V20 is that sometimes Android Auto simply doesn't speak to my radio. The whole point of Android Auto is I plug in my phone, and it just shows up on my radio, but every week or so, one random day, and it's usually one where I need maps to work, it just won't connect to the radio. It shows it's charging, and a notification pops up saying that Android Auto is connected to my car, but nothing shows up on screen, and I can't swipe away the notification. The only fix is to reboot the phone, which is very convenient while driving. That's a huge issue that I may be the only human being to experience, but I hope I'm not the only one. Also, Android Auto is not the smoothest to use, at least on my Pioneer unit. It may be smoother in terms of frame rate on other higher end or factory radios, but on mine, it's a bit slow to use. One thing that bugs me about Android Auto is that when it's connected to the car, you don't do anything on the phone. All that shows up is the Android Auto logo, and that's it. Apple CarPlay allows you to continue using the phone while it's connected, which is a good idea when you need to copy and paste an address for maps, or when you want to play music from a source not compatible with Android Auto. I mean, I get it, the fact I can't use my phone is for safety, but the only way back into the phone is to disconnect it from the radio, then the phone has to get its barrings in order, then I can use it, then I have to reconnect it, and then sometimes it won't reconnect, and that sounds a lot more dangerous to me.

The interface on Apple CarPlay is simply more intuitive. You don't have to hope the system will just know what you want, because you can just open what you want. However, Android Auto's use of a system-wide button bar at the bottom makes it incredibly easy to flip back and forth between music and maps. Android Auto has some tweaks to be made, but for having your phone integrated right into the radio, it works much better than most factory infotainment units.

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