What Is Android Auto, and Is It Better Than Just Using a Phone in Your Car?

September 13th, 2016 by Mark Daly in Industry News No Comments »
What Is Android Auto, and Is It Better Than Just Using a Phone in Your Car? ilicomm Technology Solutions

These days, more and more people turn to their phones for GPS and music in their car. And why wouldn’t they? Google Maps is way better than whatever lame system is built into your vehicle. Enter Android Auto: the best of what your phone offers, but built in to the head unit of your dash.

What Is Android Auto?

In its simplest form, Android Auto is exactly what it sounds like: it’s Android for your car. It’s not a blown-up version of your phone, but it should feel very familiar to anyone who already uses Android. It has a home screen, integrated Google Maps, and support for a slew of audio applications. It also uses voice control for essentially everything, so you can keep your eyes on the road. It’ll read your texts to you, as well as let you reply, launch any app, navigate to a location, or play music with a simple voice command. Just like Android Wear is an Android companion you wear on your wrist, Auto is a companion that goes in the car.

Android Auto comes in two forms. You can either buy a car that has Android Auto built-in (as many 2017 models do), or purchase an aftermarket head unit and have it installed. The former is of course the easiest method, but if you’re not in the position to buy a new car (especially justto get Auto), then it’s also the most impractical. That’s where the second choice comes into play—several car stereo manufacturers are getting into the Android Auto game these days, with companies like JBL, Kenwood, and Pioneer leading the pack.

This is the direction I went with my 2013 Kia Sorento—I’ve had the car for a little more than a year, so getting a new vehicle just for the Auto experience was simply out of the question. A new head unit is a much more practical, though still fairly pricey, option. I ended up going with a Kenwood DDX9903S as my head unit, as it seemed to offer the best set of features and “future-proofing” for the money.

What Is Android Auto, and Is It Better Than Just Using a Phone in Your Car? ilicomm Technology Solutions

No matter which you get, though, the core of Android Auto is the same. Like any other head unit, you have a touch screen that gives you quick access to weather, directions to recently searched places, and currently playing music. The interface looks a lot like your Android phone, with dedicated buttons along the bottom for Maps, Phone, Home, Music, and the final button to exit Auto and return to the head unit’s primary interface.

What Is Android Auto, and Is It Better Than Just Using a Phone in Your Car? ilicomm Technology Solutions

Of course, Android Auto isn’t a standalone product—it’s essentially “powered” by your phone. You plug your phone into the car via USB, and the phone communicates with Auto through USBand Bluetooth at the same time–depending on what it’s doing. For example, it’ll play music over USB, but make phone calls over Bluetooth. And since your phone stays plugged in, it’s always charged.

What Is Android Auto, and Is It Better Than Just Using a Phone in Your Car? ilicomm Technology Solutions What Is Android Auto, and Is It Better Than Just Using a Phone in Your Car? ilicomm Technology Solutions

Much like Android Wear, Auto has an app that runs on the smartphone, which does all the heavy lifting for you. As soon as you install the app and plug the phone into an Auto unit, it pairs the smartphone over Bluetooth and handles everything else over the USB connection—very little is required of the user to get started.

Once it’s all up and running, you can just toss the phone into the console, into your lap, or wherever. From this point forward, it will be rendered essentially useless—Auto will force itself into the foreground of the phone, removing access to all controls aside from Home and Back. The idea is to keep your eyes off your phone while driving. It’s smart.

The safety features don’t stop with the phone, either—Auto itself has certain safety features built-in. For example, it will only let you scroll through three pages (or so) in things like Pandora or Google Play Music if the parking brake isn’t engaged. This can make it incredibly frustrating to find a certain playlist or song, especially if it’s found on the bottom half of a list.

What Is Android Auto, and Is It Better Than Just Using a Phone in Your Car? ilicomm Technology Solutions

But that’s okay–the idea is for you to control everything with your voice. Instead of scrolling through Play Music, you’d tap the mic, then say “Play The End from In Flames on Google Play Music.” That way you can keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. (Sadly, there’s no “Ok Google” hotword like there is on some phones.)

Voice actions don’t really stop there, either. Since it’s essentially using Google Now, you can ask it pretty much anything you’d ask Now. Things like “How tall is Jimmy Butler?” or “What was Impending Doom’s first album called?” will work—basically anything with a simple answer that it can read back to you. If it’s more of a general Google Search (like “Chicago Bulls 2016-2017 schedule”), then it won’t really work on Auto. It’s just not designed for that.

And, as you’d expect, Navigation is awesome. Telling it to navigate to certain places has gone off without a hitch every time for me, and it has been a great experience. I got my head unit installed just before vacation, so I used navigation a lot during that time. It’s so nice to see a seven-inch screen with the map on it instead of just trying to fumble around with a phone.

Where Android Auto Falls Short

Android Auto isn’t perfect, of course. The biggest issue I ran into was with voice control. Sometimes it worked well, other times it had trouble understanding what I wanted. For example, if I say “Play my In Flames playlist on Google Play Music,” it has no idea what I want it to do—it’s not fully aware of things like playlists in Play Music. It sometimes has a hard time with Pandora stations, too: saying “Play Alice in Chains Radio on Pandora” doesn’t always result in my Alice in Chains Radio station being played, but instead the last-played station will just start—essentially, it just launches Pandora because it doesn’t know what to do with “play Alice in Chains radio.” I’ve had much better results with “Play Alice in Chains on Pandora.” I’d like to think it should be smart enough to know the difference, but maybe I’m asking too much.

What Is Android Auto, and Is It Better Than Just Using a Phone in Your Car? ilicomm Technology Solutions

There’s also the matter of cost. If you’re getting a new car, then you can include Auto on your “want” list and be done with it. But if you are installing Android Auto into your existing car, things get pricey quickly. Android Auto head units can cost $500 on the low end, and unless you’re familiar with how technical modern car audio systems can be, they essentially require a professional installation. So, at the end of the day, you’re looking at roughly $800 at a bare minimum to get into an aftermarket Auto unit–over $1000 if you want something that’s actually good (seriously–the low-end models come with old-school, crappy resistive touch screens. You don’t want that). If you don’t have a significant amount of disposable income, justifying that kind of price can be tough, if do-able at all.

So if you already have a phone and a cheap dock, why spend hundreds of dollars on an Andoroid Auto unit?

How Is It Different than Using Your Phone with a Dock?

Android Auto is similar to your phone–but designed for the car, and it makes a bigger difference than you’d think. For example, most Auto head units have significantly larger displays than even the biggest Android phones. My Kenwood DDX9903S has a seven-inch display, versus the six-inch panel on my Nexus 6P. While that may seem like a relatively insignificant difference on paper, in practice it’s pretty substantial. Everything is much easier to see from the driver’s seat, especially compared to the phone in a dock. And, since you control it primarily with your voice, it’s much easier to interact with.

Basically, your phone is just that: your phone. Its designed to be used while sitting around, walking, or any other time that your attention isn’t required to be somewhere else. That’s where Auto excels. It’s designed to get out of the way and let you pay attention to what matters in the car: the road. I mean, there are lives at stake out there, so playing with your phone is something that you should absolutely not be doing, under any circumstances. Period. Just don’t.

What Is Android Auto, and Is It Better Than Just Using a Phone in Your Car? ilicomm Technology Solutions

Now, it’s worth mentioning that you can a lot of the same things with an Android phone–especially the voice controls. With little more than an “Okay Google, play Sounds of the Playground Fading by In Flames,” your phone will do essentially the same thing. You just need a car with Bluetooth and/or an Auxiliary jack. And honestly, if all you use your phone for in the car is music, then your current setup is probably good enough!

If you do (or want to do) more than just music, however, Auto is a more efficient way of doing it. Google Maps is easily one of the best features of Auto, and I’d take it over just using my phone any day of the week. While the interface looks nearly identical, the larger display of Auto makes it so much more convenient in the car.

Plus, the fact that none of this requires my phone display to be in a huge play. Personally, I’ve had tons of issues with phones getting hot and even overheating when running music and navigation while charging in a dock on the dash. That’s just a lot going on at once, and the dash of the car is a stupid-hot place in the summer. I live in Texas, aka the surface of the sun, so that doesn’t help.. The amount of times I’ve had phones reboot or shut down from overheating is astounding.

What Is Android Auto, and Is It Better Than Just Using a Phone in Your Car? ilicomm Technology Solutions

So when it comes to multitasking, Auto is superior to just using a phone in the car in almost every way. While on vacation, I used Auto for navigation, music, texts, and phone calls—essentially everything it can do—constantly, and it never missed a beat. The music would automatically pause when a call or text came through, then start right back up afterwards. Navigation was on-point all the time, with constant traffic updates and notifications of faster routes as the became available. Again, a phone can do this, but it’s all about efficiency here, and in my opinion Auto is cost aside–better.

I’d be remiss, though, to leave out one more important detail: at Google I/O this year, the company announced that the full Android Auto experience will be coming to phones at some point. Essentially, the full Auto interface and function will be packed into the app, so you’ll only need to toss your phone in a dock and launch the app. We’ve yet to see this in action some four months later, but it’s supposedly coming by the end of 2016. Once that’s out, everyone can get in on Android Auto without spending $1000.

So Is Android Auto Worth It?

Ultimately, Android Auto is better than just using your phone–but is it $1000 better? Probably not, especially if the Auto interface comes to phones as Google’s promised.

But when it comes to actual use, I’d take it every single time over just using my phone. After years of only using a phone for music and navigation in the car (over Bluetooth), Auto has been a breath of fresh air: it’s everything I would want my phone to be.

So if you’re in the market for a new car, there’s no real reason to not get one with Auto. It’s great to have. But if your current car doesn’t have it and you’re thinking about upgrading to an Android Auto head unit, it’s probably better to just hold off for a few more months until the full Auto experience shows up on phones. At that point, you may have everything you need—including an extra grand in your pocket.


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