Testing Android Auto and Apple CarPlay in a 2016 Mitsubishi Pajero GLS
Finally, it’s here. True smartphone integration with your car, or maybe not… We explore Android Auto and Apple CarPlay in the 2016 Mitsubishi Pajero GLS.
FOR A LONG WHILE now cars have been edging ever closer to smartphones. Bluetooth audio for phonecalls is now almost as common as power windows, and Bluetooth audio music streaming (BTA) isn’t far behind. Satnav is hardly new, and many cars can read text messages, even sending short replies.
And now we come to the next step, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Both systems are similar – you connect your phone via Bluetooth to the car as usual, and then connect it via USB, so yes, your phone must be tethered by USB. Then your phone powers applications built into the car’s system – this isn’t screen mirroring or an extended display, it’s using your smartphone as a data and control source for the car. And to some extent, vice-versa.
The idea is that why duplicate – you’ve got all you need on the phone, so why not have the car just act as part of the phone. That said, the screen in the car isn’t particularly high resolution (only 800×480 pixels) or bright. It’s workable enough but it’s not like a small Samsung tablet or iPad embedded in the dash. Still, the experience is not the same as using your phone just via a car’s screen, and the reason is simple – safety.
You can glue your face to a smartphone which is usually in portrait mode, but a car will have a landscape screen and you need to pay most attention to the road not the screen. There’s also a bunch of hardware buttons in cars that aren’t available on smartphones, such as steering wheel-mounted controls.
All this requires a totally different interface, and both Apple and Google are sensibly prioritising voice commands as those have proven to be safest, as well as using simpler versions of the main apps. That’s why both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are special versions of the smartphone operating system designed for cars. Both companies carefully vet applications before they are permitted to be used for their systems, with the aim of compliance with the various safety standards around the world. For example, in Android Auto everything should be able to be done within six screen taps.
In both cases if you don’t connect your phone to the car then you still have functions such as radio, settings and the like but there’s no navigation or phonecalls. This will be fine if you’ve always got your phone with you.
We tested both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay in a 2016 Mitsubishi Pajero GLS for a few days, long enough to get first impressions, but we’d like to live with both systems for a few weeks to properly assess how much of a difference they make to the average daily life.
You have to download the Android Auto app, run it, accept lots of the usual terms and conditions, connect via USB and Bluetooth and then you’re in. Well, maybe. It was a fight to get my Samsung S5 recognised. Changed USB cables, rebooted, swore. Then all of a sudden it started working, and same deal for an S4, but a Samsung Note 4 worked perfectly first time. Once connected, as standard you get Google Maps, Google Music, text messaging and voice recognition.
In practice, Auto isn’t all that useful over what you’d find in a well set up infotainment unit. The single biggest improvement is Google Maps, because suddenly you get an intuitive user interface that pretty much already knows where you’re going and figures things out even if mis-spelled and you don’t get the suburb exactly right. Plus you get real-time traffic information, working exactly like it does on your smartphone. Google is also smart enough to work out your next appointment and give you directions to it…spooky, but useful, displaying key information alerts on cards that pop up. This doesn’t include things like Facebook likes, just items like text messages. Good for minimisng distractions, and maybe it’ll lead to people using specific comms like SMS for urgent things, knowing say a Facebook message may not be noticed until later. The voice commands and recogition are better than what you find in an average vehicle though, and aware of your smartphone’s data about you for context.
Music playing and phone functions are also better than what you find in most cars as standard. The user interface is prettier, you get photos and communications context like last call – again, it’s pretty much your smartphone displayed on the car. Voice control is available too, and the system can be controlled via the steering wheel buttons.
So that’s the basic functions of navigation, music and comms. There’s also additional applications which you can find here -> g.co/androidauto. These are mostly voice and information/news apps, and useful enough but again you can run them on your smartphone regardless which has a better screen anyway.
Perhaps because of this focus on safety the smartphone screen blanks when using Auto. It’d be nice to have screen mirroring, or maybe even an extended screen. Maybe in the future. I like having two screens, and in my own cars have added phone mounts bolted to the dash. This allows me to have the car’s screen doing one thing (music usually) and the phone doing something else (usually navigation). Having just the one screen means switching from screen to screen, which is tedious and a safety issue.
Android Auto is rapidly becoming available across a wide range of vehicles from Mitsubishi to Maserati to Mahindra. You need a phone running Android 5.0 Lollipop or later (go to Settings, Help, About Device to check). In practice, this means a pretty late-model Android.
The Mitsubishi system does Apple CarPlay too. The setup experience here is a lot smoother and easier than Android. No need for any apps as it is integrated into iOS9, and our test iPhone 6S just connected first time, every time, as did another 6 I borrowed – no screens to click through, no setup, no drama. Apple also leaves the smartphone screen active and mirrors the screens to some extent. So far so good, but then Android starts to pull ahead. You get Apple’s mapping system, which still isn’t as good as Google Maps. The integration with what’s coming up in your digital life is as good as Google, smoothly reminding you about this that and the other. And like Auto, CarPlay relies more on voice commands than text. This means you need to enable Siri to use the system and it will ask you to the first time in the setup process if you haven’t done so already. Siri, love it or hate it (her? him?) is effective.
Aside from navigation and messaging there’s also music, and here CarPlay has a better interface than Auto; more responsive and smoother. There’s Spotify and all the usual music services.
Like Auto, Apple have restricted what apps can be run, and also restrict notifications to essentials, all in the name of safety. There’s only nine or so apps as of the time of writing, mostly audiobooks and podcasts. You can see the list here -> http://www.apple.com/au/ios/carplay/
Apple CarPlay is compatible with the iPhone 5 onwards running iOS9, but no iPads.
Well, with this early release let’s just say both systems show significant promise but neither are must-haves for a new car. Nobody who used the systems left thinking they absolutely must find a way to get it into their next car.
However, there will be significant future development and we expect that soon every car will have such a system, relying entirely on a smartphone for its infotainment functions. You can also expect what’s left of your privacy to disappear as now your smartphone will know all about your car, and your car will know all about your smartphone. And both of them are likely to tell their respective manufacturers, but of course it’ll be all anonymised “for product development”.
So should you buy a car based on whether it has Auto or CarPlay? Right now I’d prefer one of the better set up infotainment units such as that in the Ford Ranger – quicker, easier to use, just as many functions if not more. However, I’d definitely take Auto/CarPlay over the more horrible in-car systems (which is 95% of them), such as those lurking in some Subarus, Mitsubishis and Toyotas.
We predict that Auto/Carplay will improve rapidly to the point where it is a must-have. There’s around 30 manufacturers that support the systems now, and we can expect the rest to follow as well as seeing the technology rolled out throughout the range.
You can also buy aftermarket units from the likes of Kenwood, Pioneer and Alpine that feature Auto and CarPlay, although these will take some installing and may not be as fully integrated as the manufacturer units.
And sorry, Windows Phone and Blackberry users. Nothing for you!
Our review of the 2016 Mitsubishi Pajero GLS can be read here.