Unleash the smart functionality of your car
For years, drivers have suffered through terrible car stereo interfaces and struggled to get digital music in their cars. Now, in the smartphone era, that's finally changing: Many new in-dash units are built to connect with iPhones and Android phones, and both Apple and Google have released in-car platforms -- CarPlay and Android Auto, respectively -- that bring the conveniences of their respective interfaces to our cars. At long last, our car stereos can be as easy to use as our smartphones.
There's only one catch: You'll have to decide which in-dash receiver is right for you, and avoid the ones that skimp on critical features. Here's everything you need to know about getting Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in your car.
CarPlay versus Android Auto
Both Apple and Google's in-car software platforms perform the same basic functions, but there are some key differences to know about when deciding which to go with. Here's what to expect:
CarPlay is for Apple iPhones and provides car-optimized versions of specific apps, optimized for the six- or seven-inch screen found on most in-dash receivers. All CarPlay receivers work with a microphone, so you can use Apple's digital assistant, Siri, for help with directions or playing music -- Siri can even read new text messages aloud (but if you're not into that, it can be disabled). Not all iOS apps have CarPlay equivalents, so if you rely on a particular app for podcasting, or a third-party GPS solution for crowdsourcing traffic information, check to see if there's an equivalent CarPlay version -- and if there isn't, you won't see it in the CarPlay interface. If you love the tightly integrated services in Apple's product ecosystem, you'll love how CarPlay plays nice with everything from iTunes to Apple Maps in your car.
Android Auto is for Google Android phones, and it brings key Google services (like Google Maps and Google Assistant) with easy interfaces to your car's in-dash screen. And while both Android Auto and CarPlay offer voice-activated dialing, popular streaming apps like Spotify, and even excellent default GPS functionality, Android Auto has many more car-compatible apps available, giving consumers a lot more choice. If you own an Android phone, or you're considering switching to Android, using an in-dash receiver that supports Android Auto is the perfect way to extend your phone's functionality when you're driving.
Many in-dash receivers speak both languages -- meaning they're compatible with both Android Auto and CarPlay -- so no matter what brand of smartphone you use, you know you'll be covered. (Not all in-dash receivers support both, though, so if you want a specific platform, make sure the unit you buy supports it.)
It's easy to get overwhelmed when shopping for a new car stereo, and hard to tell which features are gimmicks and which are essential. Here are the in-dash unit features we recommend most.
A capacitive touchscreen. There are two types of touchscreens: resistive and capacitive. Resistive touchscreens require you to push, and are built with parts that wear out. In contrast, capacitive touchscreens are made with glass and used in smartphones around the world. If you're ready to have a touchscreen in your car that feels just like your phone, make sure the unit you buy has a capacitive touchscreen.
Wireless CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity. Most CarPlay receivers connect to smartphones with USB cables, but some in-dash receivers now support wireless connectivity, so CarPlay or Android Auto starts automatically. This will eventually be the standard -- but for now, it's a feature for which you may have to pay extra.
Multiple video inputs. Most in-dash receivers have one camera input for the rear backup camera, but other models can have up to three so they can connect to side-mirror blind spot cameras. Side-mirror blind spot cameras automatically display on the screen when you turn a blinker on, so you screen is displaying more of the road behind you. Blind spot cameras won't just make you a safer driver -- they'll also give you a clear advantage when parallel parking.
Multiple USB inputs. All in-dash receivers with CarPlay or Android Auto will have a USB input so you can wire your phone directly to the unit. While you technically don't need more than one to make CarPlay work, having an additional available USB port means you can connect a thumb drive with personal music for playback, or charge a second phone while your first one is connected to CarPlay or Android Auto.
Ready to start looking at in-dash receivers for your car? Here are our favorite models for different lifestyles.
For the audiophile
Kenwood's Excelon series gets everything right, but where they really shine is with audio quality. The DDX9904S not only features a 13-band EQ meter for customizing the sound -- it also supports high-resolution audio formats like FLAC and DSD. Finding an in-dash unit with CarPlay, Android Auto, and a capacitive touchscreen at this price point is incredible on its own, but Kenwood's attention to high fidelity make this a must-buy for music fans.
For the commuter
Sony's XAV-AV5000 is one of the few car stereos that's just as easy to use as CarPlay or Android Auto on its own -- the interface is built with simplicity in mind, and it's a welcome break from the complicated, confusing menus found on models from other manufacturers. And whether you're using the native interface, Android Auto, or CarPlay, the XAV-AV5000's giant screen is a delight to interact with.
For the road tripper with an iPhone
Pioneer's NEX series of in-dash receivers support CarPlay, but not Android Auto -- but if you're an iPhone owner, they're some of the best units available. The AVIC-8200NEX is one of the best available: it brings CarPlay, a capacitive touchscreen, and built-in GPS to the party, so you'll have all of the convenient entertainment you need on your next road trip -- and you'll never get lost, even if you lose cell reception.
Jaime is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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