The term “car stereo” doesn’t adequately describe what’s in the dash of most new cars. Over the past few years, what once was a simple music-making machine has transformed into a full-blown infotainment console with enough power to fly the Starship Enterprise. Today, even modest factory-installed units come with touchscreens and Bluetooth, but if you make the jump to an aftermarket deck, it can double as a backup camera monitor, a speakerphone, a navigational tool, or even a movie screen.
It’s absolutely worth enduring some growing pains to experience CarPlay.
That’s the idea, anyway. Although the CarPlay demonstration I got in San Francisco last May was impressive, the technology was still in development, I didn’t get to push any buttons, and I got the feeling the version consumers would ultimately get would be further evolved, perhaps with more apps and more functions added. Turns out, that’s exactly what happened. So when Pioneer announced that its NEX-series in-dash receivers could finally be updated with CarPlay, I raced home, updated my deck, and hit the blacktop for a 6-hour road trip to put the system through the wringer. I learned that, despite a few bugs, CarPlay has the power to change what people expect from their in-car entertainment systems, and possibly even save a few lives.
Hands on video
How to get CarPlay
If you want CarPlay, then for now you must either buy a new car that has it pre-loaded into the factory-installed entertainment system (presently, the choices are few and expensive), or you need to own or purchase one of six Pioneer in-dash receivers (you can find a list of CarPlay compatible receivers here). Presently, Pioneer is the only company with aftermarket in-dash receivers that support CarPlay. Alpine should follow suit soon, however.
If you purchase a new deck, the installers should take care of updating the deck’s firmware, but if you already own one of five NEX-series receivers, you can update the firmware yourself by visiting this page, downloading the firmware update, unzipping it to a USB drive or SD card, and following the installation instructions. It took us about 20 minutes. If you’re still rocking iOS 8.0, then be sure to update to version 8.0.2. While CarPlay will work with iOS versions 7.1 and later, we found that running iOS8 was even buggier than working off of 8.0.2.
It’s your phone on your dash … with extra help from Siri
As Apple fans have come to expect, CarPlay works just like the iPhone does. Unfortunately, the aphorism, “It just works,” doesn’t apply here. Not yet, anyway. CarPlay, as implemented in our Pioneer 8000NEX receiver, exhibited several bugs and quirks that, on occasion, brought our Apple-in-the-car party to a screeching halt.
With that said, we think that those who are able to enjoy what CarPlay has to offer right now, should – albeit with tempered expectations. In spite of its spotty performance in some areas, CarPlay on the whole is incredibly cool tool, and absolutely worth enduring some growing pains in order to experience using it. Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect:
Press the familiar green phone icon, and Siri will immediately come to your aid, asking “Who would you like to call?,” or some variant thereof. You can then dictate any name from your contact list, and Siri will place the call.
If you don’t feel like dealing with Siri, that’s OK, too. You may skip right past Siri and look up the person you want to call using all of the familiar tabs available on your iPhone. Favorites, Recents, and Contacts are readily available. From there you may scroll around using touch controls or any built in cursor controls your vehicle may offer. Access to the keypad and visual voice mail is also one touch away.
Just like the iPhone, CarPlay will let you leave one screen to access other apps. So, if you need to get your navigation on, you simply press the static Home button at the bottom left of the screen and dig into maps. A little icon in the upper left corner of the screen gives you instant access to the call, in case you need it.
CarPlay’s Messages app is one of our favorite features. If you receive a message while connected to CarPlay, an alert will appear at the top of the screen, no matter what you’re doing.
We conducted extensive text-based conversations without once touching our phone … it was liberating.
It is your choice whether or not to pull up the message, but if you do, Siri will ask you if you want to have the message read to you. If you choose to respond, you’ll be given the option to review your response just to make sure Siri got it right, and change it if necessary.
During our testing, we conducted extensive text-based conversations without once touching our phone … it was liberating.
Messages also integrates with the Maps app in that any address texted to you will be available in a list of destinations Maps keeps stored for reference. Speaking of Maps …
With CarPlay, Maps is more like the navigation hardware and software you really want in your car, only better in some ways, and not quite as advanced in others.
Maps can access your contact list and Messages for addresses — that’s not something you can get from your TomTom or Garmin. Plus, Siri allows you to search for addresses without ever having to pick up your phone. Need to find a pizza joint or coffee shop? Just ask Siri. She’ll display the options nearby for you choose. Likewise, if you’re after a specific location, instructing Siri to find it for you usually turns out well.
On the other hand, Maps doesn’t display street addresses in real time like Pioneer’s built-in navigational system does, nor does it provide as immersive a point-of-view experience while driving. For instance, its 3D rendering of buildings isn’t nearly as accurate. Of course, this is likely to change as Maps evolves over time.
Music and Podcasts
Music and Podcasts function exactly as you would expect them to, with one small exception: iTunes Radio takes front and center stage when the Music icon is pressed.
There didn’t seem to be any way to alter Siri’s voice volume independently of music volume.
From here you get all the iTunes Radio functions – you can start a station based on a song or artist. Genius playlists are also available, if you’re into that sort of thing.
But if you’re like me, you’re going to blast right past iTunes radio and access your music by song, artist, or playlist. Note: You’ll have to press the “more” key if you want to get at your full song list and shuffle it up.
One nice perk is that CarPlay displays smoked-out album art behind the informational text display while a song is playing. This just adds an extra little dose of the Apple experience, and it’s a welcome one.
Spotify and “other supported apps”
For me, Spotify is the one third-party app CarPlay just had to have when it was introduced. You can imagine, then, that I was pretty excited to see that an app update issued October 2 enabled CarPlay support alongside the release of the CarPlay firmware update. You can also probably imagine how incredibly disappointed I was to find out that Spotify, in its present implementation, is virtually unusable.
All the essential elements are there: You can browse for music, access playlists, and even access your iPhone’s music catalog, all from Spotify. The only problem is, the app simply doesn’t work most of the time.
There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to Spotify’s lack of response to touch commands. At times it seemed like Spotify was still loading something, or perhaps having some sort of secret argument with the CarPlay software. There were times when album art would flash on and off as if everything was about to crash. And still other times we’d press a button and get a blank screen. Worst of all, the 8000NEX would simply seize up, crash, and restart itself.
Simply put: Don’t expect Spotify to work for now. Furthermore, we don’t suggest you try while driving. Hands-free devices aren’t any safer when you’re fighting with them, and wrestling with Spotify certainly makes you fight the system.
As for the “other supported apps” Apple claims are available: they aren’t … yet. Beats Music, iHeartRadio, MLB.com’s At Bat, Stitcher, and CBS Radio are all supposed to be supported, but they don’t appear on the CarPlay screen for now, so we’ll have to presume that future updates will change that.
In its present form, CarPlay feels like it’s still in beta, and to a certain extent, that’s understandable. This is first-gen technology after all. Still, I can’t help but feel like I should expect a little more from Apple. Isn’t Google supposed to be the one that releases half-baked products? We know from speaking to Pioneer that the process of getting CarPlay approved in its decks was exhaustive and thorough. And yet, here we are dealing with bugs.
All that aside, however, CarPlay is a game-changing interface that has great potential to re-invigorate the aftermarket car audio industry. Even with its quirks, it’s a ton of fun to use. And when the bugs are worked out, it’s going to be a lot of fun to show off, too. If you have the means, we strongly suggest you upgrade your ride with CarPlay and give it a spin for yourself.
- Much-improved Siri interaction
- Siri reads you your text messages
- Maps accesses texted addresses, recent destinations
- Phone calls have never been easier
- Spotifiy is non-functional
- Small selection of third-party apps
- Buggy, stuttered operation
- Siri’s voice volume is fixed relative to other sounds