I’ve never been so excited to ride in a minivan.
The black Toyota Sienna outside my hotel lobby in downtown San Francisco is, admittedly, not a hot car. But the ride isn’t why I’m here – it’s what’s inside that I’m after. This unassuming family hauler is sporting Pioneer’s top-of-the-line AVIC-8000NEX in-dash receiver – the first armed with Apple’s CarPlay.
For those not familiar, CarPlay is Apple’s answer to the kludgy interface normally found on in-car entertainment systems. It essentially wraps your in-dash screen with an interface designed to look and feel like Apple’s phones and tablets, but simplified for use in the car. With CarPlay, users can tap and swipe on their stereo screen as they would on their phones to easily make phone calls, have Siri send and read text messages out loud, listen to stored or streaming music, and navigate around town using Apple Maps.
CarPlay essentially moves your phone screen to the dashboard.
Previously, getting CarPlay in your car has meant, well, getting a new car. And not a cheap one. Right now, the system only appears in select new models from Ferrari, Mercedes and Volvo. Apple does have deals in place with giant automakers like GM, Ford, Honda and Toyota, but it will take some time before it actually appears in cars from those companies. That means if you want CarPlay today, you’re buying from Pioneer or Alpine, the first two companies to offer CarPlay baked into aftermarket decks.
But with Pioneer’s NEX receivers starting at about $700, stepping up to CarPlay still isn’t “cheap.” We’ve seen it demonstrated on video and in stationary vehicles before, but how does it perform on the streets? And in cars – like yours – where it hasn’t been built in? I hopped in the Sienna, alongside Ted Cardenas, VP of Marketing for Pioneer’s car electronics division, to find out.
CarPlay: More than meets the eye
As car stereos go, the 8000NEX is one of the more beautiful and intuitive I’ve seen. Pioneer’s own interface is well animated, zippy, comprehensive and intuitive on the 7-inch LCD screen – certainly a huge step up from what is built into most cars – so CarPlay has its work cut out to offer any improvement.
Cardenas explains that when current NEX stereo owners are ready to add CarPlay to their head units this summer, all they’ll need is a USB flash drive and about five minutes. The upgrade is automated, and when it’s finished, a new CarPlay icon appears on the receiver’s home screen. Cardenas pulls up the CarPlay menu, and it becomes clear that CarPlay doesn’t replace the NEX’s built-in interface, it lives alongside it.
To be frank, the CarPlay menu itself isn’t much to look at. Right now, it’s just a small selection of basic iOS icons – Phone, Music, Maps, Messages, Now Playing, and an icon to return you to the Pioneer NEX home screen. But this simplicity is at the heart of CarPlay. It’s exactly like an iPhone, so there’s no learning curve for iPhone users. It just works when you plug your phone in.
Yes, plug your phone in. CarPlay works by connecting via an Apple Lightning to USB cable, not over Bluetooth, so your phone must be physically connected to the dash. Those still holding on to an iPhone 4 or 4S models will also be disappointed to learn that CarPlay is only compatible with the iPhone 5, 5C and 5S running iOS 7.1 or better.
What CarPlay can do that an iPhone can’t do on its own
The point of CarPlay is to seamlessly integrate an iPhone into the driving experience. Though many stock infotainment systems already feature touchscreens and Bluetooth wireless communication that allow some iPhone integration, the user still has to pick up their phone in order to access certain functions or execute certain commands. Also, many stock car stereos feature interfaces that leave a lot to be desired.
CarPlay aims to make using an iPhone while driving as hands-free and eye-free as possible by putting the interface in the dash, right at the user’s fingertips. It will also work with many manufacturer’s built-in knobs and controls. In the Toyota vehicle that we rode in, the volume and tuning buttons worked just fine. Those with cars that have scrolling wheels and selector buttons may not need to touch the screen at all. Cardenas did warn, though, that compatibility with these built-in options will depend from manufacturer to manufacturer.
When Cardenas presses the phone icon, Siri intervenes right away, asking who we’d like to call. It turns out that Siri is at the heart of the interface, and she can do more through CarPlay than she can on your phone, such as access your recent destinations, pull addresses from your contact list, notify you of incoming text messages, and read them back to you. But all of the familiar options from the iPhone are also right up on the screen: favorites, recents, contacts, keypad and voicemail tabs are all there on the screen. While plenty of systems allow you to dial by voice, CarPlay essentially moves your phone screen to the dashboard.
The experience is similar with the music interface, which is highlighted by tabs for iTunes Radio, playlists, artists, full song list and more. Cardenas uses Siri here too, to launch “Dire Straits Radio,” and it begins playing immediately. The ability to navigate through songs without having to pick up a phone is a major boon when you don’t have a copilot to navigate your phone for you. Finding what you want to play is made much, much easier, just by having things pop up on a large, in-dash screen, and Siri makes it that much easier to play music without having to hunt for it.
This was perhaps my favorite part of the demonstration. Cardenas presses the Messages app icon and Siri immediately chimes in to ask who we’d like to send a message to. We respond with a name and, when prompted by Siri, dictate our message. But I’ve done this several times with my phone, and all it required was a single button press on my phone – I’m not terribly impressed. But then CarPlay’s enhanced functionality is made more apparent when a text message response comes in.
We had already returned to playing music when the text was received. That’s when the music muted, and a white banner appeared at the top of the screen. At this point, we pressed the banner, and Siri announced who it was from before reading the text message out loud. At no time did our eyes have to leave the road. The banner was easily visible in our peripheral vision, and easy to press. If you miss the banner, though, all you have to do is press the message icon, and Siri picks it up from there. Are you picking up on how awesome this is?
Perhaps the best integrated CarPlay app of the bunch is Apple Maps. Yes, it’s Apple Maps, and I’m aware that not everyone cares for it, but this is the best implementation of it that I’ve seen yet.
CarPlay can access addresses stored with contacts, those that were sent as part of a text message, or those that were recently visited, making it faster and easier to pull up your destination and begin routing. Also, CarPlay integrates real-time traffic information, and offers various routes off to the left of the screen, with information on how much longer or shorter those routes might take.
The Maps experience on CarPlay is far and away better than on the phone. Much of this is due to the fact that CarPlay’s implementation of maps has been adjusted to efficiently use the larger screen real estate. Maps is available in 2D or 3D, and users can zoom in or out to their heart’s content. CarPlay will also automatically zoom in when you approach a turn, showing you exactly where you’ll need to go.
Where are the third-party apps?
Third-party apps are coming, but since developers for the third-party services are still working on them, they were not available for this demonstration. Currently, Apple’s website indicates that apps for Beats Music, Spotify, iHeartRadio, iTunes Podcasts, and Stitcher will be coming, and Pioneer expects they will be part of the firmware update it issues later this summer. Again, since CarPlay is driven by the iPhone, users will need to have these apps installed on their phone in order for the services to work.
Is CarPlay worth it?
To be fair, Pioneer’s NEX in-dash receivers are already pretty awesome, and miles ahead of most stock infotainment systems. With that said, CarPlay is just another great reason to go with an aftermarket car stereo. Having played around with it, I totally want it in my car, and I think others will feel the same. There’s no way to tell just by looking at the screenshot just how much easier CarPlay makes using an iPhone while driving. It is exponentially safer, and a ton of fun to boot.
Pioneer will release an update early this summer that will put CarPlay in its existing NEX car stereo line, and the company plans on putting it in its top-tier models going forward. That Apple is allowing CarPlay to be baked into aftermarket car audio systems is notable, because it means anyone can get in on the fun. As you can imagine, car stereo retail outlets and installers are also pretty excited. From where I’m sitting, CarPlay is one of the best reasons yet to replace your car stereo.
We’ll have a deeper look at CarPlay when Pioneer issues its firmware update later this summer, but if you’re already sold on the idea, you can get the wheels in motion right away by purchasing and installing one of Pioneer’s NEX receivers. You’ll enjoy everything the aftermarket deck has to offer now, and CarPlay in the very near future.