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

We here at All Tech Auto like to stay on top of current car trends.  These trends especially peak our interest if they include a safety feature in them!  We have noticed the rise of auto manufacturers that are adding things like Android Auto and Apple Car Play into them.  We have often wondered what these things are, what they do and if they really work?  Well, this week we will take a dive into Android Auto!  Here is what we found on the subject.

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 the phone interface, 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 three forms. You can either buy a car that has Android Auto built-in (as many 2017 models do), purchase an aftermarket head unit and have it installed, or use the app version on your phone.

The first method is, of course, the easiest and arguably best way to use Android Auto. But if you’re not in the position to buy a new car (especially just to 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.

More recently, there’s also a third option: the Auto app for Android. As announced by Google in early 2016, Android Auto has made its way to phones. While the experience is very similar to that of a head unit, there are definitely some notable differences too. We’ll take a closer look at those down below.

For all the head unit options, 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.

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 USB and 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.

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. This is the same app that runs the phone-based interface, but again, we’ll cover that in detail down below.

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.

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.

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