I remember back in the days where you need to buy a GPS unit to get in-car navigation. The devices were all big and bulky, blocking part of your view of the road, and you have to manually update the maps every so often. Then, smartphones came around and you could navigate via apps from companies like Garmin and TomTom, and over the past few years, people have switched over to Google Maps and Waze.
More recently, Apple and Google have crafted versions of their mobile OS designed for use in a car. Called CarPlay, it allows a driver to plug his or her iPhone via Lightning, and it will convert your car head unit into something intimately familiar. Not only can you get navigation right on the display of your car, you can also have access to a handful of apps like the ability to make phone calls, read/send SMS, and even access your music via Apple Music or Spotify.
We can’t be certain that technologies like Android Auto and CarPlay will drive the future for in-car entertainment systems, but it is doing so now. Right now, CarPlay can be found on selected 2016 and 2017 cars such as 2016 Mitsubishi Pajero / Pajero Sport, 2016 Honda Accord, Audi A4, and a whole lot more.
Fortunately, you don’t have to buy a brand new car in order to have access to CarPlay.
What Is It?
We recently tested the Pioneer AVH-X8850BT, a multimedia receiver that brings CarPlay to your vehicle, along with a bunch of other features from Pioneer such as AppRadioMODE, AppRadioLive and more.
First up, when you install the Pioneer AVH-X8850BT in you car, make sure the shop plugs in a compatible USB 1.0 extension cable that supports charging and data transfer. Apple CarPlay only works with USB 1.0 so plugging into USB 2.0 will not work. With the correct cable installed, just plug in a compatible iPhone (Siri must be turned on in order for CarPlay to work), and the multimedia receiver will automatically launch CarPlay.
Is It Any Good?
So, how does it feel to finally be able to use Apple CarPlay? I like how everything is connected. CarPlay has a typical iOS interface so there’s no learning curve. To make things even better, the Pioneer AVH-X8850BT comes with a nice and large 7” display so I can easily see the map and touch on the screen when needed.
Since CarPlay relies on Siri, you don’t need to touch the screen often. Simply call out “Hey Siri”, and tell it what you want it to do like “bring me home”, “read me my message”, and such. The X8850BT also works with your car’s existing knobs, dials and buttons so you can use the multimedia receiver just like you normally do on your old unit.
Using my phone for calls with the X8850BT is definitely a lot smoother than my previous car head unit connected via Bluetooth. The box comes with a microphone which is installed right behind my steering wheel, so I don’t have to rely only phone’s mic. I can have a proper phone conversation without having to repeat myself over a dozen times just to get the message across. Of course, this is subject to how noisy your environment is – ideally you should have your windows closed.
Apple CarPlay also gives you access to Apple Music and Spotify. Just tell Siri to open either app to play your favourite music, and she will do so accordingly. You can also tell Siri to skip to the next song, or open a specific playlist on Spotify.
The most useful feature for me is navigation. I’m terrible with roads so having GPS is the number one priority for me, and what I like about the X8850BT is how you can access Maps right on the display itself. Unfortunately, CarPlay only supports Apple Maps for now and while Apple Maps has improved dramatically since its early days, I still don’t trust it – not for navigating at Malaysia at least, where the roads changes frequently especially now with the on-going LRT/MRT works.
Navigating on Apple Maps is works just like other more popular navigation services used by Malaysians – Google Maps and Waze; there’s even live traffic so you can have a pretty accurate estimation of your time of arrival.
The Bad Stuff. Tell me.
For the duration of the review I used Apple Maps on CarPlay, Google Maps as a standby just in case I get lost (yes, this means that I need to bring out two phones). On several occasions Apple Maps tends to give wrong directions (such as going straight instead of taking a left exit), and if it were not for Google Maps I would have been in a bit of a bind.
The touchscreen is a resistive panel, which isn’t as smooth and responsive as capacitive touch displays used on all smartphones today. That means it is better suited for taps instead of gestures like swiping and pinch to zoom – two crucial gestures when using Apple Maps.
Then, there’s Siri itself. While “Hey Siri” works just fine, some commands appear to be tough for CarPlay to execute; more than once I found something simple like “Hey Siri, increase the volume” to not work.
Crucially, I found myself wishing that CarPlay had support for more third-party apps. Besides Spotify, it’s a pretty barren landscape if you don’t use Apple Music or Apple Maps. I started wishing Apple could bring Google Maps or Waze – and to a certain extend, even having Siri read my messages from WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger would be great.
Should You Get One?
If you’re in need of a new head unit, the Pioneer AVH-8850BT is a great choice. There aren’t many third-party head unit manufacturers with CarPlay installed, and this is one of the few we’ve seen so far. And if Apple ever decides to start supporting more apps (Google Maps and Waze, for example), your unit supports it out of the box.
Moreover, the Pioneer X8850BT also comes with a handful of features that car audio enthusiasts will find useful. There’s high-res audio FLAC playback, Mixtrax lets you create non-stop mix with a range of “DJ-inspired effects”, and you can even fine tune your listening position so you can precisely tune your Pioneer receiver to give you the best audio output.
But, if you are solely getting a new car head unit for CarPlay, I suggest you to wait a while. The most useful features CarPlay offers now (make/receive phone calls, and play your music) can easily be done via Bluetooth on a regular car head unit, and navigation can be handled by your smartphone. In my opinion, CarPlay could really use more features, and until it does, consumers should play it cool for the time being.