What? Android Auto in Canada? But I thought that #googlehatescanada?!
Oh don’t you worry your little toque-covered head, my maple-syrup loving, hockey-playing, poutine-filled Canadian friend. #GoogleHatesCanada is still a thing. With some effort and a little bit of money, you too can drive around with Google in your passengers seat — just like our friends below the 49th parallel!
How did you do it?
It was surprisingly easy.
So far, the only Android Auto enabled units for sale are the Pioneer AVH-4100NEX, the AVIC-7100NEX, and the AVIC-8100NEX. My multiple emails to Pioneer went unanswered, but through further research I discovered that Pioneer began quietly shipping these units out to Canadian retailers at the start of April. Your experience could differ depending on when your unit was shipped.
Earlier units didn’t have Android Auto loaded on, so a quick trip to Pioneer’s website to grab the update that includes Android Auto may be needed. Once done, simply head on over to APKmirror to grab the Android Auto SDK and install it on your Android 5.0+ phone.* UPDATE: The Android Auto app is now available officially through the Google Play Store!
Voilá, Canadian Android Auto.
Google has also made connecting to Android Auto as simple as can be. Once you connect to the Pioneer hardware using your USB, you’re greeted by a splash screen introducing you to what Android Auto can do, and then it prompts you that it will automatically run through the bluetooth connection process. Android Auto skips all of the convoluted Bluetooth pairing process and does it all for you quickly and painlessly.
In short, what is Android Auto?
At its heart, Android Auto acts like a Google/Android experience layer on top of Pioneer’s own infotainment experience. It includes a safe-for-driving layout using the apps installed on your phone. It’s meant to be beautiful while very quick and glanceable, keeping your attention away from your phone, but still connected to your world.
Navigating Android Auto
At the very bottom of the Android Auto UI, you get the Navigation bar, which houses the functions Google thinks that drivers use the most. Switching between screens brings a very material fade-and-slide animation, and so far I haven’t found any stuttering or jankiness in navigating the general Android Auto UI.
In usual Google fashion, Android Auto is much more open than Carplay in letting you select which services you use on Android Auto.
Coming straight out of the box you get Google Maps, but using other maps, like Nokia’s HERE, is reportedly coming soon.
The Phone app is pretty much your call and message support. Music currently lets you use a number of different audio services like Google Play Music, Songza, Soundcloud, Spotify, and Pocket Casts.
The Auto button sits at the far end, and in my aftermarket kit, it simply serves to go back to the main Pioneer NEX System. However, I believe that in OEM installed systems you can view car statistics and live system health statuses in it — which I am very curious to see.
The heart of the system is Google’s auto version of Google Now, which sits in the middle showing off Google’s dedication and investment into the smart and predictable cards system they have been working on for a few years now.
Google Now (In The Car)
It’s Google Now, with an Auto touch. Everything that sits in it is actionable and important; no fluff. You get a navigation preview with the current distance, and next turn coming up. There’s the music card, which shows you what song is currently playing from whichever audio app you’ve chosen. This screen is also the home for all missed calls and messages that have come in to your phone since you plugged into Android Auto. They will usually come in a preview card that slides in from the top, which is reminiscent of the new Lollipop notifications. If you click on them, the system will read the message to you and prompt a reply. If you choose to ignore the message, the notification will slide back out and move to the Google Now screen, waiting for you to action the next moment you are available.
Google’s favourite project, Voice Actions, is prominent in Android Auto as well. This can be reached in two ways: your steering wheel voice button, or on the screen itself. The simple microphone icon sits on the top-right of each screen, calling out to be pressed. Once you press it, the microphone icon changes into a friendly, gently-pulsing G and you can speak your query. Most questions I’ve tried have worked well, including: “What time is it?” “Navigate to Work.” “Play Sam Smith.” “What are my appointments today?” “What time is TELUS Spark open until?” “Call Home.”
The Android Auto Experience
As previously said, I have experience little to no lag or jankiness in using the Android Auto UI so far. I’m sure things would be a little different if you plug in a phone like a 1st-gen Moto G, but most phones I’ve plugged in seem to run it just fine. One caveat is that you can only plug in phones that run Android 5.0 Lollipop or above, but I wouldn’t worry about that too much. As long as you’re running a flagship from the recent past, you’ll have Lollipop sooner rather than later.
Design-wise, I have been nothing but impressed with Android Auto.
Material Design translates very well into the to the in-car experience. With its clean lines, a minimalist card-based UI, colourful touches, and subtle animations, Google finally has a design language that I can confidently say beats Apple’s CarPlay in every sense of the word DESIGN. It’s familiar, yet fits in unusually well on a car infotainment system.
As always, there is room for improvement.
First of all, Google needs to make this available to the majority of Canadians. I hear over and over again how eager Canadians are reaching out to their car dealerships, their aftermarket favourites, and at car shows, only to be faced with confusion and blank stares. Google needs to put some marketing muscle behind Android Auto if they want it to be a strong contender outside of the US.
We’re still waiting for Maps support to be able to use different Maps in Android Auto, but this should be coming fairly soon.
Despite the lack of performance problems I’ve had, it still won’t hurt to optimize Android Auto even further, and make it even more buttery smooth.
There’s also the lack of support for aftermarket units. Apple CarPlay is available in sub-$500 units, but the cheapest unit available for Android Auto so far is the 4100NEX, which starts at $799 CDN.
Lastly, Apple CarPlay just announced wireless interfacing with iPhones. I’m sure Android Auto has something similar in the works, but to keep in this race, they need to release something quickly. Why wouldn’t you plug in your phone into your car anyway? Any help in the battery situation always helps.
This is just the beginning of something great.
I can definitively say that this is one of Google’s most polished 1st generation releases so far. There are subtle animations, added on top of a surprisingly responsive touch screen which make the deck a pleasure to use.
Material design also makes the UI so simple, yet fantastically eye-catching.
In fact, it’s so eye-catching that when I was parked outside of Safeway waiting to leave last night, I actually had someone walk past my window, notice the deck, and come up to me and ask what exactly I had installed in my car.
Let’s be honest. Current in-vehicle infotainment systems right now are laggy, hard-to-navigate, and most importantly…ugly. Anything that could push these automotive monoliths to improve their systems is a boon for all. And this is a great first effort.
I’d like to live with Android Auto more, I’m sure some of my thoughts will change, and you’ll definitely hear about it.
If you have any questions or want me to try anything specific, feel free to leave a comment in the comments. Alternatively, you can always hit me up on Google+, at +Jace Hernandez.