Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Gear Friday: Taking Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto for a spin

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Android Auto in action. Photo / Juha Saarinen
Android Auto in action. Photo / Juha Saarinen

We're not meant to use smartphones while driving, right? Actually, we can, and now there's even software support to mirror the device screens in cars, namely Apple CarPlay and Google's Android Auto.

Now, I don't actually like to do anything else apart from paying attention to driving while behind the wheel. Sometimes though, it's nice to be able to communicate, look up where you are, and play those ear-splittingly awful tunes on your smartphone just to make everyone wish they were there yet.

I was lent a Holden Captiva and a Volkswagen Passat wagon, both of which turned out to be comfortable and nice expedition vehicles, and which both have touch screen head units that work with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

VW said they'll be adding Android Auto and Apple CarPlay across their range of cars, and Holden said it intends to do the same.

Car makers don't really have an option here though, because customers love their smartphones, and they want to connect them to the vehicles to play music and use other services.

There are some real advantages too however: Holden explained that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto get automatic, regular updates for maps which for the normal integrated sat-nav would require a visit to the dealer.

Traffic information is also more accurate, as the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay monitor smartphones instead of just the one sat-nav system.

Also, car makers don't have to buy in, or develop and support their own sat-nav systems, so really, it's a no brainer for them to use Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Siri, come on, that's not what I meant to say!

How well do they work then?

In typical Apple fashion, getting Carplay going was a simple matter of plugging in the iPhone. There was nothing to download, and I was able to talk to Siri, use Apple Maps, and see other apps mirrored on the cars' displays.

Android Auto in comparison was a bear to get going. I swapped to a Samsung Galaxy S7 up in Northland, where Vodafone's data coverage ranges from terrible to non-existent for the first-time installation. Don't do that, because you have to download Android Auto software. Without a good data connection, the downloads time-out.

Once I got Android Auto onto the Galaxy S7, I had to complete the installation by allowing it access to lots of services and storage areas of your phone. And, Android Auto still asks for access permission when I plug it in.

The first thing I noticed is that there's no proper holder for the phones, so into the cup holder they went.

In fairness, both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are still work in progress. They will both improve quickly, and they're not going to go away, not as long as people love their smartphones as much as they do.

Second, having a USB cable running by the gearshift can be a nuisance as it gets tangled up in the seatbelt lock and other things. Why not use wireless Bluetooth then? Well that'd be great, but you don't get the full features using Bluetooth. For that you have to use the USB (or Lightning) cable. Besides, the phone charges with the cable which is handy.

I ended up driving close to a thousand kilometres - more in the Captiva than in the Passat - and found myself agreeing with the VW techie who demonstrated the system that Android Auto is very much in version 1.0 still.

Well, not Google Maps, which have had a lot of effort put into the software, and which works better than Apple Maps currently. Apple Maps was fond of pointing me in slightly strange directions, trying to pick the most direct route that'd take the shortest amount of time to drive. Fair enough, except sometimes it wanted me to go down winding and not so well-maintained country roads which in practice meant the trip took longer.

Google Maps on the other hand tended to be accurate and provide good directions, but again, it could make some odd navigation suggestions, so it's worth checking them before you head off.

Both worked OK in town with good cellular coverage. I found myself wishing for better responsiveness in both, especially in 3G coverage, which has much higher latency or delay than 4G cellular service.

Out of coverage, Google Maps handled itself better than Apple Maps, which showed no images, just a grey thatched pattern. One thing's for sure, I appreciated having the standard sat-nav in the Passat as a backup. The Captiva solely uses Apple CarPlay or Android Auto for navigation.

One day, we'll be able to say "OK Google" or "Hey Siri" and tell the car to take us where we want to go, and play games, music or have massive rows on social media while the vehicle drives itself.

Playing music was easy enough on Apple CarPlay, using the display and voice recognition. Android Auto has an awkward interface on its music player which takes much too much looking at to use however. Google should fix it pronto.

Speaking of voice recognition, using Apple's Siri is fantastic. When it works, that is. Apart from the latency on 3G causing Siri to ponder simple requests for a long time, I ended up having to apologise to family and friends (again) for sending incoherent iMessages as the road noise increased.

Siri would also refuse to answer my commands every now and then, when the iPhone fell out of the cup holder. Then there was the time when I asked Siri to respond with: "OK, I'll ring TheNameOfAFriend when I'm there" and the phone dialled said friend instead, and I couldn't take my eyes off the road to stop it.

Nevertheless, Siri is currently a step ahead of "OK Google" which could only figure out very simple commands. I am also desperate to find a different voice than the drawling American female one that Google insists on, and which hurts my ears.

Early days, improvements needed

In fairness, both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are still work in progress. They will both improve quickly, and they're not going to go away, not as long as people love their smartphones as much as they do.

I'd like to see better holders for phones, with wireless charging, and maybe even the ability use a heads-up display on the windscreen instead of looking at the centre console and taking your eyes off the road.

One day, we'll be able to say "OK Google" or "Hey Siri" and tell the car to take us where we want to go, and play games, music or have massive rows on social media while the vehicle drives itself. For now though, if you're as rubbish navigator as I am, perhaps tick that sat-nav additional feature box as a backup, when you buy a new car, for safety's sake.

- NZ Herald

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Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen is a technology journalist and writer living in Auckland. Apart from contributing to the New Zealand Herald over the years, he has written for the Guardian, Wired, PC World, Computerworld and ITnews Australia, covering networking, hardware, software, enterprise IT as well as the business and social aspects of computing. A firm believer in the principle that trying stuff out makes you understand things better, he spends way too much time wondering why things just don’t work.

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