There are two ways to get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in a vehicle. You can buy a new car or truck. Many manufacturers now offer OEM entertainment systems that have CarPlay and/or Android Auto support, although it’s often an upgraded option. Whether you’re paying for an upgrade or not, buying a new vehicle is a really expensive way to get access to this technology. Fortunately, third-party car stereo makers have been stepping up their games too. You can now buy third-party in-dash car audio systems that offer CarPlay and/or Android Auto.
I’ve had the opportunity to test out a really nice one, Pioneer’s flagship AVIC-W8400 NEX. Here’s what I thought of the experience, and what I thought about using Apple CarPlay.
Stuck in the past…
My wife’s car has all the bells and whistles including a really nice audio system, although it’s just a few years too old to have had Apple CarPlay or Android Auto as options. My vehicle is a 2008 Pathfinder. It’s showing its age and gets awful gas mileage, but I don’t want to get rid of it because I need the towing capacity for our trailer (most SUVs these days top out at 2,200 kg), and it also fits three teenagers and all our gear. And our dogs, when needed. And the 4-wheel drive is really useful in the winter. And it’s paid for…
But the stereo in the Pathfinder is terrible. It’s not that it sounds bad, but it’s AM/FM and a CD player. The CD player won’t play MP3s, just audio CDs. I’m a guy who loves his music, so that means I have to cart a load of CDs everywhere and change the disc every hour or so. Navigation system? There is no navigation. No Bluetooth, either. But there was hope when Pioneer offered to install a CarPlay and Android Auto-compatible deck in my truck.
I’m really glad the company also arranged for professional installation because it looked pretty involved.
Apple CarPlay rocks
I’m focusing on Apple CarPlay because that’s my platform of choice. I’m an iPhone user and longtime Apple guy, so it makes sense to continue that direction in the car. When the W8400 NEX is first set up, you have to make a choice between Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. it’s one or the other. You can change your mind later, but that means a lengthy process of reconfiguring all your settings.
So Apple CarPlay it is.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of CarPlay, it essentially runs an extension of your iPhone on the car deck. It’s not just mirroring it, although it’s tied closely to your device. So there are big icons for the commonly used apps like Maps, Messages, and Music.
Once you launch one of those apps, the integration to your iPhone kicks in. It shows data specific to your use, so in the case of Music, it shows all the playlists for the Music app on my iPhone. If I was listening from a playlist before I connected, it even continues on the car stereo. All the controls are on the car deck’s display, including shuffle and skip. Everything is easy to read at a glance, and controls are prominent to reduce distraction.
Naturally, Siri plays a big role. The installation included a microphone, so I can make hands-free voice calls using Siri, or answer an incoming call. I can also give Siri commands or ask questions—although this does require pushing a physical button first to turn on the microphone (it’s easy to find by feel). This includes hands-free music control, although the decks physical controls are still used for volume. If someone sends me a message, Siri reads it out loud, asks if I want to dictate a response, then allows me to send it. I had Siri turn off the internet-connected Nanoleaf Canvas smart lights in my office. All hands-free, and without taking my eyes off the road.
CarPlay also allows you to add supported apps of your own. For example, I added Amazon Music to accompany Apple’s native Music app.
Connectivity to your smartphone can be either by Bluetooth or physically, using a lightning cable. I typically use the physical connection, because it keeps my iPhone charged at the same time, and music isn’t being further compressed by Bluetooth streaming.
And the Pioneer deck is pretty nice
I have to put in a word about the Pioneer AVIC-W8400 NEX. It’s a beautiful deck. The display is big, bright and crisp. It’s also responsive, even in Canadian winters (the Pathfinder isn’t always warmed up before I drive it) and it works with touchscreen-friendly gloves as well. The built-in navigation system is easy to use and includes maps for all of North America, and it’s actually the one I prefer to use most of the time.
HD Radio is a great option to have, especially when it displays the titles of songs you’re not sure of. With the 13-band EQ and its integrated amplifier, the Pioneer deck also managed to greatly improve how music sounds in my vehicle, despite the fact that it’s still equipped with the factory speakers.
Pioneer AVIC-W8400 NEX key specs:
CarPlay (and Android Auto) are worthy upgrades
This is a bit of a different review in that I spent a lot of time hands-on with a specific product—the Pioneer AVIC-W8400 NEX car audio system—but my ultimate goal was really to see if Apple CarPlay is a worthy upgrade. And Android Auto as well, by extension.
I can tell you two things for certain. First, the Pioneer AVIC-W8400 NEX is definitely a great upgrade to any vehicle’s audio/entertainment/navigation system.
Its touchscreen is big, bright and responsive, even in Canadian winters. Audio performance is excellent, as you would expect from anything Pioneer makes, and the list of extras is mind-boggling. I think it’s awesome that those of us who aren’t going to be buying a new vehicle over the next few years have third-party options to get CarPlay and Android Auto in our existing vehicles.
Second, CarPlay is worth paying the extra for. I loved pretty much everything about it: being able to pick up and continue playing music from my iPhone’s playlist, not only hands-free voice calls but also hands-free messages, and the option of using Apple Maps instead of the onboard navigation system. CarPlay is intuitive and offers a really seamless experience. I didn’t have the opportunity to try out Android Auto but everything I’ve seen and read suggests it’s a similar experience.
If you’re ready to upgrade your car or truck to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, check out Best Buy where you’ll find the latest car audio systems from all the top brands, including Pioneer’s flagship AVIC-W8400 NEX.