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Android Auto vs. Apple CarPlay

When I took the keys to the 2017 Chevrolet Cruze this week and found the option for Android Auto, I wanted to tell the world. It felt like more than 6 years of waiting for this technology because I have memories of talking about this tech on Mac Dose and What the Cell? back when PRN was producing content related to the Radio in our name. But that's impossible, because CarPlay wasn't announced until 2013 and we stopped producing podcasts at the start of 2012. Even it's development name of iOS in the Car wouldn't have been covered on our show, but the original iteration of iPod Out was demo'd in 2010 with BMW, so that has to be where this all started for us at PRN.

I'm glad Apple changed the name of this software.

First we're going to talk about Android Auto, mostly because An comes before Ap in the dictionary, but also because I've been using a Samsung Galaxy Note 5 for the past 6 months and haven't been on Apple's good side for a while now. With Android auto you need to set up the app for the first time, which includes downloading the Android Auto app itself (automatic when you connect the phone to the car and enable Android Auto), and allow all the required permissions to work. The entire setup process took about 3 minutes before we could get going, but the initial setup is only required once.

When your phone is connected to Android Auto, at least with the Note 5 and Chevy Cruze, you're no longer able to use your device for input. You can still check the lock screen for notifications, but as soon as you unlock the device to go to the home screen, you're greeted with the large black image of the Android Auto logo. This is designed to force the driver to use hand-free features and keep your eyes on the road and not on the phone. It's a great idea in theory, assuming you're the only person who touches your phone.

I doubt many people will choose iPhone over Android based only on the in-car experience, however Android Auto has a lot going for it to entice users to get on their ecosystem. As has always been the case with Android, you're not stuck using the default apps that come with the OS. We installed Waze as a Google Maps substitute (although Waze is now a Google product), along with Spotify as a Google Play Music alternative. We don't normally use either of these streaming music services, but rather decided to go down the Microsoft path with their Groove music service. Groove does not currently have an Android Auto compatible app, and given the issues that plague that service with DRM for Android users, I doubt we'll see one.

Spotify is currently the most popular music-streaming app on the market, so it's important that Android Auto supports this app along with plenty of others. Since we've setup Google Play Music we can talk about it. The design is elegant with album art images behind the text, so if you don't like having your navigation screen open all the time your display will have something nice to glance at. If you're outside of the music app and change songs a small notification will show up at the top with the song and artist name, allowing you to see what's playing without switching screens. We found the sound quality to work well through the Chevy Cruze's media system, and after dropping the car off we missed having the phone integration in the car.

If you're not a fan of streaming music services, or prefer something like SiriusXM, Android Auto allows you to listen to your car's audio by going to the infotainment's home screen and changing audio sources. There's no built-in functionality at this time to avoid leaving Android Auto in order to go to traditional audio sources.

Maps is easily the strongest feature of Android Auto. While auto manufacturers have gotten better over the years with improvements to their own nav software, we feel that no one does it better than Google. It helps having a community-driven database that's constantly improving to give you the most accurate results. We did find though that we weren't able to find out local Tim Hortons which was built within the last few months through Google Maps on Android Auto, yet the location has been added and even updated by us through Google's Local Guides program. Either the Android Auto search services only pull data that's been updated every few months, or it somehow missed this. Apple CarPlay also missed the same location during our tests.

While we don't use Waze anymore, the ability to choose your navigation software is another excellent reason to use Android Auto. There are a number of different apps available in the Google Play Store for Android Auto, so being limited isn't an issue.

Back to Google Maps though. The night mode works very well and doesn't put a strain on your eyes. It works directly with the car's light sensor for the automatic headlights. When we took these photos we were parked under heavy shade which triggered the car's night-driving mode which also switched over all the Google interfaces.

Voice-to-text works well with the Android/Google Assistant. We were able to ask for directions, change music, and have our messages read to us easily through the voice button on the steering wheel. We found Google's system to be relatively accurate, however we did experience some serious issues with network connectivity.

We weren't able to determine if it was truly a Samsung issue or an Android Auto one. During the intro of our Showdown episode we play the real errors we kept receiving when trying to send a message. The Note 5 was kept in the Cruze's drink cup holder which is located closer to the arm rest, further away from the centre infotainment screen. We attempted to send 4 messages from 4 different locations to eliminate any issues with location/cell reception. It wasn't until we placed the phone on top of the dashboard that we were able to use voice-to-text to reply/send a message. I'm still scratching my head, as voice-to-text for navigation worked fine, so did the ability for the phone to download the new messages and read them to us.

Moving onto Apple CarPlay. Unlike Android Auto, CarPlay worked flawlessly with every test we performed. We plugged our iPhone 5S into the Cruze and CarPlay loaded up instantly, no need to install additional apps or allow for permissions. The system worked out of the box, as we used to say. I know the 5S is not the most reliable phone to use as a test example, it's one of the oldest phones that work with CarPlay, however many people are still using this device today so if it works on the 5S, it will work on the X.

It's also important to note that the iPhone 5S is running iOS 11 during our tests. Apple updated some of the features of Maps to allow for more navigation-oriented features such as lane signs. When you're on the highway and coming to an exit, it will show you on the nav screen which of the lanes you need to be in to take your exit, much like Google Maps has been doing for quite some time, along with other manufacturer navigation systems like BMW's iDrive and Mazda's MZD system.

Apple is big on music, and with their push for Apple Music you'd expect it to work well, and it does. But it's not perfect. Apple likes to go with simplicity over aesthetics, and for some reason they didn't think about either when it came to the music screen for CarPlay. The photo above is my prime example. Android Auto's interface takes up about 30-40% of the screen, leaving plenty of room for those album art covers to be seen in the background. You can see with this image here that the album art does exist behind the wall of text, but it's un-viewable no matter what you try. We don't understand why Apple is downloading the Album Art off Apple Music while you're streaming if you can't see it. Seems like a waste of bandwidth considering it's utterly useless. It certainly is a small annoyance that most won't notice, but it's one that we find to be very strange given Apple's attention to detail.

Another music feature you won't find are song change notifications. Unlike Android Auto which displays a pop-up when your song changes, CarPlay does not. You have to go back into the music app to see what song is playing, so if you're like me and like to skip 30 times to find that one song you can't get enough of, you have to wait each time to listen rather than a quick glance. Perhaps this is to avoid people looking at the screen for extended periods of time as a means to prevent distraction, but Apple allows the device to be unlocked during CarPlay use, so if you really wanted to you could be texting away on your phone still while driving, rather than forcing a lockout like Android. You can certainly change this in the settings, but sometimes it's safer if you're prevented from doing something like that for the safety of others.

Apple Music/iTunes isn't your only option for audio while using CarPlay though. A number of apps are supported such as Spotify which gives you more control over your listening experience. Also like Android Auto you can still use the car's onboard music options like satellite radio or AM/FM. Since we didn't have any other streaming services to test out, we didn't include it in our test, but if you're interested to see all the supported apps you can visit Apple's CarPlay website.

Maps. Oh god, Apple Maps. I remember when they first ditched Google for their own internal map app, and how many people at Apple were fired over it. Years later Apple Maps is still awful, and I won't be persuaded to believe otherwise. I truly feel bad for iPhone users, because the iPhone X is so tempting over the Galaxy Note 8, but being stuck using Apple Maps is really the only thing pushing me towards an Android upgrade. Apple Maps is absolute trash.

I have no problems saying that, because we're doing a Showdown and one system has to be the victor and the other needs to leave with it's tail between it's legs. As mentioned earlier in the review Google Maps and Apple Maps both failed to find the closest Tim Hortons to us, however that's where the differences end. Maps wouldn't switch over to a 3D view during navigation, though Apple's CarPlay website show's a partial 3D navigation screen. It's possible the 5S doesn't handle 3D nav on CarPlay, though it works fine on the phone. It's also another possibility that 3D only activates on highways, but we didn't take our little Cruze 30 minutes from home to find out each time.

To say Apple Maps isn't accurate is an understatement. Sure, they've improved the data considerably since it was first launched, but it's still nowhere near as accurate as Google. For example, our Tim Hortons test allowed us to add a stop along the way. Android Auto not only gave us Gas/Restaurant options along our current route, displayed them on the overhead map so we could clearly see our options. Apple's search was radius based for the same test, giving us options close by that weren't on the route, and in some cases 10 minutes in the wrong direction. It also displays the results in a list that takes up the entire screen, so again you're unable to accurately determine where you should stop based on route information. This is especially important if you're travelling though unfamiliar areas and aren't sure what's close by. Since we did these tests around home, we knew right away that we were being taken off-course.

Our final test was voice-to-text with sending and replying to text messages through iMessage. This worked as expected, which is good as Apple usually has a consistent experience with their services. We had no issues sending or receiving messages on the phone, and our dictation accuracy was spot-on. Siri has had time to evolve over the years since it was first released and the refinement can be felt when using the voice button through the steering wheel. I didn't have to repeat myself and the messages were always sent with the right spelling and words.

At this time however Apple doesn't allow any third-party messaging apps to work with CarPlay, whereas Android Auto has a short list of compatible messaging services, so you're stuck with iMessage for the time being. It's unclear if Apple plans on allowing other apps, however if I had to bet I would say no. I was surprised to find they even allow Spotify on CarPlay.

As we conclude this extensive overview of Android Auto (Nougat 7.0, Samsung Galaxy Note 5) and Apple CarPlay (iOS 11.0.0, iPhone 5S) I think it's important to note that both systems have great potential, and neither are perfect right out of the gate. Ideally we'd love to have Google's Maps and music selection paired with the relatively consistent experience that Apple is known for. Apple CarPlay just works, though the map data is unreliable and not user friendly. Google Maps has full traffic display along with full touch controls, Apple Maps only displays heavy traffic delays, and touch inputs require you to use arrow keys like my 2001 BMW 740iL.

We hope that as more cars hit the market with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay we'll see more improvements so these services from Google and Apple. It's a great first step to making our car's infotainment system more user-friendly.

You can watch our full episode of TestDrive Showdown on Android Auto vs. Apple CarPlay below.

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