In-dash entertainment system retrofits old vehicles with new tech (February 28th, 2014)
Product Manufacturer: Pioneer
Price: $500 as reviewed
Brings phone functionality to the car
Built with future considerations in mind
Simple to use
Read issues/delays reading some mp3s off CD
Requires phone to be plugged in with cable to use apps
Display could be more touch-sensitive
Lots of cars come with robust stereo systems full of evolving technologies to give people the convenience of a smartphone on their dashboards -- but what about people that don't want to spring for the expensive factory options, or have an older car? For those people, Pioneer has been developing a line of stereo decks that gives users the advantages new car owners enjoy. The latest model, the AppRadio 3, brings music collections, DVD playback, a slew of applications, and hands-free features to an everyday drive.
The AppRadio 3 looks a lot like any other touchscreen-enabled, double-sized stereo deck at first glance. The seven-inch, 840x480 resolution screen takes center stage in the console, displaying all the standard items such as the time and the tracks playing when in use. The bottom bezel features six mechanical buttons along the bottom; two for volume, an eject button, a home button, a menu button and a return button. Pioneer offers the AppRadio 3 in two different configurations either with a CD/DVD player (the one we reviewed here) or without, depending on the needs of the buyer.
The installation of the system requires some plumbing of cables beyond that of a normal stereo install. For example, a microphone will need to be installed for the handsfree capability the AppRadio 3 enables with the phone, which adds Google Voice and Siri Hands Free compatability. Buyers will also need to fit an external GPS antenna, and a phone interface cable. Four different interface cables are available for use with the AppRadio 3, depending on the phone to be paired with the deck -- Apple's 30-pin, a Lightning connection via HDMI, Android MHL/HDMI, and Mirror Link are all available. Some of these options will require the purchase of additional adapters and cables, on top of the cost of the cable itself. A rear-facing camera is also offered as an optional accessory.
How the interface cables are connected will be up to the user. In the case of our review, the Apple 30-pin cable was channeled through the glove box inside of a Scion xB. This left plenty of cable length left over to work with. The cables are easy to change out, as they simply plug into the back of the AppRadio through a proprietary connector, HDMI, and USB. Installation was complete in a little over two hours, and included the necessary bezel for the car.
A perk to installing an AppRadio 3 is that, like many devices these days, it is built with the future in mind. On top of being able to change cables out to suit the needs of the consumer and not tying them to a specific phone for as long as they use the deck, Pioneer offers firmware updates to help keep the stereo available to as many devices as possible going forward. Even if a new device may not work when plugged-in, Bluetooth will keep the deck from being entirely unused. Without the device physically attached, users can't use phone-based apps, since the AppRadio doesn't have a robust operating system or any raw processing power on its own.
Pairing with the deck and a device together is generally easy. The AppRadio 3 will be visible by Bluetooth when the power is enabled in the car. Each time a device is paired, a code is generated that a user must confirm. Once linked together, the deck will detect the phone when the car is operating and the phone is in Bluetooth range. If a device is ever removed from the deck, the pairing process will need to be repeated -- since the old code will no longer work. When the car first starts up, there will be a few seconds of lag time for the device to be found. This was found to be upwards of 10 seconds once the Bluetooth button on the deck is pressed.
Even though the screen is capacitive touch, we feel that it could be more sensitive to users' commands. Sometimes taps and finger presses on the screen wouldn't register right away or required multiple attempts. This was noticed largely in the button placement of the track forward and backward and play/pause buttons while in Bluetooth mode. The button placement for music is also an issue in itself, since it sits near the bottom of the screen right before the lip where the physical buttons are. The track advance button sits right above the home button, which on several occasions was pressed accidentally when having to tap the screen repeatedly or when lightly resting a finger on the lip.
AppRadio 3 decks ship with the Digital AV mode the iPhone 5 uses set as the default interface. For those using an older device, a few steps will need to be taken in order for the app connectivity to be used with the deck. Otherwise, only the Bluetooth-connected options are available. As the display option isn't something that can just be selected at any time, it was frustrating trying to get all of the features working at first. Once the correct combination of phone plugging and unplugging, and turning off and on the deck is completed, users can select the configuration required in order to get the full features of the system at their fingertips. Little touches like custom wallpapers in the app screen and Twitter and Facebook notifications can then be accessed.
Using AppRadio 3 in only the Bluetooth mode takes away from some of the features, since the unit is unable to drive the apps without a direct cable connection. Pioneer requires the smartphone to launch the AppRadio app in order to pass information though. In Bluetooth pairing, a phone will still have handsfree available, as well as music playback. The functionality of the playback is decreased, however, as search and other refined controls are lost -- leaving the playlist to whatever was user-defined prior to the deck pairing. Track changing and pause and play features are controlled by the deck.
Everyday use of the deck, once set up and connected, is a relatively hassle-free experience. The system boots up when the car does, stirring a barely audible fan to life. After a safety prompt, the system comes to a desktop with icons lining the bottom of the screen, and a clock and calendar taking up the upper portion of the screen. Accessing the phone features is done by pressing a small white and blue circle in the upper right hand corner. Once pressed, the full contact list, dial pad and voice commands are accessible. Signal strength and battery life of the device connected is included here as well. The physical buttons are responsive, and the display can be tilted to meet the needs of the user. Icons are big and easily visible. Options at almost every level are user friendly.
Users will be greeted with a safety prompt when the AppRadio 3 comes up, much like the ones found on touchscreen GPS devices, that will force users to hit "OK" every time they plan on going somewhere. The deck will resume with the last music choice, be it Bluetooth connection or disc, but the user will be unable to control it until the safety warning is dismissed. While this is a standard practice for many automotive supplementary devices, this seems like an odd approach to a device that amounts to a consumer stereo which is hardwired into their car. It becomes automatic to press the screen after turning the car on, but it does feel somewhat annoying to have to do it every single time.
Ted Cardenas, vice president of marketing for Pioneer's Car Electronics division, did say that this is done in the name of safety -- since the AppRadio 3 "cannot distinguish between operator(s) of the vehicle, and does not have the capability of knowing who is behind the wheel." Pioneer has done a lot to comply with safety standards to make the AppRadio 3 possible to consumers in a world plagued by driving distractions. This includes needing to set a parking brake to access certain features, such as DVD playback. In the case of the caution warning, Cardenas went on to say that "although you may be the owner of the vehicle and know the intent and content of the caution, someone else operating your vehicle may not know about it; therefore, Pioneer is required to post the caution screen each time the vehicle is turned on." Without offering such warnings or complying with safety requirements, a device such as the AppRadio 3 may not have been able to come to market.
Using disks on the AppRadio is a straight-forward experience with commercial CDs or DVDs. However, burned CDs do offer somewhat of a hiccup. Not all formats are treated equally when it comes to reading -- MP3 CDs have an intermittent problem when reading and changing from track to track. Sometimes files don't show up as the correct track length, often adding 10 additional minutes to the stated length. Also, it generally takes between five and seven seconds to change to the next track on the disc. The longest delay was noticed was with 256kb MP3 files downloaded from Amazon. AAC files, the standard used by iTunes, performed flawlessly regardless of source in changing from track to track and loading.
Currently, around 30 apps are available for use with AppRadio, but more are starting to trickle out. Pandora, IHeartRadio, and Waze are just a few of the free options. Pioneer has attempted to make the process as open as possible by making it easy for developers to port apps so that they will work with the stereo. When speaking with Pioneer, it was clear that they wanted to help, not hinder, app developers by adding different hurdles to jump over in the technical area. Obviously there are limitations to which apps will be allowed in some situations; Pioneer prohibits the porting of games, again in the name of safety.
The AppRadio 3 brings a lot of accessibility to the everyday user in a way that makes it seem practical without taking away from what a car stereo should do. The security features, especially having to apply the handbrake to use some features, are inconvenient to say the least. However, it is hard to fault Pioneer for these obstacles, since these are regulations they have to comply with given the nature of the device. We shake our heads a little having to press an "okay" button every time the car starts up, but without that warning this device might not have made it out to market. At $400 and $500 for disc-less or DV-enabled decks respectively, consumers get an easy-to-use, permanent addition to their car built with future considerations in mind practical enough to be used every day, once installation is completed.