Until recently, access to Android Auto was at the whim of car manufacturers or else involved switching out your head unit for a system that would support Google's in-car platform.
When Google released the Android Auto app for all phones in all cars in November, it changed the Android Auto game, liberating the platform from this prerequisite to be supported by the car.
Here's everything you need to know about the new Android Auto experience, which can bring connected features like navigation, calling and music, to any car, old or new.
For more information on Android Auto on your car's system, read our sister feature on the in-car experience.
Android Auto app: Getting started
The Android Auto app is available to all Android devices and needs to be installed from Google Play, which is quick and easy.
The next thing you need (to be safe) is a mount for your phone. There are loads of options out there, from windscreen suction mounts to vent mounts, some are magnetic, some are clamps, but you can find lots of options for little money in most retailers.
We like the minimalist vent mount like the Mpow grip, and slipping the metal plate inside the phone's case, but the choice is yours.
Essentially, that's all you need to get started, as Android Auto will run as a car mode on your phone, without the need to do anything else.
This is a basic setup, but if you're driving around in an older car with no other connectivity, this is all you need, except perhaps a charger for your phone.
Android Auto app: Car Bluetooth
Many cars come with Bluetooth and that's what Android Auto is designed to be used with. Once you connect your Android phone to your car's Bluetooth, you have the option to have Android Auto automatically launch when it connects to your car.
This is a really useful option, because it adds a seamlessness to the experience. You get in your car, attach your phone to the mount, fire up the engine and your phone opens Android Auto, ready to serve you on your drive.
It's also worth adding your car as a "trusted device" (you'll get this option on first connection). This means that you won't have to then unlock your phone when you get in, it will be ready to roll as soon as you start your car.
It's also worth making sure that your voice is a "trusted voice" in the Ok Google hotword controls. As the Android Auto app supports voice commands for everything, it's the best way of using the system, so make sure it's all turned on (open the Google app > Settings > Voice to find all the options you need, including Maps and car support).
What can your car's Bluetooth do?
In many modern cars, Bluetooth will do everything with an Android phone.
It will allow you to make calls, it can also be used for media playback, letting your car access music on your phone, as well as taking your phone's audio, so that everything comes through your car's speakers and you can change the volume on your steering wheel and so on.
Each car is different, so it will take some investigation to find out what you can and can't do.
Android Auto and Bluetooth in older cars
Older cars vary in support for different Bluetooth services and some won't offer Bluetooth media support. That doesn't necessarily matter for Android Auto, as you'll still get navigation on the phone screen and the car will handle calling as normal.
However, for the full experience, you really want all the phone's audio rooted through your car, which might mean a cable connection, perhaps a 3.5mm connection to an aux input.
There are lots of ways to do this, from something like the Pure Highway 600, which also adds a DAB receiver and separate controls, through to the Anker SoundSync Drive, which basically adds Bluetooth and gives you an aux in connection.
The long and short of it is that older cars will need a little more fiddling around to get everything working, but in most cases there is a simple way to do it.
Android Auto app: Functions and features
The Android Auto app looks the same and behaves the same on your phone as it would on a car's system. The idea behind Android Auto is to give you the basic things you want when driving and this is how it breaks down.
Android Auto home screen
This presents big card-like notifications for each section, so you can access things with a tap. It also gives you "recent" activities, like recent destinations you navigated to or recent calls. This means that from home you can go back to those things without having to root around your phone.
The home screen will also provide playback for messages, which we'll talk about in a second.
You also get icons to tap into music, calls or navigation.
Android Auto messaging and calling
Android Auto supports messaging, from services like WhatsApp, Messenger and Facebook, but in a way that's safe for driving. That means you can't read the text, instead it will read them to you.
When a message arrives a ping and a big shade will drop down giving you the option to listen to the message or mute it. You can also reply with a standard message ("I'm driving right now" is the default) and mute messaging services.
Those messages will sit on the Android Auto home screen so that you can return to them later. Amusingly, emoji are spoken and once your friends know this, they'll send you all sorts of rubbish.
The best part, of course, is that you get Google's voice recognition and this really is a step above most other systems that will attempt to listen to your voice and form a message. Replying or sending new messages is as simple as saying "OK Google".
The same applies to calling, you can control everything via voice and this is a lot better than most in-car systems. There's a tab for calling, so you can access recent calls with a tap, as well as voicemail and get a bigger dialpad for making calls.
It's a little surprising that Android Auto doesn't offer your "favourites" as a hit list, but in reality, voice control is by far the easiest way to trigger calls.
Android Auto music
Music is pretty well supported by Android Auto, supporting a number of different apps and services, like Spotify and Google Play. You essentially get the option to pick your service and then when you talk to Google, it will play from that service.
This is where you really need a connection to the rest of your car, as playing through the phone's speakers doesn't really cut it.
The interface lets you skip tracks or pause with a tap or head into playlists. Both Play Music and Spotify give you music to find with a few taps, but one thing you can't really manage is relative volumes - you can't adjust the music volume in relation to the navigation volume, so things can get a little disjointed as the music dips to let you hear navigation commands.
Android Auto and Google navigation
For many, navigation will be the big sell of Android Auto, with the familiarity of Google Maps. While many in-car satnav systems will still cost you on the options list, Google Maps is free, apart from the data costs.
Google Maps navigation has been getting better. The mapping itself is good, but the real star is the close tie to Google's search: "Ok Google, navigate me to the vet in Weybridge" is something that other systems won't do and Google is much better at finding up-to-date locations, especially for businesses.
Navigation is clear with sensible map features and the voice commands are good. You don't get the full run of features like lane guidance, but you do get traffic. This gives some scope for route selection and fairly accurate times. In many ways, Google Maps navigation is better than many of the in-car systems you'd have to pay for and certainly finding your destination is easier.
The navigation experience isn't as good as TomTom's best, especially when it comes to route planning and the live handling of traffic, but you're saving yourself a hefty initial outlay. Just bear in mind that you'll likely be using data for mapping.
Android Auto app: Conclusions
Giving all these connected car functions to your phone, rather than needing them to be displayed on a car's screen, makes them a lot more accessible to a wider range of users. If you have an Android phone, you basically have a smart car experience too.
For anyone in an older car, there's likely to be a way that you can quickly and easily add the connectivity you'd need to your car for a seamless experience and even if you can't, your smartphone can offer you an excellent in-car companion.
Importantly, Android Auto is simple and the excellent support for voice control means you don't have to touch your phone to do anything. If that saves people from fiddling with their phone when driving, then it's a very good thing.