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(Pocket-lint) - Android Auto has been around for a number of years. Announced in 2014, Android Auto first made its appearance in third-party head units, such as some from Pioneer, but is now as widespread as Apple's equivalent, CarPlay. It's available from most mainstream manufacturers, as well as running as a standalone app for phones, for those who don't have in-car support.

We've used Android Auto on a lot of cars and here's everything you need to know about it.

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What is Android Auto?

Android Auto is exactly what it sounds like: it's Android for driving. The important thing to understand about Android Auto is that it runs on your phone, connected to your car. In most cases, all the car does is display the Android Auto interface and allow interaction, while all the heavy lifting of data processing and connectivity is handled by the phone.

Android Auto is a free app for Android phones, available from Google Play, and you'll have to have the app on your phone and a connection to your car to be able to use Android Auto. It won't just work with any car though - the car manufacturer has to enable support for the service. After which, all iterations of Android Auto are essentially the same experience, giving access to essential information you might need while driving without having to touch your phone.

While most cars will need a cable connection via USB in the car, from mid-2020 onwards, wireless Android Auto became increasingly available on Google and Samsung models, and supported by some manufacturers, like BMW and VW, but only in very recent models.

Android Auto will also run on your phone as a standalone service designed for your phone screen. If you can't connect to your car, mounting your phone in an appropriate cradle will give that access directly on your phone.

What cars support Android Auto?

This isn't an exhaustive list, but here are some major car manufacturers supporting Android Auto:

  • Alfa Romeo
  • Audi
  • BMW (via Operating System 7)
  • Cadillac 
  • Citroen 
  • Dacia
  • Dodge
  • Fiat
  • Ford
  • GMC
  • Honda
  • Hyundai
  • Jaguar
  • Jeep 
  • Kia
  • Land Rover
  • Lincoln
  • Mazda
  • Mercedes-Benz
  • Nissan
  • Peugeot
  • Renault
  • Seat
  • Skoda
  • Vauxhall
  • VW
  • Volvo

If your car doesn't support Android Auto, or it's too old and you can't connect, you can still use Android Auto on your phone as a standalone experience.

Android Auto: The app

You can download the Android Auto app for your device from Google Play. If you don't have the app and you connect to a compatible car, you'll be prompted to download it.

Once you have it installed and setup, you can connect to the car.

The app will handle establishing a Bluetooth connection to the car, and for many cars, that then means you'll then have all your contacts available to use with the car's phone support, becoming completely integrated with both Android Auto and the car's existing system without having to pair Bluetooth devices via the traditional method.

For those using wireless Android Auto, a connection via Bluetooth and 5Hz Wi-Fi will be established, following the instructions in the car to set it up.

Android Auto: User interface and features

Android Auto has the capacity to make your dumb car smarter, or bring familiarity to your already smart car.

It's simple, it offers basic functions and it's designed to stop you fiddling with your phone when driving. In some ways it replicates "car mode" that some phones used to offer, but without having to dock your phone as an additional display. As there aren't a huge number of apps, these can be displayed via the grid-based home page, with a simple home button in the corner and other controls dropping into the bottom bar (such as media controls) when you're using a particular function. 

Google Assistant is a major component, allowing you to talk, either through voice activation, or by tapping the icon in the corner. Because this is running on your phone, Google Assistant has access to everything it normally does, meaning you can not only control music, but ask questions, send messages by voice and a whole lot more. Generally, Google Assistant is a lot better than your car's own voice system too.

Although Andriod Auto is the same on all cars in some cases, different screen layouts can force a slightly different layout in some instances.

Only compatible Android Auto apps are displayed and those cover basic calling, navigation and music functions, so if you want to use Waze for your navigation and Spotify for your music, that's no problem. Android Auto sits as a layer on top of the car's existing system as soon as you plug it in so you still get access to both systems, meaning you can use the car's radio for example, but Android Auto for navigation. Switching between the two is often just a case of hitting a respective on-screen button.

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Android Auto: Controls

How you interact with Android Auto will depend on the car you're in - which is why the car manufacturer has to enable support.

If the car doesn't have a touchscreen then you'll be controlling it via the controller in the car. This is common for slightly older cars. It only takes a few minutes to become familiar, usually rotating a dial to move through options, or clicking up and down to move around, and selecting what you want. In these instances, using voice might be much faster for you - and Google's voice recognition is generally very good.

On car systems that offer touch - which is now the majority - you'll be able to hit the display to control Android Auto instead. For example, on the Nissan Qashqai, you just connect your phone and then press what you want on the display to interact with Android Auto.

It's also worth noting that at the same time, your phone is essentially disabled. It shows "Android Auto" on the display, you can swipe to see notifications, but the idea is that when you're in the car, you leave it alone. Many cars now have a USB connection in a "phone box" in the arm rest, designed so you plug it in, close the lid and then don't touch it while you're in the car.

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Android Auto: Google Maps or Waze?

One of the attractive things for those using Android Auto, is that you can use Google's navigation and maps. Depending on what car you have and how the options are arranged, there's the potential to save yourself money, using Android Auto rather than an expensive satnav upgrade from your car manufacturer - certainly something to weigh-up on the options list when buying a new car.

The Google Maps driving experience is very much as you get when you have your Android phone in navigation mode. There are things like traffic, all the information you need, but the real strength is finding locations through search, which is often much better than the results you'll get from a dedicated satnav in a car - with the advantage of always being up to date too.

In 2018, Google enabled Waze in Android Auto, so if you prefer to drive with Waze, you'll be able to sit in the Waze mapping instead. Yes, it's a Google-owned company and there's a lot of parity between the Waze and Google Maps experiences (especially when it comes to searching for addresses), but on the whole, Waze's fun interface is a little more interesting than Google Maps.

On most cars, this will put Google Maps or Waze onto the main display in the centre of the car - but it might not cross over to the driver's display. Some in-built car satnav systems will give you directions in the driver display, but we're yet to see Android Auto integrated deeply enough to do that.

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Android Auto: Music

Entertainment is obviously one of the big things that Android Auto offers. Although this isn't a huge step over using Bluetooth audio - it does mean that you have a nice clear interface in Android Auto, as well as the choice of the music service you use. This takes you beyond just playing music that's on your phone's storage, instead offering to play from apps that you have on your phone.

That's the important thing - you have to have the app installed on your phone to be able to access it.

Google's own YouTube Music is supported, as you'd expect, but we suspect most will be drawn to apps like Spotify, allowing streaming and access to playlists and recently played tracks really easily. There's wider support for services like BBC Sounds or TuneIn, so you have plenty of choices. Just remember that you're streaming those services so will have to consider the data costs too.

Never at any point do you have to touch your phone, as all the volume and track skipping works with the car's existing controls.

Android Auto: Calling

Calling is perhaps the least revolutionary aspect of Android Auto, because it's so well established through existing Bluetooth connections in cars. If you have nothing in your car, then great, you're now connected; but with Bluetooth phone connections coming as standard on most new cars, you might find you never need Android Auto's option. 

Except, of course, that everything is displayed in an Androidy way, so it feels closer to your phone than your car's interpretation of it. That said, on many cars, once you connect via Bluetooth, you'll grant permission to access you call lists, so you can just as easily return missed calls or find contacts through the car as you can through Android Auto.

Of course you get messaging notifications too, and these can be read out to you, which is better than looking at your phone and trying to reply while driving.

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Final thoughts

One of the most attractive things about Android Auto is that it's run by your phone, not the car. Yes, the level of integration into your car may be different, but with phones getting smarter than cars pretty quickly, Android Auto keeps getting better and better.

As it's drawing on apps from your phone, you'll have the latest features, without having to wait for your car to be updated, which is another immediate advantage. The downside is that, in some cases, on modern cars, the presentation of Android Auto isn't as slick as the native system. On recent Audis, for example, the native MMI system has sharper graphics than you get from Android Auto. Yes, that might just be a tweak that Google needs to make to increase the output resolution of Android Auto, but it's something to watch out for.

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If you're an Android user, then speccing your car with Android Auto certainly makes sense, with the potential to make your car smarter, more personalised and more familiar, and all with very little effort.

Writing by Chris Hall. Originally published on 4 July 2016.