(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, with a number of car manufacturers confirming they would be offering it in the future.
The car market moves a lot slower than the smartphone market and since Android Auto's inception, you've probably got through several phones, without ever seeing Android Auto in action. But integration of Android Auto is now widespread in cars from major brands - as well as running as a standalone app on phones for those who can't connect to a car.
We've used Android Auto on a lot of cars and here's everything you need to know about it.
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 wired connection to your car to be able to use Android Auto. There is no wireless Android Auto, although you can also run it on your phone as a standalone service without integration into your car.
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 the essential information you might need while driving without having to touch 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
- Land Rover
You'll notice that there's no BMW on the list - as well as no sub-brand Mini. Neither support Android Auto. 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, but there's nothing to stop you installing it in advance.
Once you have it installed and you connect to the car, there's a whole range of things to agree too, the normal legal disclaimers and so on, as well as granting the app permission to access a range of things on your phone.
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.
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 offer, but without having to dock your phone as an additional display. With a central main home page, you then have the option of moving between a number of major functions: navigation, calling and music.
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. The final option from Android Auto's home screen is to return to the native interface, be that Audi MMI, VW, Nissan or whatever.
One can't replace the other, because things like car controls or the radio will still live in the car's systems and you're not sacrificing one because of the other.
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.
For the Audi A3 pictured here, control is through MMI's existing controls, namely that four-way click wheel on the transmission tunnel, because it doesn't have a touchscreen. It only takes a few minutes to become familiar, essentially clicking left to open side menus, rotating the dial to move through options, clicking up and down to move around, and so on.
On car systems that offer touch - which is now becoming more common - 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.
Android Auto: Notifications
The central home screen of Android Auto gives you card-style notifications, in major categories. It gives you the time it will take to drive home - a Google Maps favourite - with the option to click through and start that navigation. You can sit on that home screen with an overview of navigation instructions or playing music, without being in that specific section.
It will also serve up messaging notifications, with the offer to read them out to you, which is really handy. You then get the option to speak the reply, leaning on the Google Assistant experience. That's now really slick and as Google Assistant has become increasingly competent, so too do all the systems that rely on it.
Voice is fully integrated across the experience as you'd expect. Some manufacturers also offer voice controls in their cars and in some cases you'll be able to access Google Assistant via the car's voice button - or it might just default to the car's own system. However, Android Auto has a familiar mic icon in the corner so you can easily start talking with a tap.
The Google offering extends far beyond what you can see - music, navigation, calling - because you can ask questions of Google Assistant and get a useful response - such as asking what's in your calendar - at which point you'll be told just how busy you are.
Android Auto: Google Maps or Waze?
One of the attractive things for those using Android Auto, is that you can use Google's navigations 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. Although Google's route planning and guidance isn't as sophisticated as that of TomTom's dedicated devices, it is very convenient and in many cases it performs better than some car's expensive satnav options.
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.
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 deep enough to do that.
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 Play 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 iPlayer Radio or TuneIn, so you have plenty of choices. Just remember that you're streaming those services so will have to consider the data casts 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.
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.
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.