When shopping for a new car, most buyers typically focus on horsepower, fuel economy, interior comfort, and other obviously important features. But many vehicles have reached a certain level of parity among these categories, leaving in-dash technology and connectivity as key differentiators. That’s why it’s important to know your connectivity choices.
Apple CarPlay and Android Audio
Most car manufacturers are still zealously developing their own individual infotainment platforms and connectivity systems, but Apple and Google have rolled out much more universal options that are worth considering. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto don’t completely replace infotainment systems, but they offer unified, consistent app ecosystems and feature sets regardless of the make or model of car you’re driving.
Both CarPlay and Android Auto rely on your smartphone (iPhone or Android phone, respectively) to provide connected features. These systems usually work through an in-dash touch screen and include navigation, phone calls, and messaging. (Displays aren’t always necessary, though; Apple’s Siri Eyes Free lets you use many CarPlay features through voice commands without a touch screen on your dash.) They also incorporate some form of broad voice control system, either through Apple’s Siri or Google Now.
Many new connected cars include support for both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and older cars can be upgraded to use them with aftermarket double-DIN entertainment consoles like the Pioneer AVH-4100NEX. Regardless, you’ll be counting on your smartphone’s connectivity for all information services, so poor reception and slow network speeds will affect how well any of it works.
Bring Your Own Device (Without Carplay or Android Auto)
Apple and Google options aside, connecting your smartphone to your car is hardly new. Ford’s Sync system pioneered this approach, and many others have followed. Navigation, location searches, messaging, and entertainment apps available through a car’s infotainment system in these situations all rely on your smartphone’s data connection (and 4G LTE will be your best bet for quick response and smooth streaming).
Keep in mind, the service is only as good as your cellular signal. And if you forget your phone at home or run out of battery, you also run out of luck.
Embedded connectivity lets you enjoy connected features and apps without relying on your smartphone. General Motors’ OnStar system introduced the concept almost two decades ago, using an onboard cellular radio to deliver telematics services such as automatic crash notification, and conveniences like remote door unlocking. OnStar has since started to offer 4G LTE data as an additional service over its telematics, projecting a Wi-Fi network around your vehicle so tablets and smartphones can get online through the car’s systems instead of the other way around.
Outside of OnStar, many automakers now offer cellular data service as options in their new vehicles. These faster connections let navigation systems download detailed information, including (for certain Audi and BMW models) Google Earth and Google Street View maps, or put other information at your fingertips. The advantage here is that you’re always connected instantly, whether your smartphone is available or not. But this kind of connectivity costs vehicle owners in the form of a subscription or a separate data plan. If you don’t keep paying, you don’t get the connected services. The Tesla Model S, on the other hand, comes with four years of free built-in 3G connectivity.
A hybrid system can offer the best of both of both worlds. You get the robust, always-on connectivity of an embedded radio for critical functions like automatic crash notification, while relying on a connected smartphone for other data, like infotainment. But you’ll still experience the downside of a separate data or subscription charge for certain services.
You can find examples of hybrid connectivity in the Uconnect system that’s available in Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, and Ram vehicles. An embedded cellular radio is used for telematics features, Yelp local search, and a Wi-Fi hotspot, as part of the subscription-based Advantage package. Your smartphone, meanwhile, provides streaming music via apps like Aha Radio and Pandora.
Don’t Forget About Infotainment
It’s important to familiarize yourself with the type of connectivity a car has before you buy, but it’s just as important to consider the infotainment system. After all, that’s probably the main reason you want connectivity in the first place. Pay close attention to the apps and features offered with each system, and look for the one that most closely suits your needs. A good infotainment system and the right type of connectivity can mean the difference between a car you keep for the next 10 years, or one that you’re itching to trade in as soon as possible.