Exclusive: Australian hands-on with Apple CarPlay (Pioneer AVH-X8650BT)

More than twelve months ago at the 2013 Worldwide Developers conference in San Francisco, Apple announced “CarPlay”, a product to take the Apple iOS experience to the car in more than just voice control but a full touch-screen experience.  Today Pioneer announced a software upgrade for some existing units to enable CarPlay – and EFTM has CarPlay installed on our trusty Mazda 2.

Signalled by some as the next frontier in the battle between Google and Apple for smartphone dominance, the in-car entertainment system has undergone radical changes in recent years.  Modern cars are equipped as standard these days with Bluetooth hands-free which also enables streaming of your own music to the car stereo and in some cases such as General Motors Holden’s MyLink and others there has been functionality to allow integration with smartphones.

MyLink along with Ford’s Sync have allowed smartphones to interact with the car-stereo and often act as a second screen to the phone.  CarPlay is a similar thing, but as with almost everything Apple seems to do – it’s done just that bit better to make it the right experience.

CLICK HERE to view our video demonstration of CarPlay in action

CLICK HERE to view our video demonstration of CarPlay in action

With over 20 manufacturers slated to begin installing CarPlay in at least some of their vehicles it’s a product you’re going to hear a lot more about.

In a brand new car, it will operate in much the same way as MyLink does today in Holdens.  As standard the car stereo looks and performs the same.  But when an iPhone is plugged in the interface switches to a very Apple look – this is CarPlay.

If you’re like me and have an older car, and aren’t likely to be getting a new one soon – especially one with CarPlay (as of today there are none available in Australia), then Pioneer has you covered.

The EFTM car is a 2010 Mazda 2 – it’s a great car, gets the job done in comfort.  But without hands-free or anything sophisticated in the stereo, it was clear the one thing that needed an upgrade was that centre console.

With the help of a made-to-fit face-plate for the stereo, a new Pioneer double-DIN touch-screen stereo was installed, and if you didn’t know better, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a factory fit.

We installed a AVH-X8650BT model Pioneer unit, this was foreshadowed as a unit that would receive CarPlay functionality via a firmware upgrade once it was available – and that day is today.

A powerful stereo on its own, the AVH-X8650BT has dual USB inputs, Bluetooth streaming, a touch-screen interface and frankly everything I could want from the centre console – except navigation.

With CarPlay the unit is transformed, and now has maps, apps and can take care of all my messaging while I drive.

Navigation

Probably the best and most valuable feature of CarPlay is it’s ability to bring to your car a full navigation system – especially for cars that didn’t even have the option, while for those manufacturers charging thousands for in-car navigation, it’s going to be a tough sell if you’ve also got CarPlay.

Maps are familiar, as they are Apple Maps shown on a bigger screen, and there’s some smarts in there too.

Once you’ve completed a journey, it will even suggest a return route to where you had just come from.

There are zoom controls, as well as 2 and 3D modes.  Moving around the map is a manual “button” based process, with no pinch and zoom or drag to move the map (on the Pioneer unit we have).

When navigating, the directions are shown on your iPhone turn by turn, while the CarPlay shows the map and other guidance.  It really can be a two screen experience if you choose to keep your phone mounted on the dash in-view.

Phone

As part of the “Hands Free” push, the Phone application is sensational.  Press PHONE and there is no menu, just a prompt from Siri “who would you like to call”.

You can press the Show Contacts button to jump into a familiar menu with “Favourites”, “Recents”, “Contacts”, “KeyPad” and even “Voicemail”.

Visual voicemail works a treat, just like on your phone, and the key to your contacts is they are stored on your phone, not being copied across to the head-unit as would be the case with Bluetooth.

Once you setup your favourites and contacts for a streamlined Siri experience you won’t be reaching for your phone ever again.

Music

Your entire phone library or iTunes radio stations are available on Apple CarPlay.   It’s a very familiar interface with “Radio”, “Playlists”, “Songs”, “Artists” etc across the top, as well as “Now Playing”.

When you’re in a playlist or music list – just like on your iPhone you can pull the list down to show the “Shuffle” command, while on the Pioneer I’m using I have full touchscreen scroll control of the list.

Podcasts

Just like Music, the Podcast app draws on your iPhone library and displays the cover art in a small way in the background of the screen while showing it in full on your iPhone, with text on the CarPlay screen showing normal podcast controls (Back and forward 15 seconds, Pause, as well as timer counting up and down)

Messages

As a message is received on your phone (SMS or iMessage) a notification appears at the top of the screen, just like on your phone.

Press that and the message is read out to you by Siri within CarPlay.

You can then reply by voice command or go back to what you were doing.

Importantly, at no point is the actual text of any message shown on your screen.

Safety

There’s no doubt in my mind that this system is a huge leap forward in safety.  While in the installation I have – I still need to press the screen for functions as I have no steering wheel controls, I’m not tempted to look at my phone for messages – CarPlay via Siri will read them out to me when I press them.

Mapping is clear and easy to use and should give you a great run to wherever you’re going and given Apple’s normal strict approval process, don’t expect just any apps to appear here – they’ll have to pass even deeper certification processes to ensure they aren’t displaying text or video on the screen that would distract the driver

Screenshots

If you’re wondering how I got all the screenshots above, when you use the iPhone screenshot function (Power and Home pressed together) – with CarPlay connected you get two screenshots in one – both the phone and CarPlay screens are captured and saved to your iPhone.

Who can get it – and how much?

Almost any car can be upgraded.  Even if it doesn’t look like your stereo can be removed (like the old days), it’s likely a dash-kit can be found to suit.  The main thing that excludes you from a system upgrade like this is a car which has controls for things outside the entertainment system included in that centre-console unit.  For example, my 2011 Holden Commodore has air-conditioning and other climate controls in the touch-screen system.  Removing that would have meant some heating and cooling issues.

The  AVH-X8650BT has an RR of $1,149,  a dash-kit to make it look like a natural factory installation will set you back between $50 and $500 (for the Mazda 2 it was $179), if you have steering wheel controls for the stereo there’s another $30-$300 there, and installation of it all will range from $150-$200.

Pioneer has three head-units that are CarPlay compatible: AVIC-F60DAB, AVIC-F960DAB and AVH-X8650BT.  If you own one of those, it’s a simple download and firmware upgrade.  New units of those three models,  sold from December will come pre-installed with CarPlay.

 

CarPlay is a revolution in in-car entertainment.  While many of the features have been available for some time on other cars, the genuine integration with your smartphone and capabilities that have been added make it well worth considering if you’re an Apple iPhone user who spends a great deal of time in your car.

If you’re shopping for a new car – ask the dealer – is CarPlay available? and if no – will it be available via a firmware upgrade in the future?

Apple CarPlay via the Pioneer AVH-X8650BT
Date Published: 10/03/2014
A fantastic stereo already, which is improved immeasurably by Apple's CarPlay
5 / 5 stars