Four Hours With Android Auto

Yesterday, I took a drive from Sydney to Goulburn and back for the opening of Tesla's first rural Supercharger. I was in a 2016 Mitsubishi Pajero, the Japanese car brand's first vehicle with Smartphone Link Display Audio — an in-dash entertainment system that, as well as doing the usual touchscreen CD, Blueooth, AM/FM/digital radio thing, also gives you access to both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. I plugged in my phone and hit the highway.

Both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are starting to become common in Australia's new cars — the new Hyundai Sonata, the Skoda Fabia and the rest of the VAG family, even the new Sukuki Vitara all have some integration of either or both; there's also Mirrorlink as a competing standard supported on Samsung and Sony handsets. The Pajero is the first Mitsubishi to include Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, and there are more to come.

With a couple of USB ports and a HDMI port in the 4WD's glove box, either can be used to active Android Auto or CarPlay — and it means you can keep a couple of different USB devices on charge at the same time. (I used one for my Note 5 and one for my Telstra Wi-Fi 4GX Advanced III hotspot.) As far as I'm aware, only one of the two smartphone pairing services can be connected at once — I actually didn't have a cable handy to check my iPhone or iPad out.

Mitsubishi's installation of Smartphone Link Display Audio — the system that drives the Pajero's in-car entertainment — uses a 7-inch touchscreen. Its resolution when Android Auto is plugged in is noticeably lower than when it's in the non-Android mode, although that might be a limitation of the phone's display mirroring itself rather than the headunit. In design, it's not quite as attractive as the beautiful Parrot RNB6, although that particular headunit isn't being released in Australia anyway.

You'll have to install the Android Auto app on your phone the first time you want to use it; it'll run you through a bunch of information screens and show you some Auto-capable apps, as well as try to up-sell you a Google Play Music subscription. You have to turn on Bluetooth to pair and sync contacts with the car (even though I would have thought that'd be something that the microUSB port could handle, but whatever). Then, when you finally plug your phone into the car, you get the white-on-black Android Auto splash screen and nothing else — exactly as it's meant to be.

You can't use your phone while it's plugged in and Android Auto is operating so you can't check your messages or blast through emails as you're blasting down the highway. That's intentional; it's a lot safer that way. The placement of the USB ports, too — hidden away in the glove box rather than right in the centre of the dash — points to plugging your phone in, putting it away, and concentrating on driving. Android Auto lets a few notifications through — SMSes, notably — and displays a reminder on the card-style interface of the in-car system's home screen.

Android Auto is split into a few key pillars; maps, music and communication are the three that the interface guides you into, which makes sense considering you're probably going to be simultaneously driving somewhere and either listening to music or talking to someone wherever you are. Once you've set your destination and have switched on a playlist or album or artist, you're probably best off staying on the home screen, which gives you a compromise between the two with album art, directions if you're actively navigating, and network/battery/clock options like any other screen does.

It's really quick to operate, because there's not a great deal to do. You can search for destinations, but once you're actively driving towards them you can jump forwards to your next turn or the turn after that, but you can't zoom the map out and start looking around aimlessly. Similarly, when music is playing it's all about skip, play, pause, and search — anything more complicated is hidden away so as not to take your eyes off the road. The relatively low resolution doesn't work to this particular Android Auto implementation's detriment, because there's no tiny details to be missed; the worst you'll see is a bit of blur on album art.

When you're using it, Android Auto is definitely straightforward, but that's what you want it to be. It doesn't explicitly stop you doing things like checking your Twitter or Facebook notifications or emails — it just hides them away until your trip is over. It'll notify you on the display and with a chime when a text message is received, and it'll read out the text if you choose. That's the point at which you're prompted to reply, and that's when Google's voice recognition comes into play. "OK Google" will activate the in-car microphone to pick up your voice and translate it into a command, or you can tap the ever-present microphone button.

It's a mixed bag, but the overall experience is good. Messages I dictated during my drive to Goulburn and back were about 90 per cent of what I wanted them to be — the idea certainly comes across, but it just lacks a bit of the nuance and punctuation that I like to include in my SMSes; "Hey, when does William turn one?" became "Hey when does Williams turn 1" and "Sure, I'll tell you all about it on the weekend!" (delivered with extra cheer for that exclamation mark) became "Sure I'll tell you all about it on the weekend". I did follow those up with a "Sorry I'm in a car and android auto is typing", to be fair.

And, Google being its usual versatile self, voice recognition is contextually very smart. In the Spotify app, "hey, play Jarryd James" actually played Jared James Nichols, but "damn it, play J-A-R-R-Y-D James" actually got me to exactly the track that I wanted — that was the point at which I shouted "IT WORKED" with righteous joy. I picked up voice recognition tricks on the way; differentiating between "directions to" and "navigate to" were just as useful as the difference between "set a reminder" and "make a calendar event".

I did encounter a few problems, though. I couldn't browse more of my (admittedly very large) library on Spotify than the letters A to E. When you're stuck with Android Auto showing just one Beyonce album downloaded to your phone for a two hour trip, being the only thing to click on... you listen to a lot of Beyonce. It was actually that problem that made me try out, and eventually enjoy using, the voice recognition feature. The phone call screen, too, kept flashing the circular contact markers on and off, which was a little distracting while driving. (Plugging in my phone this morning, the Spotify issue has actually solved itself.)

But overall my four hours with Android Auto — which included a couple of very simple navigation directions, a whole bunch of excellent music choices, and plenty of mucking around with in-car voice recognition — were positive. It's certainly a far superior system to any non-Google or non-Apple in-car system that I've used, Tesla's generally pretty good 17-inch touchscreen included.

I'll let you know my experience with Apple CarPlay, also in the same Pajero — convenient, if you have a family that shares driving responsibilities and that isn't wedded to either Google or Apple alone — when I try it out over the long weekend. [Android Auto]

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