Android Auto is devilishly simple. Google's done a great job even in its first iteration.
Android is everywhere. In your pocket. On your wrist. Occasionally (and unfortunately) on your face. In your living room. Even in your kitchen. And now Android is in your car. In 2014 Google announced Android Auto. And in 2015 it finally became a reality.
Android Auto is devilishly simple. You plug your phone into a compatible receiver — either the infotainment system that comes with your car, or an aftermarket head unit — with the same sort of cable you use to charge. Your phone — and the apps you already have — then push information to the large display that's in your car. No more horrible user interface. So many new features, all with one goal at hand — keeping your phone out of your hand, and you safer behind the wheel.
We get that you might be a little wary of using a smartphone — a tool that by definition is distracting — in the car. But Google's done a great job even in its first iteration. So let's walk through the basics of Android Auto, and what you can expect when using it.
Android Auto on your phone
Android Auto actually runs on your phone (Android 5.0 Lollipop and up), not your car stereo head unit. That means your phone is doing the heavy lifting — and using your data — and then pushing the Android Auto user interface to the display. There's a required separate Android Auto app, and Google Play Services does a lot of work here as well. You plug your phone into the car via a standard microUSB cable ... and that's it. It (mostly) just works.
You'll click through a few warnings and disclaimers the first time you connect your phone — and you'll find some both on the phone and on the head unit. It's pretty much what you'd expect. You're the driver first, obey all laws, don't do anything dumb, etc. But after that it's time to put the phone down. Everything will be handled on the car display. In fact, you're superficially (but not completely) shut out of the phone while using Android Auto. You'll just see "Android Auto" on your phone's screen should you turn it on. It's not impossible to dump out of that while you're driving, but obviously nobody's recommending you do so. Android Auto, at its core, is meant to make you put your phone down.
One fun fact about connecting your phone to Android Auto: As soon as you plug in it forces a Bluetooth connection. You don't have to set anything up manually. This is how you'll make phone calls.
Android apps in your car
Cars come in all shapes and sizes and with all sorts of controls, of course. And for older vehicles we have Android Auto-enabled aftermarket head units. So some of the finer details will differ a little bit. Maybe you've got volume and playback controls on your steering wheel. Maybe you don't. But the great thing about Android Auto is that the overall experience will be the same whether you're in a brand new Audi or decade-old Civic.
And you won't have to download a separate version of your favorite application just for Android Auto. It's all bundled into a single app on your phone. That's important because it allows for a consistent user interface — you won't be hunting for playlists in Google Play Music in one place on the display, and searching for the latest podcasts in another. You'll find them all in the same, familiar menu structure. That's key for keeping things simple in the car, and Google has done a really nice job with it.
As of this first iteration of Android Auto, you've got a fairly limited scope of third-party apps available — audio playback and messaging — to go along with maps and phone calls. That's by design, of course, and Google is approving manually inspecting and approving apps that use Android Auto components. In fact, Google has gone so far as to disallow apps that have been sideloaded onto a phone from running in the Android Auto interface. The name of the game is safety, folks.
Google Now and the Overview screen
Google Now — that predictive, sometimes-helpful-sometimes-not service that strives to know what you want before you do — is everywhere. And it actually makes perfect sense in your car and is presented in Android Auto as an "Overview" screen. The notifications so far are pretty limited — weather at your current location and travel time to suggested locations are the two we see the most. And they're pretty darn handy. You'll also see any current navigation or calling information, if you happen to hit the overview screen during either of those operations. Notifications for incoming text messages you haven't yet listened to also will appear here.
This probably will be the first thing you see when you turn on Android Auto, and it's a great shortcut to get driving directions. Just a single tap gets you on your way.
Our only real complaint is how sensitive it is to suggesting locations. Just because you searched for something at some point on your phone or computer doesn't mean you necessarily want to go there — especially if it's thousands of miles away. And there's no easy way to clear those suggestions.
Android Auto and Google Maps
Google Maps is what you get, unsurprisingly, with Android Auto. It's entirely possible that it's not the only mapping service in your car — but this might well be the only one you'll ever want to use. Google has struck an incredible balance between glanceable information and usability. You can search and initiate navigation with your voice, through the menu system, or through from the Overview screen.
The wealth of information you get — and the fact that it's up to date in a way that only Google Maps can do — truly is stunning when you take the time to look at it all. It'll tell you which lane to be in for your next turn when you're in the middle of a 6-lane highway. It'll show you how much longer it'll take you to get somewhere if you don't take the recommended turn. It'll show your estimated time of arrival. Real-time traffic updates. None of that's particularly new. But when you consider that it's done here in a way that shouldn't send you careening off a cliff because you were paying too much attention to it, you know you've got something special.
No more clunky (and often expensive) updates to your in-car navigation system. It's just Google Maps. And there's none better.
Calls and messaging
If there's one thing Android Auto will do for you, it's make you a safer driver when it comes to making and receiving phone calls and texts. If you've never had Bluetooth built in to your car before, this will change your life. No more holding a phone to your face. You can easily look up and dial someone using only your voice. And the touchpoints on the display are large, clear and easy to use. If you must use a dialer, there is one as well.
You also can receive text messages through Android Auto — though you'll need to have an app that supports it. Google's Hangouts app does, of course, and more third-party apps are coming on board, too. If you receive a text, you'll get a notification on top of the display. Tap it and the text will be read aloud — no reading them on the screen. You then can reply with your voice.
Again, the point is to keep your hands off your phone and your eyes on the road. And so far Android Auto does this very well with calls and texts.
Music, podcasts and radio on Android Auto
The built-in music app for Android Auto is, unsurprisingly, Google Play Music. That'll play any music you have stored locally on your phone, and it's also got complete access to Google's "All Access" service. (Again, this is because it's the same app that's on your phone, just presented in a different way for the car.) It's not perfect — we're absolutely missing the ability to browse artists and albums, though you can get to anything and everything via voice. You just have to know what it is you're looking for. (And not feel funny about sounding like you're barking out football plays.)
If you're not a fan of Google Play Music, you've got other popular apps available, including Spotify, iHeart Radio and TuneIn Radio. Stitcher, Pocket Casts and BeyondPod are already on board to take care of your podcasting pleasures. And you'll find that all of these apps have a familiar look and feel — again, thanks to the way Google has developed Android Auto to keep things consistent.
Audio has the added bonus of working across screens. You can listen to music while navigating with Google Maps, for instance. And playback will pause if you receive a call or text message. And if you want to listen to the factory radio (terrestrial- or satellite-based), you can do so while still using Android Auto.
The Android Auto app on your phone is where you'll find the Android Auto developer options. For more folks there's no real reason why you'd need the developer settings — and for sure they're not something you should be playing around with while you're driving.
You access the developer settings by tapping a number of times on the header image in the app, and then you'll be able to get to the options through the three-dot overflow menu and choose whether you want to use the "Release" mode of Android Auto, or developer. For our purposes, the only developer setting we've even touched is the one that takes screen shots.
There is one fun little thing here, though. When you're in dev mode that far-right button — which is sort of reserved for "more car options" but on our Pioneer unit just takes you back to the Pioneer interface — you can see demo screens for some of those "car options" that aren't otherwise used yet. (At least not on our Pioneer head unit.) They include roadside assistance, a vehicle maintenance checklist, and service history. Plus, under "More apps," you can see the actual packages and services being used in Android Auto.
If you still have questions about Android Auto — and you should, because we're still learning about it! — swing by our Android Auto forums. There you'll learn which cars work with Android Auto (hint: not many yet), which aftermarket units are available (another hint: not many yet) and which phones are playing nice.
Don't be afraid to ask questions. We're here to help.