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Pioneer AppRadio review

Pioneer AppRadio review
Trent Wolbe
Trent Wolbe|October 12, 2011 10:00 AM

If you drive, and if you read Engadget (which...you do), there's a good chance you've spent some time using an iOS device in the car. You've probably also spent some of that time wishing there were a better way to integrate your phone or pod with the car itself. There have been devices to help you bring Pod and vehicle together in an unholy union of distraction since that first physical scroll wheel hit the scene, from maddening tape adapters and FM tuners to more integral solutions like Ford's Sync system. The whole time, we were kind of just wishing they'd figure out a way to let us mount the thing directly in the dash, and have our way with it as we do in all other situations. Pioneer's AppRadio approaches that -- it looks unapologetically like a bigger iPod in landscape mode, complete with minimalistic physical controls and a laid-back, no-nonsense look about it. Does it, in fact, make the iPhone more useful while you're in the car? Turns out, it's a yes and no kind of thing.

The double DIN (180 x 100 mm) module doesn't require an iOS device to work -- you can still use the radio and phone portions without it -- but the real newness here comes when you plug in. Once you've installed the free AppRadio app, your phone or pod becomes the real brain of the system. Almost all of the storage and processing take place on the chip inside your device; the 6.1-inch capacitive in-dash display actually maps its face to that of the iDevice. But the AppRadio app takes control of your device, rendering all other parts of it untouchable.

To browse through your music, you'll have to navigate using the built-in iPod software, which we have big issues with. Instead of being able to flick through the familiar polished lists of songs and artists, you're forced to navigate with big, ugly buttons that make navigating a relative pain -- especially if you're trying to find something while you're driving.

The radio functionality is fairly straightforward, and we like the autoscan / favorites management tools. We do not like the EQ controls, which are buried a few menus in from the home screen, and are far too complicated to adjust on the go -- a must if you're listening to a wide variety of music on shuffle, for example. The Bluetooth functions as it should, automatically pairing with your phone, interrupting music if a call comes in, that kind of thing. If you've seen similar systems in newer Lexuses (Lexii?), it will all seem very familiar.


The Apps portion is where a lot of the heavy lifting is done: maps, photos, calendar, contacts are all here and work as expected, and everything flows with the smoothness of iOS. The Maps situation is frustrating for a variety of reasons. Just like on the iPhone, Google Maps works, but it won't do turn-by-turn live navigation. If you want turn-by-turn, you'll need to buy the 99-cent MotionX-GPS Drive app on your iPhone. The in-dash extension of MotionX-GPS is slick, and the voice navigation (free for 30 days, then $2.99 / month or $19.99 / year) is much easier on the ears than Android's. But because there's no keyboard entry in any part of AppRadio's entry, you have to set the destination and any other auxiliary information on the phone itself. If you want to navigate your music while you're driving with GPS, you have to do it on the phone itself. And if you want to switch between any apps, you have to do it on the iPhone itself. This isn't liberating; it's juggling. We were using our Android phone tethered to our iPod touch, and if we're adding correctly, that makes three screens to keep track of... not to mention the WINDscreen and the things in front of it. And! You can't listen to the radio and use the navigation at the same time. Ugh.

The INRIX Traffic app does provide some pretty innovative travel features that we ended up taking advantage of, including real-time and history-based estimates for travel time to your destination. The other apps available for AppRadio are Pandora and Rdio, and they are nearly identical to the Pandora and Rdio apps you may already know and love...but with search by text disabled. This abrupt end of the available apps list highlights the fact that it is indeed very short, especially for a product with "App" in its very name. Like most app stores, its shortcomings make us question why it even exists in the first place. Apple has a great app store, and it should just be included wholesale here. Sure, there are legal and safety reasons why it's not included, but that doesn't mean creating an entirely new ecosystem specific to this head unit was a good idea. We're curious to see what types of apps eventually make their way here. We just didn't find ourselves spending much time in the apps section. We spent most of the time listening to the radio, like all normal people do while they're driving. Right?


While a big touchscreen in your dash may look slick at first, we instantly found ourselves yearning for the big, grabby physical knobs and buttons of our stock head unit. We like being able to adjust the volume with a quick flick of the wrist; AppRadio's rocker-style switch is tiny, flat and slow on the draw. We also missed being able to browse through tracks or radio stations without having to look at the buttons we're reaching for. Other things we missed? Our CD player, and, crucially, our aux input. There's no way to feed external audio into AppRadio, which is a real shame, especially if you're the type that carries your music on multiple devices. Worst of all, there's no clock function on any screen besides the home screen. It may seem like a small issue, but not being able to tell exactly how late you are at all times is a huge pain. This is such an obvious function of an in-dash unit that we're kind shocked it's missing here. And you know what's really, super-duper annoying? Waiting for your car stereo to boot up. It can take a good ten to twenty seconds from turning the car on to actually hearing any music, and you're forced to tap an "OK" button on a disclaimer before you can even access the home screen. Again, doesn't sound like much on paper, but this delay gets truly maddening after a while, and it's not the type of thing you get used to. Also, if you have a sunroof or non-tinted windows, you'll be dealing with a lot of glare on the screen, and it's not really bright enough to be seen easily in direct sunlight.

The video out function does provide a couple of cool perks -- you can stream Netflix and Youtube directly to the screen -- but you'll only be able to use them when you're in park. And, while you're sitting in the parking lot watching Home Alone 3, you'll have a lot of time to think about the 800 x 480 WVGA screen. Let's just say that it's about as far from an IPS display as anything we've seen in recent memory.

Like any first-out-the-gate product, AppRadio is also just plain buggy. Pandora simply stopped working on us for a few days. At one point, the unit itself wouldn't even boot up, so we had to re-boot the entire car. The last day of our time with the unit, the iPod connection wouldn't even work! It felt like a silly and confusing end to a distressed relationship.


Pioneer's ambitious journey into iOS vehicle integration surveys some important ideas. But on the journey, they've skipped over some of the most vital functions of listening to music in the car. In the end, the whole package still just makes us really, really want to have our actual iPod mounted in the dash, or the option to attach it and mirror its functionality on a larger in-dash screen, maybe with a couple of physical knobs thrown in for good measure. Luckily the universe is rife with intrepid hackers that love their cars as much as they love their code. It must be said that it truly does feel amazing to be able to stream a little classic "David After Dentist" or "Honey Badger" directly to our vehicle console: even if it the car does have to be in park, we still felt like we were peeking into the future. We believe the potential in AppRadio is huge, and hackers' efforts -- or maybe even software updates from Pioneer itself -- will turn AppRadio into a platform that's fun and useful for futurekids of all ages.