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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Taking CarPlay for a spin

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Inspired by Marco Arment, I bought a Pioneer SPH-DA120 CarPlay receiver and some accessories1, so I could test out Apple’s CarPlay in-car technology without buying a new car or tearing apart my existing car. While I haven’t had the opportunity to use CarPlay while driving, I’ve spent some time with it over the past couple of months, enough to form some initial judgements.

It’s currently very early days for CarPlay. The technology currently appears on a small number of aftermarket car stereos and as an option in some brand-new cars. It’s an attempt by Apple to create a more appropriate in-car interface for iPhone apps, one that doesn’t have to rely on carmakers or the manufacturers of in-car technology. CarPlay should be CarPlay everywhere.

To connect your iPhone2 to CarPlay, you’ll need a wired connection—Bluetooth won’t do it. Your iPhone broadcasts the CarPlay screen over Lightning and USB and onto your car’s video screen, where you can control it via buttons or via touchscreen (depending on what format your device supports). The SPH-DA120 is a touchscreen, so that’s what I used.

The main CarPlay screen looks very much like a simplified iPhone screen. There are pages of large app icons and, off to the left side, a vertical control area with a home button, the current time, and your phone’s network strength.

As you might expect, CarPlay is intentionally designed to be controlled by Siri as much as possible. The Phone and Messages apps are absolutely driven by voice—when you tap them, the expectation is that you’ll use your voice to kick off a phone call or send a message. I enabled the “Hey Siri” feature on my iPhone and was able to trigger voice commands by using that key phrase, and for the most part CarPlay followed along.

The Music and Podcasts apps are pretty much what you’d expect—they’re iPhone apps redesigned to fit into the CarPlay interface. As a result, there’s not a lot of room for lists. The Now Playing screen for both apps has large, readable text and easy-to-hit control buttons, albeit at the expense of pretty album/podcast art, which is now pushed way into the background.

The highlight of the entire CarPlay experience for me was Maps, which has been thoughtfully redesigned for the in-dash screen. You can pick a destination from right on screen, choose between alternate destinations, and get estimate times of arrival—all the stuff you can do from the Maps app on the iPhone, yes, but now it’s all on a screen in the middle of the dash. And when you’re navigating, the permanent control bar on the side of the CarPlay screen includes a Maps icon, so you can get back there quickly.

Apple’s site lists eight third-party apps that work with CarPlay, but I could only get two to work: iHeartRadio and Overcast. Both of them provided simple interfaces a la the Podcasts app, but I found them to be slow and unreliable. In my testing, both iHeartRadio and Overcast sometimes failed to display any menu at all. Other times, there would be long delays between menu items. And the apps frequently just crashed, stopping playback and taking me back to the home screen.

If one of the apps worked great, I could lay this at the feet of the other app developer, but since both of them are buggy I’m more inclined to blame CarPlay itself. And maybe, just maybe, this is why more of these promised CarPlay apps—like Apple’s own Beats Music—don’t actually appear on the CarPlay interface. Apple’s own CarPlay page lists these apps and refers to them in the present tense, but it seems like wishful thinking to me.

So is CarPlay worth it? Right now, I’d have to say no. I’m encouraged by the potential here, but it feels slow and seems buggy. Though I’ve got this Pioneer CarPlay unit right here, I’m not planning on installing it in my car… at least, not yet. An Apple-designed interface in my dashboard sounds like a great idea, but until there are more third-party apps—and until third-party apps actually work well—maybe it’s just as well that CarPlay devices are still few and far between.

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