By Dan Moren
June 12, 2019 8:17 AM PT
Get in the CarPlay
When I bought my Volkswagen GTI in 2012, I loved everything about it—except the audio system. In fact, it was so bad that I even felt the need to pen a screed about its shortcomings, which included a terrible, unresponsive interface; unreliable playback displays; and a terrible voice control system which, in the intervening seven years, I have only triggered by accident.1
Meanwhile, the state of the art of car audio has taken a major leap forward, as smartphone makers like Apple and Google have tried to supplant the traditional interface makers with initiatives like CarPlay and Android Auto. Which made sense! For one thing, we all now carry computers more powerful than your average car stereo; for another, shouldn’t technology interface design be left to the people whoÂ specialize in it?
But here I was, stuck in the old paradigm, not sure how to escape. In my previous car—my venerable 1997 Honda Accord—I eventually bought a new head unit with a USB port to replace the cassette-toting original radio. But I was a little more hesitant to take the same plunge in my GTI; CarPlay units seemed pricier, for one thing, and then I’d have to deal with either installing it myself or paying someone to do it. I had mostly resigned myself to the purgatory of my existence.
Then, a few months back, the topic of CarPlay came up in the Six Colors Member Slack2. When I expressed disappointment that I’d missed the CarPlay train—as it were—some kind readers with similar model cars pointed out that there was an easier option: buy a newer Volkswagen stereo that did support CarPlay, and swap it in.
To back up a bit: car manufacturers generally don’t make their own electronics, instead relying on third-party original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to build the units that they can pop in at assembly. (Which also makes it easy for the carmaker if there are multiple trim levels available—say, with or without in-dash navigation.)
Those OEM units have to come from somewhere, and, as with so many electronics these days, the answer to that is, of course, China. And, as it turns out, it’s actually pretty easy to buy one of those units new or almost-new from sites like eBay and AliExpress.
After some research3 and further discussion with our very fine members, I was able to figure out the exact model I should be looking for: an RCD330G—specifically the 6RD 035 187B by Desay, which seemed to be the most stable model.
Last week at WWDC, I ended up discussing my CarPlay with Jason; his positivity about it tipped me over the edge. So I did some more searching and found the unit I was looking for on AliExpress for about $170 plus $40 in shipping. About a week later it arrived on my doorstep.
The main reason I chose the RCD 330 was, as I said, it’s essentially a standard VW head unit. That means that it both physically fits the existing molding in my car as well as working with pretty much all of the car’s existing interfaces with little additional work.4
The most challenging part of the entire installation process was prying off the molding.5 It’s clipped on quite tightly; most of the videos I watched about the installation—in particular, I recommend this one, which is simple and to the point—used some form of plastic pry bar to lever one side off, before using their fingers to pull the rest off. At first, I tried using the trusty spudgers from my computer repair kits, but they were too small and didn’t provide enough leverage. So I drove to my local auto parts store and bought a $10 kit with bigger, hopefully more robust tools. (I wasn’t actually that impressed with these; they got easily chewed up in the process; but hopefully I won’t need them again any time soon.)
Once the molding was off, it was a simple matter of unscrewing the four Torx screws securing the head unit. (Here my iFixit screwdriver kit did come in handy.) The whole unit then slid out, and I popped off the antenna connector—which had a slightly tricky clip—and the main wiring block, which has a little lever that you pop up.
I also had a third wire connected to my head unit, which I am pretty sure was for the Bluetooth support in the car. Bluetooth was a factory option when I bought the car, but in 2012 it was very much a bolt-on: there’s literally a separate unit under the front passenger seat with a wire that snakes underneath and up into the dash. Certainly not ideal from a fit and finish perspective, and also explains why Bluetooth support always seemed a bit wonky.
[Dan Moren is the official Dan of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]
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