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 who 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 Slack 2. 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 research 3 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.
One of the amazing parts of pulling out the old unit was realizing how much bigger it was. Though both have the same size front, the rear of the original unit was double the height, because it also had to accommodate a CD changer; the new unit foregoes the CD player entirely, which isn’t a problem for me as I have literally never used it in the seven years that I’ve owned this car. 6
All of that done, I screwed the new unit in, popped the molding back on, and fired it up.
The future according to CarPlay
After only a day with CarPlay in my life, my only disappointment is that I waited this long.
It’s not that CarPlay is perfect—it certainly has some quirks, like managing the volume levels of Siri versus the music—but it is so much better than what I had before. Even having a play progress bar for audio that accurately reflects where I am in a given track seems like witchcraft after seven years of what amounted to a shrug emoji.
The screen real estate is put to much better use, for everything from media playback to displaying navigation, and I’ve found both Apple Maps and Google Maps’s CarPlay offerings to be pretty darn solid. The touchscreen is snappier and more responsive than the old model—scrolling used to be something to be avoided at all costs, and now it’s actually usable, if not up to the level we expect from most of our touchscreen devices. And, best of all, because this is a unit meant for VWs, not only do all of the steering wheel controls for adjusting volume and playback work, but that annoying button that triggered the built-in voice control system? It now triggers Siri—on my iPhone XS, instantaneously.
As I said, there are a few limitations. For one, the need to plug in my phone all the time, which means a wire draped in unfortunate places. 7 (Wireless CarPlay does exist, but it’s not supported by as many models.) At least it means that my phone is charging while in use.
Another nitpick is that the head unit supports a rear-view camera, which I don’t have installed. When I shift into reverse, it tries to switch over to the camera mode and then warns me that no camera is installed; I have to manually dismiss a dialog before bringing up CarPlay again. My understanding is that this can be disabled with some tech modding tools, but that’s an expensive proposition to fix one thing; so either I’ll live with it or I’ll throw myself upon the mercy of the dealer next time I bring my car in.
Now that I’ve made the jump, I’m really looking forward to iOS 13’s CarPlay improvements, including a Do Not Disturb option, a new dashboard display, and more. And this perhaps is the great victory of this upgrade: my in-car experience will actually improve along with these regular updates, rather than ending up stagnant or left along the roadside. Given that I had to wait months for VW to fix a bug in my car’s radio after I bought it, this is a far more promising future. 8
All in all, for the $220 or so that this upgrade ended up costing me, it’s a steal. If you can find a similar path to replacing your head unit, I highly recommend it.
If you’ve ever driven past a man angrily screaming “CANCEL,” it me. ↩
The one exception is the radio antenna, which uses a slightly different plug on the 330. But most vendors, including mine, ship the head unit with an adapter cable that’s easy to plug in. ↩
Okay, also the part where I dropped my screwdriver bit down the side of my seat and had to spend a couple minutes fishing it out. ↩
The other things the new unit lacks are support for satellite radio, which I never used after the free six months of my Sirius XM subscription lapsed, and HD radio, which I did like, but was a worthwhile sacrifice—the difference is largely undetectable unless you are comparing them side-by-side, and you can always stream radio via your phone. ↩
Trying to explain to the service rep that the Bluetooth audio was playing the right channel of audio over both speakers was not an experience I’m eager to repeat. ↩
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