Android Auto: Google's head unit for cars explained

We test drive Android Auto and go in-depth

Which Android Auto apps are ready?

We tested all of the official Android Auto apps provided by Google, and saw a number of other recognizable third-party programs by developers, all meant for the car.

Kia Optima

Google Maps, Google Dialer for initiating calls and Google Music line the bottom dock of the nav system, while Google Hangouts is integrated behind the scenes to handle messaging.

The rightmost spot on the Android Auto dock is meant for third-party apps, including ones from manufacturers like Hyundai and its Blue Link Connected Car feature. Car makers still retain space within their own vehicles.

Google Maps

What if your GPS knew where you were going before you had a chance to painstakingly enter the zip code, city, street name, etc, with the utmost accuracy?

That's the not-too-unreasonable idea behind Google Maps within Android Auto. It often throws up the place you may be going next and gives you an ETA and better route options thanks to the latest traffic information.

Chevy Cruze

Beyond this Google Now predictive home screen, clicking into the Google Maps app brings up a familiar navigation interface, complete with dragging and pinch-to-zoom touch controls.

Deeper menu options bring up lists for suggestions and categories, and exact locations can still be typed in or spoken with voice commands. Traffic can be unchecked, but it's on by default.

Everything else about Google Maps looks familiar, and that's heartening. It even matches Android 5.0 Lollipop with white arrows and distance cues against the newer green background.

What's really great is that exiting the Google Maps app mid-trip places a navigation card on the Android Auto home screen. You can keep tabs on the turn-by-turn alerts while sorting through other notifications.

Phone calls

Safely fielding calls makes Google Dialer an important app within Android Auto, second only to getting where you want to go via Google Maps.

Its menus include recent calls listed from your phone and the ability to touch "Dial a number" to reach someone outside of your frequent contacts.

Android Auto

Call me, maybe

The center-aligned contact list and dial pad is fairly large, which making dialing someone up a lot easier while on the road. Microphone-initiated call functionality keeps the process even safer.

In-progress calls are themed with end and mute buttons, and there's a hidden dialer pad for entering long extensions mid-call - just in case you have to "please listen carefully, as our menu has changed."

The phone app's "hamburger button" in the top left reveals more options for voice mail, speed dial and missing calls. Digging isn't always necessary. Status bar notifications allow you to see calls, texts and other alerts as they come in, and it's easy tap to listen to them and reply with your voice.

Messages

Hangouts doesn't get its own dedicated app on the system tray, but Android Auto does relay SMS texts and internet messages to the in-car dash.

All of a sudden, the temptation to look over at your smartphone is a distracted driving problem of the past. It's sitting silent and unlit when plugged into the Android Auto console.

Android Auto

At the top, you can see messages peek in as status bar notifications

You can have the message read aloud and respond by touching the microphone icon and beginning your answer with "Reply," followed by the rest of what you want to say.

Best of all, the more-agnostic Google enables this functionality for app sorts of messaging apps including WhatsApp, Kik, Skype, TextPlus, Text Me! and a bunch free messaging apps.

This alone won't reverse the distracted driving epidemic, but it's a whole lot better than having people take their eyes off the road for relatively unimportant reasons that can wait.

Music

Between listening to calls and texts read aloud, Android Auto pumps a number of music apps through your car speakers, fronted of course by Google Play Music.

Android Auto

Google Play Music is here, but it isn't the only audio option

Its music controls are fairly simple with straightforward buttons and accompanying album art in the background. Streaming songs will use your data plan like normal.

What I liked most was that Android Auto's audio player isn't limited to Google's flavor of a music app or even music in general.

Android Auto

Apps rivals like Spotify and Pandroa are here as are talk and sports apps

Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, MLB and NPR are some of the music apps and non-music talk radio channels that you can tune into while cruising down the highway.

More apps to come

Expect more refined versions of Google's official apps as time goes on and new third-party developers to design their existing Android apps around the Android Auto design ethos.

Android Auto

Voice search is limited now, but only going to get better

The voice search, for example, answers questions using Google's knowledge graph and the in-car microphone, and it's always expanding its database full of facts.

"Who won the 2014 World Series of baseball?" I asked. The car responded, "The San Francisco beats the Kansas City Royals four games to three," almost gloating about its home team.

How do you control Android Auto?

Stow that Android phone. Google's in-car operating system has three alternative methods to controlling your smartphone.

Android Auto

Voice commands

Google's voice commands are the easiest way to go about the menu system hands-free. Tap the microphone icon in the top right corner to make calls, get directions, reply to texts and listen to music. You can even Google knowledge graph questions.

Android Auto

Use physical buttons

The cars that we tested included steering wheel controls for prompting the voice command functionality. That's a lot easier than reaching over for the microphone icon on the touchscreen. Standard buttons and control knobs will also work, and relevant functions, like next and previous track, automatically pass onto Android Auto.

Android Auto

Use the touchscreen display

Cycling through the Android Auto menu using the touchscreen is ideal for when the car isn't in motion. Yet it's simple enough to tap directly on what you want even when you're in a bind. This is a simplified version of your Android phone.

Android Auto vs Apple CarPlay

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay both offer a similar experience, projecting a cleaner version of their smartphone operating systems onto a car's head unit.

The differences are subtle, but favorable to Android owners, as long as you own a phone that belongs to Google's popular platform.

Android Auto

Apple CarPlay is a little more plain

Android Auto's home screen is a bit smarter with Google Now, an idea Apple hasn't been able to replicate just yet. CarPlay offers a basic app tile menu as its start screen.

The menu colors are animations are also a little brighter and bolder within Google's car ecosystem, mimicking Android 5.0 Lollipop. It's more refreshing than Apple's darker theme.

Then, of course, there's the fact that Android Auto includes the more desirable Google Maps navigation. While Apple is open to third-party apps, I doubt Google Maps is going to be one of them. It's stuck with Apple Maps instead.

Are we there yet?

Google Maps' is over 10 years old. It quickly unseated MapQuest as everyone's favorite way to print out directions on the computer. Remember those days?

It continues to dominate today as an app, becoming the world's most popular phone app even though it no longer comes pre-installed with iOS 8 devices.

Android Auto

Android Auto is on its way, but taking the scenic route

Android Auto represents the next ten years for Google Maps, with navigation where we need it most: preventing distracted drivers who pose a danger on the road.

Hands-free directions, calls, messaging and music controls are powered by Google Now and the flavor of Android Lollipop, and at least in Hyundai's case it won't cost extra beyond the normal price of the car's nav system.

It's a winning combination over using manufacturer's vanilla nav systems. Google just needs to convince all car makers to take over their coveted center console and quit stalling out.