I envy CarPlay. My 11-year-old SUV has a multimedia screen, but it lacks sleek in-vehicle software from Apple. I didn’t know what I was missing until I rented a car on a recent trip that had a combined Apple CarPlay / Google Android Auto system.
There were no demanding menus or buttons: I just plugged in my phone and my route from Google Maps automatically filled the car screen. When the lyrics came, Siri read them aloud, and in the red light I quickly found the podcast I wanted to listen to. I was addicted.
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CarPlay, software that simplifies the often striking automotive infotainment, began appearing in vehicles around 2014, followed by Android Auto about four years later. They activate as soon as you plug in your phone, and the large, friendly buttons and voice features of the app are easy to use when you’re behind the wheel – and are safer than playing with the handset. These are basically simplified versions of your dashboard phone.
Unfortunately, this is a terrible time for me to buy a new car. The lack of supplies related to the pandemic has sent the prices of new and used cars to skyrocketing heights, and buyers often wait for a month’s delivery. So I set out to install the CarPlay / Android Auto unit on a vehicle I already own.
If you are also interested in a smartphone support system for your existing car, buckle up: This column is for you.
Upgrade the entire system
Many after-sales multimedia receivers are compatible with both CarPlay and Android Auto. They range from $ 200 to $ 2,000 depending on screen size and other features, and come from brands like Pioneer, Boss and Kenwood. Some models can connect to phones wirelessly or have additional USB charging ports, which increases the price.
Aftermarket receivers, such as this $ 750 DMH-W4660NEX unit, add CarPlay or Android Auto to an existing car, but require wiring or professional installation know-how.
When buying these units, you will often come across the term DIN, which stands for Deutsches Institut für Normung, a German organization that has determined the size of car radios. The single DIN stereo chassis is about 7 inches wide and 2 inches high, while the double DIN is 7 inches wide and 4 inches high. Crutchfield, a car parts dealer, has an online Fit My Car tool that tells you which DIN is compatible with your model.
I was excited about the prospect of an upgrade – until I found out that my Lexus 450h could not be upgraded.
According to Brandon Bevins, sales manager at Crutchfield, most car radios can be replaced with parts market units. But there are a few exceptions. “In your Lexus, the factory instrument panel around the radio is not the standard size or shape,” he explained. I would need a custom kit and a complicated installation would cost much more than the standard $ 125 charge for most vehicles. I called several car repair shops, which offered me around $ 1,800 for a special aftermarket receiver plus at least $ 350 for installation, provided the total amount could be more. Boo.
Solution: Intellidash +
Search for “CarPlay” or “Android Auto” on Amazon and you’ll find dozens of mountable smart screens. Intellidash + ($ 350) is one of the options. It has a 7-inch display with CarPlay and Android Auto functions. I was surprised: It worked. My car now ran the same CarPlay interface that appeared in the rental shop, no professional installation is needed.
Intellidash + is not exactly an elegant solution. For this to work, you need a lot of cables, including a power cord leading to a 12V cigarette lighter socket and another cable to connect your phone to the USB-C port on the screen. If your car has a 3.5 mm jack, an audio booster cable will also be available. The kit comes with a handful of cable clamps to handle clutter.
Intellidash + for $ 350 mounts to the dashboard or windshield of the car using a suction cup and adds CarPlay or Android Auto without specialized installation.
Photo: NICOLE NGUYEN / THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
My car doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack, so I could connect my iPhone via Bluetooth to be able to send audio to my car speakers. You won’t want to play music through the terrible, tinplate Intellidash + internal speakers.
Pixel 6 activated Android Auto without any problems, but despite many attempts, the sound of the Android device failed to be transmitted via Bluetooth. Instead, I used an FM transmitter built into Intellidash +, which sounded good through my car speakers, but it took longer to find the right station.
The telescopic arm of the screen is attached to the instrument panel or windscreen using a suction cup. For structured dashboards, the box includes a glass disc with an adhesive back, which gives the cup something to suck. Caution: You only have one chance to set it with glue.
Consult local laws before mounting anything on the windshield. In California, the device can only be mounted in the lower corner of the driver’s side windshield and must have a maximum area of 7 inches square.
Intellidash + is not perfect and lags behind the embedded system, but it is better than many alternatives. I tried other mountable CarPlay products, but they were more buggy and clumsy. If you don’t want to install a unit for the aftermarket, Intellidash + is a good solution that doesn’t require a complete auto-stereo replacement – if you’re fine with cables.
Good holder and maybe a car thing
No matter which system you choose, a solid phone holder makes a difference. In my experience, the most reliable holders are that attach to the heating / cooling vents of your car. Accessories that stick to the dashboard block your view and are prone to suction cup failure or need to be permanently glued, which is a major disadvantage of Intellidash +.
For MagSafe-compatible iPhones, the Otterbox holder ($ 40) securely holds the phones with a magnetic pad that is easy to snap and can be adjusted in height or width. For others, the premium Belkin car vent holder ($ 30) with expandable arms on the back has a cable holder and can also be seen in both orientations.
Car Thing adds a driving-friendly Spotify interface to your car – but it’s only for Premium subscribers.
Photo: NICOLE NGUYEN / THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In the end, my favorite setup didn’t include CarPlay at all. It included my Google Maps phone mounted on my vent, plus a special little $ 90 gadget from Spotify SPOT -2.14% called Car Thing. (Yes, that’s a real name.)
The small, lightweight screen shows a version of the Spotify control interface and can be mounted on the dashboard, CD player or ventilator. It requires a Spotify Premium subscription and in addition a smartphone with the Spotify application installed and connected to the display via Bluetooth. Then you need to direct the sound from your phone to the car in any way you normally use. “Why not just your phone?” is a valid question for this product, which is basically a dedicated Spotify remote control.
While it would be nice to have a full-fledged CarPlay system, I realized that my most used driver apps are maps and music, and thanks to Car Thing, I don’t have to switch between them. The best feature of the gadget is a set of four buttons at the top that can be programmed for specific playlists or podcasts, such as a shortcut to your favorite radio station. The Car Thing only does one thing – it plays the sound from Spotify – but it does it well. And finally, plus my phone, it’s all I needed.
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