There’s a three-way battle going on right now for control of your car’s dashboard. On one side are the manufacturers. On the other are the mobile tech companies, Google and Apple.
Until recently, manufacturers have stood pretty firm, believing that you should use their infotainment system in their way. Yes, you can connect your phone and take calls or play music but you always do so through their car technology.
Now, however, Apple and Google are producing their own systems that allow you to bypass the stock infotainment system and ‘mirror’ your smartphone on the infotainment panel, cutting out the manufacturer’s system entirely. (If you've ever endured a poorly designed infotainment screen, you know that this was a long time coming.)
An Introduction to Android Auto
Launched in 2015, Android Auto is Google’s dash platform. Connect your phone to your car via USB or Bluetooth and access your smartphone’s functionality via your infotainment screen.
An Introduction to Apple CarPlay
Launched in 2014, Apple CarPlay is the mobile dash platform for iPhones. It’s marketed under the slogan Your ultimate copilot and that’s kind of what it is. It handles your navigation, your communication and your entertainment.
Round #1 — Navigation
Up until Apple releases iOS 12 in September, this is going to be a super easy win for Android Auto. That’s because, at the moment, CarPlay doesn’t support Google Maps. Not only that, it doesn’t support any other third-party navigation apps like Waze or HERE WeGo.
Now, that will change in September when iOS launches and brings with it support for Google Maps, Waze and HERE but until then CarPlay doesn’t stand a chance.
With Google Maps at its heart, Android Auto works incredibly well. Google’s maps are as up-to-date as they come, the route finding is superb and the connectivity is outstanding.
If you’d rather not use Google Maps, Android Auto also supports community-driven navigation app Waze, which is a nice option.
When it comes to navigation, Android Auto wins hands down. However, whether that’s still the case come September remains to be seen.
- Winner: Android Auto
Round #2 — Music
After navigation, music is probably the most important aspect of a mobile infotainment system.
So, how do the pair perform?
The good news for Apple fans is CarPlay already has support for third-party music and audio apps. You’ve got the default Music app and if that's not your cup of tea, there's also Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Play Music and a bunch of radio apps.
They all work well with voice commands and I didn’t have any problems playing the tunes I wanted.
Like CarPlay, Android Auto supports its default app, Google Play Music, and a bunch of third-party apps like Spotify, Amazon Music and YouTube Music.
Like CarPlay, all the apps work well with voice commands and it’s pretty simple to play, pause or skip songs.
- Winner: Tie
Round #3 — Calls
Car infotainment systems have supported hands free calls for what feels like decades. So any mobile infotainment system needs to handle calls perfectly if it wants to replace the standard system.
Both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto allow motorists to receive and answer calls using just voice commands. I tested both systems in a variety of conditions — with folk chatting in the back, with the windows down, at motorway speeds — and they picked up my voice really well.
If you take a lot of calls while driving, you’ll not go wrong with either system.
- Winner: Tie
Round #4 — Messaging
Look, I get why Apple is protective of their system. They want a tightly controlled app ecosystem so every service works perfectly with every other service. Unfortunately, that means not supporting a bunch of popular apps.
Messaging is probably the worst example of this with just two supported apps: WhatsApp and Messages. So if you want to use Slack, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Kik, Telegram or Signal, you're bang out of luck. If you want to receive a message through an unsupported service, you've got to find somewhere to park, unplug your iPhone and read it yourself.
That’s just not acceptable.
Android Auto, on the other hand, supports a bunch of messaging apps, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Kik, Hangouts, Telegram, WeChat, Google Allo and a whole load more.
If someone wants to contact you and you’re driving, Android Auto will find a way to get that message to you.
- Winner: Android Auto
Round #5 — User interface
When it comes to user interfaces, personal preference between Apple and Android will probably sway you one way or the other. If you’ve used iPhones for the past ten years, Android Auto will probably feel quite unintuitive. And the reverse is also true.
However, if I'm trying to be impartial, I do think that CarPlay's interface is a little nicer and it feels a bit more reactive and responsive. Using Android Auto, I experienced a bit of jerkiness and it was a touch sluggish to register some inputs.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that significant and it definitely wasn’t annoying enough to get me to stop using the service but it was bad enough to notice.
- Winner: Apple CarPlay
Round #6 — Third-party app support
Alongside six core Apple apps (Phone, Music, Maps, Messages, Now Playing and Podcasts), CarPlay supports 17 third-party apps, including WhatsApp, Spotify and iPlayer Radio.
Android Auto supports 120 apps, ranging from Spotify and Hangouts to WhatsApp and Waze.
While there’s a lot of overlap between the apps — for example, Spotify, YouTube Music, Amazon Music and Google Play Music all cover music streaming — it’s really nice to have the choice with Android Auto.
- Winner: Android Auto
Round #7 — Support
When it comes to support, there’s two things we have to think about. First, what car models have infotainment systems that support the services. Second, what phones can run the Android Auto or CarPlay apps.
First up, car models.
While Apple CarPlay supports 300 models, Android Auto supports over 400. However, with both systems, a lot of those models are only available in the US.
Out of CarPlay’s 300 supported models, just 150 or so are available in the UK via LeaseFetcher. And out of Android Auto’s 400 supported models, you can lease just 170 or so through LeaseFetcher.
Yes, Android Auto still supports more car models but the gap isn’t quite as large as it seems. Also watch out for manufacturers that are only working with one of the two companies. BMW and Toyota are the two biggest names and, at the moment, do not support Android Auto in any of their models.
Any Apple phone running iOS 7 and above should be able to work with Apple CarPlay. iOS 7 came out in 2013 and should be installed on any phone after the iPhone 5.
Android Auto should work on any phone running Android 5.0 (Lollipop), which was released in 2014. However, with the fragmented release structure of Android operating systems, it’s a bit tricky to say which phones will definitely support Android Auto and which ones won’t.
- Winner: Tie
So, that’s my semi in-depth comparison of both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. And after six tough rounds, here are the scores.
- Android Auto: 3
- Tie: 3
- Apple CarPlay: 1
So on numbers alone, Android Auto clinches the title of best mobile infotainment system. However, whether you use Android Auto or Apple CarPlay will almost certainly depend on the phone in your pocket rather than the conclusion of this comparison.
If you already have an iPhone, you’ll use Apple CarPlay. If you already have an Android Phone, you’ll use Android Auto.