Phones are much less expensive than cars, and you are likely to keep your car a lot longer than a phone. So instead of choosing a car to fit your phone, it makes more sense to choose a phone that works with your car.
Android phones and iPhones are the two major players today, and each offers useful features for the automotive environment. And automakers offer various levels of integration and apps for each phone platform.
So which type of smartphone is the best companion for your long, lonely drives? We compared each one in the following categories to find the answer:
Both Android and iPhone can work as portable navigation devices offering turn-by-turn directions.
Android came out of the gate with excellent navigation from its Google Maps app; that's not too surprising, as Google created the Android OS. Google frequently updates the app, and it's free.
Although the iPhone comes with a Google Maps app, it does not work well enough for navigation. But you can get navigation apps, complete with accessories such as a GPS-enhanced cradle, to turn the iPhone into a very good navigation device. These apps tend to be pricey, as they use much of the same software as a portable navigation device.
Being able to plug an MP3 player into a car and select music from the car's own stereo interface makes storage media such as CDs seem quaint, like an 8-track tape. Both Android and iPhone feature built-in MP3 players.
MP3 playback on Android phones has always been a feature, one among many, but not a dominant aspect of the phone. And different phone makers might implement MP3 playback and file structures differently. As such, there are no cars offering specific Android MP3 player integration at this time. Some Androids will work as a mass storage device using a car's USB connection.
Since 2005, automakers have been offering iPod integration in their vehicles, and just about every vehicle we test offers it now. Apple used its iPod technology as a component of the iPhone, so when a car has iPod integration, it works just as well with an iPhone. Here, Apple's early dominance of the MP3 player market with the iPod essentially made it a standard for automakers, and the iPhone piggybacks on that compatibility.
The A2DP profile, or stereo Bluetooth audio streaming, lets you play music wirelessly from your phone through your car stereo. This technology has the convenience factor of not requiring you to plug the phone into a cable whenever you get into the car.
Android held an early advantage for Bluetooth audio streaming, but Apple quickly caught up, enabling it on the iPhone 3G. Now, neither phone holds an advantage in this area. With the current implementation, you have to use the phone to select music. The car interface only lets you play, pause, and skip music.
Although there are many music apps, Pandora has arisen as an early leader for automotive integration. Pandora integration usually works by having you launch the app on your phone, at which point an Pandora interface becomes available on the car stereo interface.
Both phone platforms are capable of giving car stereos control over the Pandora app, but in different ways. For the iPhone, it's through the 30-pin dock connector. On Android, it's over Bluetooth. Functionality doesn't vary for either connection method.
For Pandora, it comes down to compatibility. Ford's AppLink works with both Android and iPhone. But BMW, Mini, and Scion only offer Pandora integration for iPhone at this time. In the aftermarket, there are many receivers that support Pandora on the iPhone, but only two that support Android.
Most cars come with Bluetooth phone systems these days. The advantage of these systems is that they let you receive and place calls without touching your phone, and often without taking your hands off the steering wheel.
The great thing about Bluetooth hands-free calling (HFP) and address book sync (PBAP) is that these standards have been around since the days of the dumbphones. Both Android and iPhone support both of these wireless protocols with no major differences in operation.
Automakers are beginning to offer smartphone apps designed to work with their cars. Some offer a connection to an existing telematics service such as OnStar, whereas others enable new infotainment features in the car, such as online search.
In this area, we need merely look at which automakers support which platforms:
Car-related apps for smartphones cover a wide array. There are apps for finding cheap gas, diagnosing engine problems, calculating G-force, and even remembering where you parked your car.
Most of the major apps are cross-platform, or you can easily find apps with similar functionality on Android and iPhone. However, there are more free apps available for Android. For example, although Vlingo is cross-platform, the Android version is both free and more fully featured than the iPhone version.
Further, the Android market includes a Transportation category, which makes it easier to find car-related apps. In the iTunes Store, there is a Navigation category, but other automotive apps will be found under either the broad categories of Travel or Utilities.
Makers of aftermarket automotive equipment have begun to discover smartphone integration. Stereos, radar detectors, and even action cameras all benefit from associated smartphone apps.
Like OEM audio playback and integration, iPhone rules the roost here. While not every aftermarket receiver we test offers iPhone compatibility, the vast majority of them do. Some, like Pioneer with its AppRadio, are starting to build whole car audio platforms around the iPhone. And while Android phones could ideally be connected to any USB port as a mass storage drive, the implementation is so inconsistent that users are often stuck using the auxiliary input.
Taking all these categories into consideration, the best smartphone for cars is the iPhone.
Of course, that is as it stands today. Automakers and aftermarket equipment manufacturers are constantly evolving compatibility based on audience demand. The iPhone got an early lead because of market share, but Android has caught up quickly.
Android's primary hurdle is the lack of unified hardware standards, making it more difficult for each automaker to test for compatibility. But Apple also has a history of changing its hardware without regard to other companies. A move such as changing the iPhone's 30-pin connector would instantly lose much of its current compatibility.
And, of course, an Android phone might fit your own car better. For example, a car with a Bluetooth audio connection, but no navigation system or iPod integration, is perfect for an Android phone.