Immediately after installation, you'll want to check the Asteroid's menu to ensure that you're running the newest available firmware. Version 1.5 adds a number of small visual improvements to the unit's menus and interface, support for many OEM steering wheel controls (additional hardware may be required), and, most importantly, Bluetooth and USB Internet sharing with compatible smartphones. This last feature will allow users to tether their smartphones to an Asteroid unit to feed the receiver's applications with Internet connectivity without the need for a separate USB 3G/4G dongle.
Interface and features
I stated earlier that the Asteroid was the first car stereo to be powered by the Android mobile operating system, but you wouldn't know that by looking at it. The 3.2-inch screen displays an interface that is wholly unlike any Android device that I've ever seen before. Rather than a desktop-metaphor home screen, pressing the Asteroid's Home button calls up an icon-based list where the user can scroll through the various functions, sources, and applications present on the Asteroid, one at a time.
Those sources include the aforementioned AM/FM radio with RDS Text+ display, playback of MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, and OGG files stored on USB media or an SD card, analog audio, and iPod/iPhone playback, but also Asteroid applications such as Maps, Road Trip, Wikango HD, TuneIn Radio, and Weather. All of these Asteroid apps require a GPS and 3G connection, so make sure you have access to a USB access point. Additionally, a list of Bluetooth-synced Contacts and a Settings menu can be selected from this list.
On its own, the Asteroid is a solidly performing receiver. Audio quality is pretty good thanks to a variety of custom EQ settings, a three-level loudness mode, and automatic volume adjustment that boosts the sound levels to overcome road noise. Phone calls made through the Asteroid sound fantastic on both ends of the line--the Parrot brand is no stranger to Bluetooth speakerphones and hands-free calling hardware. However, the Asteroid relies on its apps to stand out and, unfortunately, the apps are actually its weakest link...for now.
Let's start with Maps. Although powered by Google, the Maps app on the Asteroid has more in common with Maps on the iPhone than it does with any pre-Eclair (version 2.1) Android phone. For starters, Maps doesn't offer live turn-by-turn directions, automatic rerouting, or spoken instructions. Rather, after locating a destination, you must manually advance the list of turns using the skip back and forward buttons while reading the instructions on the tiny screen--an annoying and, at times, dangerous affair.
Speaking of destination entry, Maps is severely limited in this respect as well. You can't input an address and must search POIs using either the list of preset categories or by painstakingly inputting a search term using the control knob. Even then, you can only search for POIs in the immediate area, making this function useless for finding destinations that aren't close by. Outside of specific testing, I found myself getting annoyed with the Maps app and just voice searching for a destination and navigating using my Bluetooth-paired Android phone's true Google Maps with Navigation app.
While on the road, you can also take advantage of the Road Trip app, which aids in finding destinations while traveling in new cities, and Wikango HD, a subscription-based application that alerts drivers to potential road hazards, red light and speed cameras, and speed traps. Unfortunately, without a proper navigation app backing it up Road Trip comes off as pretty useless, and Wikango HD's reliance on a subscription is a tough rub on a device that already requires that you pay for your own data connection.
However, not all of the apps preinstalled on the Asteroid are frustrating. The weather app, while simple, is useful and can automatically read forecasts and current conditions aloud upon launch. Likewise, TuneIn Radio is an Internet audio-streaming app that gives users access to local, worldwide, and Internet-only radio stations for music, talk, and sports and streaming episodes of many popular podcasts organized by category.
Like the other app-centric receiver on the market, Pioneer's, the Parrot Asteroid will live or die by the breadth and quality of the apps that it supports, and this first generation is severely lacking. A partnership with an app developer that provides true turn-by-turn directions, for example, is needed to justify the added complexity of installing the GPS receiver and 3G data connection. It may not be long before that gap is filled--Parrot has announced plans to partner with more app providers and a downloader/installer is built right into the current UI--but until then I think that most users will be just as happy with a standard (read, not necessarily running Android) receiver and an A2DP-paired smartphone.
Parrot is breaking new ground with its Android-powered Asteroid. The hardware is solid and the OS is stable, but until the company can offer a variety of useful apps to justify the additional hardware complexity, it will have a hard time making a case for this device. Likewise, requiring that users supply their own 3G USB dongle is an additional barrier to entry here. The geeky audience that has expressed an interest in the Asteroid is far more likely to have access to a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot than a USB dongle. Even I had a hard time locating one floating around CNET's office! I do appreciate that the 1.5 firmware update's addition of USB and Bluetooth smartphone tethering gives users more connectivity options.
Fortunately, Parrot is already addressing these issues. I predict that we'll see more apps in Parrot's bag of tricks and Wi-Fi has already been announced for the next generation of the Asteroid line, as well as units with onboard turn-by-turn navigation. However, if I've already got a smartphone that runs apps, do I really need a car stereo that runs limited versions of those apps too?
Although the first Android-powered car stereo has fallen a bit short when it comes to delivering the Internet and a rich app experience in the car, the Asteroid is still a darn good car stereo for users looking to add great smartphone connectivity and a top-tier hands-free calling experience to any car with a single-DIN opening in its dashboard. Plus, as more apps come along, there's a good chance that this stereo will get better with time. How many car audio receivers can make that claim?