Pioneer's AppRadio is the first of its kind. This double-DIN in-dash car audio receiver is almost completely powered by a connected Apple iPhone 4 and positions itself as the ultimate car stereo for app addicts--the kind of person who hasn't seen a CD since the iTunes store launched and would sooner buy a navigation app than a portable navigation device. If that's you, AppRadio aims to provide everything you need (such as iPhone connectivity, hands-free calling, and advanced app control) and nothing you don't (for example, an optical disk drive, multiple inputs and outputs, and compatibility with non-iPhone devices) at a seriously low price.
Upon unboxing the AppRadio, we were amazed that--despite sharing dimensions with every other double-DIN receiver on the market--the receiver was very lightweight. That's because it's basically an empty shell. Without a motorized faceplate or optical disk drive (and the dampening hardware that goes with it) weighing it down, the AppRadio saves ounces over even the average single-DIN CD receiver that's crossed our test bench.
The AppRadio doesn't have a CD/DVD player. What it does have is an AM/FM radio tuner, a Bluetooth receiver for hands-free calling with an external microphone, an external GPS antenna, and a 50-watt by four-channel MOSFET amplifier. And, most importantly, it has a 30-pin full-speed iPod dock connector for connecting an Apple iPhone (without which an AppRadio is little more than a very attractive touch-screen AM/FM radio).
On the business end, the AppRadio features a 6.1-inch glass LCD display (not the 7 inches that we initially estimated in our First Look video). The screen has a resolution of 800x480 pixels and a glossy finish. The capacitive touch screen is very responsive, requiring only the slightest touch. It registers multitouch inputs, such as pinch-to-zoom and multifinger taps, consistently and accurately in apps that support such inputs. However, unlike the resistive screens that most other touch-screen receivers use, the AppRadio's cannot be used while wearing gloves.
The AppRadio's external GPS antenna is more sensitive than the A-GPS antenna in the iPhone, but the receiver is able to use both to help establish the position of the vehicle when you use a navigation app. Usually, the AppRadio uses the more accurate external antenna, but when clear skies aren't available (such as in a parking garage or a tunnel) the system is able to switch over to the iPhone's internal positioning system to establish an approximate location using cellular tower and Wi-Fi hot-spot triangulation. Once in the clear again, the AppRadio can then switch back to its own antenna.
Because of limitations on the sort of data that can be transmitted over the iPhone's dock connection, AppRadio uses Bluetooth to connect to the iPhone for hands-free calling. The unit has an external microphone that can be mounted on the dashboard, visor, or steering column for increased call quality over the microphone in the iPhone itself. The vehicle's speakers provide the audio output for hands-free calls. A2DP audio streaming is not supported, but isn't necessary for iPhone use since it's already likely to be sending its audio via the dock connector. However, the omission of A2DP, along with the lack of any sort of auxiliary audio input, pretty much locks any other type of device out of the AppRadio party. So, if you've got a passenger who wants to connect a BlackBerry or Android device, he or she will be out of luck.
Simple is the name of the game with AppRadio, so there aren't many physical controls on the bezel beneath the touch screen. From left to right, you'll find a volume rocker, a home key in the center, and--hidden behind a small door--a microSD card slot. However, the card slot is not used for media storage and playback, but for firmware updates if and when available.
Out back, in addition to the connections for the radio antenna, speakers, power, and aforementioned external microphone and GPS antenna, the AppRadio has connections for a rearview camera input, a reverse gear sensor, a parking brake sensor, a remote amplifier turn-on lead, and input for a steering-wheel control adapter. System builders and audiophiles will be disappointed to find a single set of stereo preamp outputs, which can be set to subwoofer or full-range output.
The AppRadio also lacks Pioneer's proprietary Bus connection for external modules, so this is not the receiver to choose if you think you'll want to add HD Radio or satellite radio sometime down the line.
Fire up the AppRadio and you'll be taken to the home screen. Here is where you'll find icons for access to the various core functions, including AM/FM Radio, iPod Playback, Apps, and Phone (hands-free calling). Just above these icons is a large digital clock, and in either of the upper corners are smaller icons for accessing the settings menu and manually triggering the rearview camera if one is installed.
The Settings menu holds a large number of options, which are organized into three major categories. Audio Settings is where you will find the 12-band graphic equalizer with seven presets (two of which are customizable). Steering Wheel Control allows you to customize the functions of up to 22 steering-wheel buttons when used in conjunction with a conversion module. Finally, General Settings is where the vast majority of the AppRadio's options are found, including display options, setting the date/time, radio region, RCA preamp output settings, language, and audio levels for the AppRadio's three major sources: radio, iPhone, and hands-free calls. You can also choose between dark and light background color themes.
The Phone menu is where you can view missed calls, received calls, and previously dialed calls, and browse your handset's phone book. Pairing uses the Bluetooth HFP standard, so technically any Bluetooth phone can be paired with AppRadio, but the rest of the app is pretty deeply invested in the iPhone ecosystem, so you will likely just pair your iPhone. The Phone menu is also home to a numerical dial pad for manual initiation of calls and its own Options menu for enabling functions such as auto connect, auto answer, and phone book sync.
The bits of the interface that are rendered by AppRadio itself (the main menu, settings, AM/FM tuner, phone, and--as we'll discuss later--Pandora Internet radio) are attractive, with crisply rendered text that is easy to read. However, parts of the AppRadio interface are actually rendered by the apps themselves on the connected iPhone and sent to the AppRadio's screen via iOS' video output. These screens, which include the iPod player and most of the screens under the Apps menu, are visibly of a lower resolution than the native screens (which may be a small issue for some users) and vary wildly in design and organization of information (which is a bigger issue at highway speeds).
Putting the apps into AppRadio
We mentioned that the Pioneer AppRadio is the first of its kind; that's because--with the exception of the AM/FM tuner--nearly every function of this receiver requires or is powered by a connected iPhone 4.
Out of the box, a connected iPhone will play back iPod audio and video. Via the iPod icon in AppRadio's home menu, you can browse your media with full access to the iPod app's taxonomy, including organization by artist, album, genre, and song title, as well as separate categories for videos, audiobooks, and podcasts. Disappointingly, the actual category headings as displayed on the screen are not touch-sensitive. Instead, you'll have to scroll up and down using a set of arrow keys on the left edge of the screen and make selections using a virtual OK button. This, as it was explained to us by Pioneer, is a limitation of the iPod Out protocol that the iPhone uses, but it makes navigating long lists of artists or songs clunky and seems like an awful waste of touch-screen real estate.
Touching the Apps icon in the main menu launches the Pioneer AppRadio app on the connected iPhone--or cues you to install it if the app isn't already present. With that app running, you can browse and access the rest of the apps that AppRadio supports from the 6.1-inch touch screen, including Google Maps, Contacts, Calendar, Photos, and Suggested Apps. Clicking Suggested Apps takes you to a list of third-party apps that AppRadio supports with download links. At the time of this review, the listed apps were Pandora Internet Radio, Rdio, MotionX GPS Drive navigation, and Inrix Traffic.