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.
The AppRadio version of Google Maps offers essentially the same level of functionality that the native Google Maps app for iPhone offers, including satellite, road, and hybrid maps, Google Local Search for points of interest, and directions. However, it also carries the same major limitations of the iPhone app in that its turn-by-turn directions don't give spoken prompts, don't do live updates, and will not reroute if you go off-course. So you'll have to manually advance the directions as you go and read the prompts on the screen. You could probably make this setup work with a passenger acting as navigator. But for a solo driver, the level of interaction with the screen makes this a relatively unsafe affair.
Next up, there are calendar, contacts, and photo apps, which also take advantage of data stored locally on the iPhone and do pretty much what they advertise. Calendar lets you view appointments from the iPhone calendar. Photos lets you browse photos in the iPhone gallery and display a slideshow (when the vehicle is parked with the handbrake engaged). Contacts lets you browse contacts stored in the iPhone's address book. Tapping a phone number associated with a contact initiates a hands-free call using the Bluetooth speakerphone. Tapping an e-mail address sends an e-mail to the contact giving the vehicle's current GPS location.
If you want true turn-by-turn directions through your AppRadio, you'll have to install the MotionX GPS Drive navigation app. This app offers live-updating, spoken, turn-by-turn directions with text-to-speech pronunciation of street, exit, and highway names. It's as close as the AppRadio gets to providing the level of navigation functionality provided by its older sibling, the. However, this level of functionality isn't free, as MotionX GPS Drive is powered by a subscription. The app will cost 99 cents to download and $2.99 per month or $19.99 per year thereafter. Some users will bristle at the thought of subscription-based navigation, but economically, it's not too bad of a deal. It would take 30 years at the rate of $20 per year to make up the $600 price difference between the AppRadio and Pioneer's next-least expensive navigation receiver, the AVIC-X930BT.
However, if there's one issue that we take with the MotionX GPS Drive app, it's that it treats the AppRadio display as a secondary screen used to display the map and turn data. There's not much you can do on the AppRadio's touch screen aside from scrolling and zooming the map and changing the display mode from 2D to 3D or heading up to North up. For all other functions--including destination entry and search--you'll have to use the MotionX app interface on the iPhone's screen. This lends itself to some interesting configurations, such as using the AppRadio for the main map and the iPhone to display a list of upcoming turns, but we were a bit miffed at having to touch the phone at all while behind the wheel.
In fact, all of the third-party apps will require the user to take advantage of the iPhone's task switcher (double-tap on the iPhone's home key to select from a list of running apps) to jump between them and the core AppRadio app. This means you will need to keep the iPhone visible and within reach to, for example, jump between the navigation app and one of the Internet radio players, which works against the primary advantage that the AppRadio offers over a simple iPhone dashboard mount and an auxiliary audio cable.
Speaking of Internet radio apps, AppRadio supports two of them: Pandora and Rdio. Pandora Internet Radio accesses its Music Genome-generated stations and displays song metadata and album artwork. Controls include play, pause, bookmark, thumbs-up, and thumbs-down. Pandora is unique in AppRadio's catalog in that it appears to be the only app not using the iPhone's video output to display its interface on the 6.1-inch screen. Rather Pandora uses AppRadio's native rendering engine, which results in its onscreen text and graphics appearing much sharper than the rest of the supported apps.
Meanwhile, Rdio features a more complex interface that gives you access to a variety of Web-streamed audio content from the Rdio collection, saved playlists, and categories such as Heavy Rotation, New Releases, Top Charts, and Recommended. Tapping an album or song on one of these lists takes you to a Now Playing screen that displays a massive image of the album artwork alongside a list of queued tracks and skip back, play/pause, and skip controls. Tapping the album artwork toggles between the play queue and a progress scrubber with icons for selecting repeat and shuffle modes.
The last app in the AppRadio catalog is Inrix Traffic, a free app that displays traffic flow and incident data on a Google map using a combination of color-coded overlays on visible roads and icons. Inrix is the only one of the three mapping apps that supports pinch-to-zoom. The map has a few alternate views that drivers may find useful. For example, the comparative traffic mode highlights the areas where traffic is significantly better or worse than usual with blue and black highlights, respectively. Predictive traffic allows you to virtually turn the clock forward to get an estimate of what delays may look like a few hours into the future. Finally, a list view for incident data is also available, but the font is a bit small for easy reading on the largish touch screen. Those who opt to upgrade to the Premium version of the Inrix Traffic app also get access to a My Commutes menu that lets users save commonly accessed trips for easy retrieval with live-updating travel times and forecast estimates for the best departure times for the stored commutes, and view live images from any traffic cameras in Inrix's network. Interestingly, most of Inrix Traffic's features seem to be of the most use before you get behind the wheel, making this app the odd bird in the AppRadio mix.
Each app running on the connected iPhone is discrete, not actively communicating with the others, so the traffic data provided by Inrix Traffic doesn't affect the turn-by-turn directions of Google Maps or MotionX GPS Drive.
Like all first-generation technology, the AppRadio has quite a few kinks that need to be ironed out. We joked many times during the testing of this receiver that perhaps AppRadio Beta would be a more appropriate moniker.
We aren't fans of the lack of built-in app switching. We understand that this is mostly due to a limitation of how iOS handles multitasking, but picking up the phone to jump from Inrix to Pandora, for example, is inconvenient, unsafe, and questionably legal. Of course, one could use a dashboard mount to keep the iPhone within tapping range with the bonus of a cool double-display effect with an app like MotionX GPS Drive. But again, finding a place to mount the handset almost defeats the purpose of installing a double-DIN receiver in the first place.
However, because the AppRadio is powered primarily by the apps that reside on the iPhone, it is in the unique position of being able to grow as quickly as the software does. It would take little more than Pioneer's app partners adding "Back to AppRadio" buttons to their interfaces and 90 percent of our problems with AppRadio would be solved. Additionally, the list of supported apps is also likely to grow as more developers adopt Apple's and Pioneer's APIs. Because Pioneer is taking advantage of a gateway that is built into Apple iOS, AppRadio can also improve as the iOS platform evolves and adds functionality to the iPhone.
It may be the case that we'll return to take a second look at AppRadio two months, six months, or a year from now and find that it's a completely different experience with all of our problems resolved and a massive catalog of apps to choose from. We certainly hope that's the case--Pioneer has expressed a dedication to making this platform work. For now, our final impression is that AppRadio needs a bit more time to bake before it's ready for prime time.