As the saying goes, "you get what you pay for," meaning that sometimes it's worth paying a little extra to get a more acceptable level of quality. According to that logic, a $1,400 car multimedia receiver should be twice as good as a $700 one. But as I learned during my test of Pioneer Electronics' flagship AVIC-8100NEX -- an amazing powerhouse of headunit -- sometimes paying more leaves you with more product than you can reasonably use.
This is where the AVH-4100NEX comes in. No, it's not the flagship to Pioneer's NEX series of multimedia receivers; it's technically the entry model. It boasts a more modest list of features when compared to its AVIC-prefixed siblings, most obviously being its lack of onboard GPS hardware and navigation software. But in many ways, the 4100NEX's more conservative approach to its feature set that makes it the best buy in the line.
You see, the NEX series' claim to fame -- the reason that I think most users will be interested in these models -- is the inclusion of Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and MirrorLink compatibility in one box. When connected to a compatible phone, the $700 4100NEX instantly becomes as functional as the $1,400 8100NEX, but with fewer redundancies in the feature list and a lot of extra money left in the buyer's wallet.
For our UK and Australian readers, Pioneer offers the identical AVH-X8700BT and AVH-X8750BT receivers, respectively. There doesn't appear to be any difference between these three units beyond their model names. The X8700BT costs £699.99 in the UK, while the Aussie X8750BT runs AU$1,149.
Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, MirrorLink and more
When connected via USB to an Android device that's running software version Lollipop 5.x, the receiver triggers the Android Auto software to start on the host phone. After an initial setup on the phone that installs the Android Auto app as well as Google Maps, Google Music and Google Voice Search if they're not already installed on the device, there's a quick walk-through on the NEX receiver's screen before the driver is presented with the Android Auto overview screen.
Boasting both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay makes the NEX models ideal for cross-platform households. When connected to an iPhone running iOS version 8 or better, the 4100NEX boasts features identical in scope and operation to what we saw recently on the AVIC-8100NEX. Being able to experience the two systems side-by-side on the same hardware, I noticed that CarPlay seemed just a hair smoother in operation than Android Auto, particularly during the pairing phase. I suspect that has more to do with the phones' operating systems than Pioneer's hardware; Apple's version of this tech just seems to be more plug-and-play.
Being a Nexus 5 user, the bulk of my testing was done in Android Auto mode, but I've been over the pros and cons of both smartphone protocols and find that they're fairly evenly matched where overall feature sets are concerned. There are differences in interface organization and available apps for audio streaming and messaging, but both are analogous enough to their host smartphone OSes to feel familiar to their respective users. What I like best is that both systems make heavy use of voice command for destination selection, hands-free calling initiation and song selection. Both will also read incoming text messages aloud and allow the driver to compose or reply to messages with voice recognition. Though the screen is important to Android Auto and Apple CarPlay voice command is even more crucial and I like that it is possible to perform many functions without even looking at the receiver.
Users can jump back and forth between CarPlay and Android Auto by plugging in either phone to one of the AVIC-4100NEX's two USB ports. However, the transition between the two protocols isn't exactly seamless, requiring a trip into the Options menu to toggle between "Apple CarPlay" and "Other" USB connection modes. To its credit, the NEX is smart enough to notice that I've plugged in an Android phone when in Apple mode (and vice versa) and prompts me with a pop-up shortcut to the appropriate menu where the toggle can be made, minimizing the amount of tapping needed to get going.
Pioneer's 4100NEX can also multitask to a degree. I was able to run Android Auto's Maps app with one of its USB ports while listening to music from a paired iPhone using the iPod-mode functionality of its second USB port. Likewise, the receiver can listen to CD audio or HD Radio while running Google or Apple's navigation software.
Rounding out the smartphone connectivity list is compatibility with MirrorLink devices and apps and the inclusion of Pioneer's own AppRadio Mode for legacy iPhone and Android devices when used with appropriate adapters. Finally, there's standalone Pandora and Aha Radio app support when connected to a phone running one of these apps.
Onboard audio and video sources
Though I predict that much of CNET's tech-savvy users will see the 4100NEX as little more than a smartphone hub, but the receiver boasts a very respectable set of audio and video sources beyond the one in your pocket. For example, it features built-in HD Radio tuning using the antenna that's already in your car now. There's a hidden optical drive that supports CD, DVD and Video-CD playback.
Got an old iPod? Plug it in and listen. How about a USB drive or DVD full of digital media? The receiver supports MP3, WAV, and AAC audio on USB or optical media and a wide range of video formats to include DivX and MPEG-4 codecs.
There's also Bluetooth audio streaming and hands-free calling, an HDMI video input, and a 3.5mm analog auxiliary input for connecting legacy devices.