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Getting started with Android Auto

Google's safety-minded car-mode software is no longer restricted to cars with compatible infotainment systems. Here's how to use it in any vehicle on nearly any Android phone.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

It's virtually impossible to stop folks from using their phones while driving, illegal and insanely dangerous though it may be. Thankfully, Google's newly updated Android Auto now works in every car, not just a handful of models with fancy infotainment systems. (Your move, Apple. Seriously, what's the hold-up?)

Android Auto effectively adds a "car mode" to your phone, an oversize, simplified interface that gives you quick access to phone, navigation and audio features. All you need is the app, which is currently available in the US on Google Play and rolling out soon to other countries, and a dashboard mount. (Not sure what kind of mount to get? Read my rundown of the three main smartphone-mount options.)

Let's take a look at Android Auto's features and what you should know about using them:

Apps

Android Auto works with a variety of third-party apps, all of which have been updated to integrate with Auto's specialized interface. These include messaging apps such as Kik, WhatsApp and Skype. There's also music apps including Pandora, Spotify and Google Play Music, natch. And there are audio apps ranging from Audible and NPR One to Overdrive and Stitcher.

To see what's available and install any apps you don't already have, swipe right or tap the Menu button, then choose Apps for Android Auto.

Auto-reply

If you're using a compatible messaging app, Android Auto can automatically generate a reply to any incoming text. By default, that message is, "I'm driving right now." To change it, just swipe right (or tap the Menu icon), then tap Settings > Auto reply.

Take note, however, that your auto-reply will not be auto-sent. When a message comes in, you'll see it on the Android Auto home screen, with the auto-reply text shown beneath it. To actually send the auto-reply, you need to tap it.

When you do that, the message thread automatically toggles to "mute" status so you won't get further interruptions. You can tap again to "unmute."

Navigation

The Android Auto home screen will automatically display recent destinations from Google Maps; just tap one and you're on your way. You can also ask for directions by saying "OK, Google" or by tapping the microphone or tap the navigation icon to access Maps. The icons here could be larger, Google -- just saying.

Phone

Auto's phone screen is about as straightforward as they come: You get your list of favorites (and recent calls) pulled from the Phone app, but oversize for easy at-a-glance tapping.

The order in which these favorites appear is based on the order they're listed in Phone, but when I tried reordering them in the latter, the list didn't update in Android Auto. Hopefully that's a bug Google will fix. In the meantime, you can swipe right (or tap Menu) to access phone features like voicemail and call history.

Audio

When you tap the headphone icon, Android Auto brings up player controls for the most recently used audio app. Tap that icon again and you'll see a list of the available choices from whatever compatible apps are installed.

For the majority of these apps, you'll swipe right (or tap Menu) to choose what you want to hear from that app: playlist, podcast, etc. Once you've started listening, you can swipe left from the main player controls to access more controls -- shuffle play, thumbs up or down, and so forth.

Auto for the people

If you decide to use Android Auto on a regular basis, and here's hoping you do, you can set it to run automatically whenever your phone pairs with your car's Bluetooth. Just hit the Settings screen, tap Auto launch, then select the corresponding Auto-launch device.

Once it's running, the app stays active until you hit the Home button, then asks you to confirm your exit.

I think this is a good first step toward making smartphones safer in cars, but I'd like to see Google make certain controls even larger and add an auto-send option to auto-reply. Your thoughts?