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Pioneer AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210 review: AppRadio 3 is the best choice for app fanatics

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Now in its third generation, the Pioneer AppRadio continues to grow. It's got even more smartphone connectivity options for its neat app-mirroring trick, now boasting simplified compatibility with MirrorLink phones. Listening to our pleas after the AppRadio 2's launch, Pioneer has finally unlocked Bluetooth audio streaming. (USB playback of MP3s is, sadly, still missing.) Its catalog of compatible apps has also been growing slowly, but steadily. This new generation also holds a new DVD/CD drive, an odd but welcome addition to a line of receivers so focused on being a hub for smartphone connectivity.

Pioneer AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210
8.7

Pioneer AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The <b>Pioneer AppRadio 3</b> gives in-dash access to dozens of Android and iOS apps via its 7-inch capacitive touch screen. Bluetooth hands-free calling helps with safer driving and Bluetooth audio streaming adds compatibiltiy for phones that can't mirror apps. New DVD/CD player supports physical media.

The Bad

App mirroring doesn't function without $60 to $120 in additional adapters and cables. When mirroring, the phone's screen stays illuminated and active. Still no USB playback of MP3s on portable drives.

The Bottom Line

The Pioneer AppRadio 3 is significantly improved over the previous generation and one of the best choices for drivers wanting safe access to smartphone apps while on the road.

The box
Looking at the receiver's chassis, there are only two physical differences between the AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210 and the AppRadio 2 SPH-DA100 that I've previously reviewed. On the back end, there's a new, fixed USB pigtail with 5V/1A power output, making it useful for charging MHL, HDMI, and MirrorLink devices while in use.

The rest of the rear ports are unchanged for this generation. You'll find an HDMI connection, two RCA audio outputs, a video input for a rear camera, a radio antenna port, and the standard wire harness connection. The proprietary port for Pioneer's USB/iPod cable is also still there, but the cable that plugs in there is no longer included in the box.

Like earlier AppRadio models, the AppRadio 3 ships with an external GPS antenna in the box that supplements and feeds more precise positioning data to AppRadio-compatible apps that make use of location data (such location sharing or turn-by-turn navigation apps). There's also an external microphone for use with the Bluetooth hands-free calling functionality, wich can be positioned closer to your head and aimed at your face for better call quality on the road. Connections for these external sensors can be found on the rear panel, as well.

Pioneer AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210
AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210 features a hidden DVD player behind its motorized face. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

On the receiver's front face, the third-generation AppRadio makes use of the same 7-inch capacitive screen that was found on the second-generation model. The resolution is still 800x480 WVGA. The screen is big, but the resolution and slightly washed-out colors left a bit to be desired, particularly when compared with the latest 5-plus inch smartphones and 7-inch tablets.

Below that screen, on a protruding lip, there are the physical controls. Joining the volume, home, menu, and back buttons is a new eject button. Tapping it reveals the other new feature for this generation of AppRadio: an optical drive behind the motorized screen for DVD/CD playback. Previous AppRadio models were completely mech-free with no moving parts, but this one lets you slide the screen aside, pop in a DVD, and watch a movie or TV show while parked.

Pioneer AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210
The AppRadio 2 (top) and AppRadio 3 (below) are nearly identical where the rear connections are concerned. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

What you can't see by poking at the chassis is the AppRadio 3's additions of MirrorLink compatibility to the available smartphone connection methods and Bluetooth audio streaming to the list of available audio sources.

The connections
The previous AppRadio models shipped with Pioneer's proprietary USB cable and a USB-to-30-pin-cable in the box, so it worked with dock-connector Apple products out of the box. The AppRadio 3 no longer ships with those cables, which means that people wanting to make use of this connection method will have to purchase the $60 CD-IU201N cables separately. This minor annoyance for users of the iPhone 4 or 4S is good news for users of every other compatible phone, since it means that they won't be paying for cables that they don't need and can't use.

Owners of the iPhone 5, 5C, or 5S will need to plug the AppRadio 3 into their phone's Lightning port, which requires quite a few extra parts. You'll need Apple's $50 Lightning Digital AV adapter and a $20 Lightning-to-USB cable, which you'll need to supply yourself. You'll also need Pioneer's proprietary USB cable and an HDMI cable, which can be had as part of the $50 CD-IH202 Cable Kit bundle. All in, it'll cost you an additional $120 to connect your iPhone 5 to the AppRadio 3.

I tested the AppRadio 3 with this connection method using an iPhone 5C, which worked perfectly. Out of curiosity, I attempted to plug in my iPad Mini (which isn't listed as compatible on Pioneer's Web site) and found that the tablet's resolution doesn't scale, so the AppRadio is only able to mirror a small portion of the interface, with a significant portion bleeding out of the boundaries of the screen.

AppRadio 3 connection options
iPhone 5 users will need to bring their own Lightning Digital AV adapter (left). Android users will need Pioneer's MHL or HDMI adapters. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Android users with compatible phones will plug in using the CD-AH200C Cable Kit, which includes an HDMI cable, an HDMI-to-Micro-HDMI cable adapter, and an MHL adapter. The kit also includes a USB power supply and cable, which you won't need with the AppRadio 3 thanks to its 1A-powered USB port. Depending on your phone's method of connection (MHL or Micro-HDMI) you'll also end up not needing one of the video cables included in the box. At $60, this kit is expensive, but its price has dropped significantly from the old asking price of $119.99 at the AppRadio 2's launch.

I tested the MHL adapter with the HTC One and found that it performed as Pioneer advertised, mirroring the handset's screen on the larger 7-inch display when using AppRadio-compatible apps.

Previously, I speculated that Android users could get around purchasing Pioneer's expensive CD-AH200C kit by using a cheaper third-party MHL adapter. To test this theory, I plugged in a LG Nexus 5 (an unsupported phone according to Pioneer's literature) using a $30 SlimPort adapter and an HDMI cable that I had lying around. I was surprised to find that the Nexus 5 worked as well as the officially supported HTC One and the first-party cable kit. However, I was not able to duplicate the results with the LG Nexus 4, which is also SlimPort-compatible. This means that third-party MHL and HDMI adapters may work for officially and unofficially supported phones, but -- as with all unofficial hacks -- you can't count on it.

Of course, the cheapest method of connection to the AppRadio 3 is via a MirrorLink-compatible Android smartphone, such as the Samsung Galaxy S4, S3, and Note II phones. For these devices, all that you'll need is a long enough USB-to-Micro-USB cable to reach the AppRadio's powered USB port -- no expensive adapters required.

The setup
Before you plug in your compatible smartphone, you'll need to install a few helper apps to enable your phone to communicate with the AppRadio hardware.

The first is the AppRadio app itself, which powers the icon-based AppRadio interface. It's a free app that includes instructions for pairing your smartphone with the AppRadio hardware. For iOS users, this is the only app that you'll need to install, but Android users will need to install one more helper app.

That app is the CarKeyboard, which is a keyboard replacement that enables the AppRadio's touch screen to accept and pass on input to the apps running on your phone. This keyboard must be set as your input method when using AppRadio 3, so if you already have a favorite custom keyboard (such as Swype, SwiftKey, or the default Android keyboard) you'll have to switch back and forth when entering or exiting the vehicle. It's a little annoying, all of this keyboard switching, but I was able to use the third-party automation app Tasker (video) to automatically set my Input Method to CarKeyboard when connected to AppRadio and back to my preferred keyboard when I exited the vehicle. Pioneer should consider building a similar functionality into the next version of its app.

With the apps installed, the next step is to pair your handset with the AppRadio 3's Bluetooth system and then connect physically via one of the methods mentioned above. The AppRadio app should launch and, after a quick touch-screen calibration, you'll be ready to install and run your other apps.

The apps
From the icon-based AppRadio interface, you'll be able to see and launch any AppRadio-compatible apps that are installed on your handset. You'll also be able to see a list of compatible apps that are not installed and link to the Google Play Store or iTunes App Store to install them.

A full, constantly updating list of compatible apps for both platforms can be found on Pioneer's Web site. Cross-platform standouts include CNET favorite Waze for turn-by-turn navigation, Inrix Traffic, iHeartRadio for audio streaming, and the DashCommand driving-performance monitor. iOS users have a slightly larger number of compatible apps with exclusives like the Sygic, iGo, and MotionX navigation apps, Parkopedia parking assistant, and the Escort Live traffic and red-light camera alerts database.

Pioneer AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210
The AppRadio interface is where you'll browse and launch available apps. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

On the Android side, Glympse is a simple app that sends live-updating location information to friends or family, allowing them to track your location online.

Apps that make use of GPS positioning benefit from being connected to the AppRadio 3's external GPS antenna, which should be more accurate than the A-GPS sensor in most handsets.

On either platform, in order to browse and play back media stored locally on the smartphone, you'll need to install a CarMediaPlayer app that scans your phone's storage and displays your songs on the touch-screen interface. Compatibility with the stock iPod app or Google Play Music apps would be preferable here. iOS users have the additional option of simply disconnecting from the HDMI port and connecting directly to USB to enable native browsing and playback from outside of the app-mirroring portion of the AppRadio 3's interface.

Of the apps compatible with the AppRadio 3, Pandora is the odd bird. Rather than mirroring the app over HDMI like the rest, Pandora uses either the USB port or the Bluetooth connection to connect to the app, directly displaying in its own interface outside of the AppRadio mirroring. It's a bit weird that Pandora is treated uniquely, but it also means that guests and passengers with handsets that aren't supported by the AppRadio 3's app mirroring can still connect to the head unit and enjoy their music. Likewise, the new Bluetooth audio-streaming capability allows a similar level of flexibility with a wider range of handsets.

Pioneer AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210
Pandora is unique among supported apps, because it doesn't use app mirroring over HDMI. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The accidental second screen
All phones that I tested required that the handset's screen stay unlocked and lit when mirroring apps to the AppRadio's interface. This means that you or a passenger can continue to interact with the current app using the phone's touch screen. However, the receiver locks out onscreen display of unsupported apps while driving, so trying to fire up Netflix, Twitter, or YouTube will be met with a "not while driving" warning on the AppRadio's 7-inch screen.

This requirement that the phone screen be on means that you end up with a second tiny screen glowing at you from the cupholder when driving at night, and also it can be accidentally tapped by a passenger, which can be frustrating. Accidentally hitting the Home key, for example, would cause the AppRadio to lock its display because the launcher is not an AppRadio-compatible app. Locking the phone's screen caused the AppRadio to go totally blank, which doesn't solve the problem. This is admittedly a flaw in the way phones handle HDMI output.

Pioneer AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210
Unfortunately, most compatible phones require that you leave your handset's screen lit and active when app mirroring. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The price
When it comes to the sheer volume of compatible apps, the AppRadio 3 is only matched by the Parrot Asteroid Smart. However, the AppRadio makes use of the apps you already have installed and updated on your phone, whereas the Parrot requires its users to manage a separate Asteroid Market app store, which can be frustrating. I'm giving the edge to the AppRadio for ease of use.

However, the AppRadio's reliance on app mirroring and video adapters means that its initial setup is more involved and expensive. This SPH-DA210 version of the AppRadio 3, which includes the DVD player, retails for $500, but if you wanted to use it with an iPhone 5S you'd have to shell out an additional $120 in Apple and Pioneer adapters, bringing the total cost to about $620 plus installation. Android and iPhone 4 users don't have it much better; their totals with adapters sits at about $560. On one hand, that's a lot of money, but still significantly cheaper than the $1,000-plus GPS navigation receivers that were common and popular just a few short years ago. On the other hand, for less money a DIYer could conceivably mount a Wi-Fi-tethered iPad Mini or a Nexus 7 on the dashboard and achieve a similar result -- though the result may be less polished and in a dangerous legal gray area.

Pioneer offers a mech-free version of the AppRadio 3 SPH-DA110 that doesn't include the optical DVD drive or the motors to move the screen for it for $400. If you don't plan on watching movies while parked, I'd recommend you take the $100 savings and go with this model. Consider also the nearly identical AppRadio 2, which is still available at about $350, if you don't need the DVD player, can live without Bluetooth streaming, or don't own a MirrorLink phone.

Pioneer AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210
8.7

Pioneer AppRadio 3 SPH-DA210

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 8