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

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The Good The Pioneer AppRadio 3 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.

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8.7 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

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.

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.

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