Though announced way back in March 2014, Apple's CarPlay software has remained elusive. With the exception of the Ferrari FF, the partnered automakers are still in the "coming soon" phase of their rollouts, and the aftermarket has remained mostly silent.
Mostly, that is, with the exception of Pioneer, who announced this summer that it would be bringing Apple CarPlay to the masses via its NEX series of multimedia receivers. Today, we take a look at the Pioneer's flagship AVIC 8000NEX, a fully featured navigation and multimedia receiver that is, so far, the only way to get CarPlay in your car short of buying a new Ferrari.
AVIC hardware, NEX software
The AVIC user interface starts with a 7-inch capacitive touch display, where the driver and passengers will have most of their interactions with the system. The screen runs at a WVGA (800x480) resolution -- which sounds low in a world filled with 720p and 1080p smartphones, but isn't bad at all in practice. Graphics for the various parts of the NEX and CarPlay interfaces are rendered smoothly and sharply, but DVD video was just a bit pixelated. Since I don't spend a lot of time watching movies in the car, this wasn't a huge disappointment for me.
Just below the screen is a chin that juts slightly forward, presenting buttons for volume, skip, mode selection, home, maps, and eject. Tapping the eject button causes the motorized display to rotate down, revealing the 8000's hidden CD/DVD slot and SD card reader.
Like all of Pioneer's multimedia and navigation receivers, the AVIC 8000NEX is scaled to meet the double-DIN size standard and uses standard wiring harness and AM/FM/HD Radio antenna connections. This makes installation a breeze for experienced installers. I was able to get our unit up and running in our 2007 Chevrolet Aveo test car in under an hour.
Aside from the standard power and speaker connections, the 8000 will require a few more included accessories and sensors to be connected to enable the full functionality. In the box is a GPS receiver that can be installed outside of the cabin for maximum location sensitivity, a noise-cancelling microphone that is used with voice command and hands-free calling, USB and auxiliary input extension cables, and a parking brake grounding sensor that enables the receiver to unlock video content and display when parked.
The AVIC 8000NEX's back panel is packed with inputs and connections, making it easily expandable and upgradable. There are actually two full speed 1.6A USB ports back there -- though only one extension cable ships with the unit, enabling multiple portable media and storage devices to be connected or up to two smartphones charged. An HDMI input comes into play when connecting external video sources or, with the aid of adapters sold separately, the receiver's the App Mode. There are three pairs of RCA preamp outputs including a dedicated subwoofer output, a set of A/V RCA outputs dedicated to rear video, a video input for a rear camera, and ports to accommodate steering-wheel controls and the addition of Sirius XM satellite radio.
The first Apple CarPlay receiver
No doubt, most of you are here because of Pioneer's claim that the NEX series is the first batch of aftermarket receivers to support the new Apple CarPlay interface for iPhones.
As opposed to Pioneer's own App Mode, which required additional hardware, all that you'll need to get running with CarPlay is the latest version of Pioneer's NEX firmware, an iPhone 5 or 6 running the latest version of iOS 8 and a USB to Lightning adapter. (You can buy one from Pioneer, use the one that came with your phone, or pick up a third-party cable.) Simply plug the phone into the the USB port and, after a few seconds, the CarPlay interface will appear. In Apple lingo, it's "magical."
The CarPlay interface, which is totally generated and powered by the connected iPhone, is simpler than the standard NEX. The CarPlay homescreen has shortcuts to Apple Maps, voice calls, text messages, iTunes Music and Podcasts. There's also a shortcut to return to the NEX interface if you wish.
CarPlay makes heavy use of Apple's Siri voice-command system to minimize the amount of screen tapping and swiping you'll need to do. For example, incoming text messages are automatically read aloud without displaying any words on the screen to distract the driver. After reading, Siri will ask if you want to respond, which you can do without ever looking at the screen or taking your hands off of the steering wheel.
Pretty much any voice command that you can give to Siri on your phone can be given to CarPlay. You can "navigate to AMC Theater in Emeryville," "listen to 2 Live Crew," or "remind me to send my expense report when I get to the office," all in just the time it takes to say it.