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.
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.
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.
However, the fact that the CarPlay interface runs totally using your phone's hardware means that if your iPhone 5C is behaving sluggishly today, the in-car system will also be laggy and stuttery. Or should you find yourself outside of strong wireless signals, Siri won't be able to smoothly process your voice requests. This isn't really the Pioneer's NEX's fault; it's just a limitation of how CarPlay works.
For those who aren't interested in the latest version of Apple CarPlay, the AVIC 8000NEX is still a fully featured navigation and multimedia receiver.
The unit features its own navigation software, powered by HERE, with 3D maps, solid state storage, and voice command. The software also comes preloaded with both text-to-speech and pre-recorded voices in multiple languages.
The built in navigation system is quite good, with a snappy interface that is smartly organized and smooth visuals that take advantage of the capacitive screen's ability to swipe around and pinch-zoom.
In addition to the aforementioned CD/DVD and SD card slots -- which also support a wide range of digital media formats including MP3, WMA, AAC and lossless FLAC -- the 8000NEX also features USB connectivity for portable storage. Plug an older iPod or iPhone device into the USB port to gain access to its onboard media and, if installed, Pandora and Aha app controls. There's also Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free calling and audio streaming, as well as the tried-and-true 3.5mm analog auxiliary input.
Additionally, the AVIC 8000NEX also features compatibility with Pioneer's App Mode (formerly 'AppRadio mode') which enables screen mirroring and smartphone app integration for iPhone 4 devices and dozens of Android devices. App Mode works identically to the AppRadio receivers that we've tested previously and may requires additional hardware (such as an MHL adapter or Lightning-to-HDMI connector) to work properly.
Finally, the 8000 is also compatible with MirrorLink enabled smartphones, giving users yet a third option for screen mirroring and app connectivity.
The Pioneer AVIC 8000NEX has a lot of good things going for it. The NEX lineup is the first to enable drivers to add Apple's CarPlay connectivity to almost any car on the road with a short, simple installation. For users not interested in CarPlay, it offers two more smartphone connectivity modes (App Mode and MirrorLink) as well as one of the most fully featured lists of audio and video sources that you'll find in an aftermarket receiver today. Add in the thoroughly competent on-board navigation system and the 8000 is a bit of a triple threat.
Offering so much function in the dashboard could easily get confusing, but Pioneer does a good job of organizing things in way that makes jumping back and forth between the modes (CarPlay, Pioneer NEX, and the navigation) is fairly natural.
Everyone that I demonstrated the AVIC 8000NEX to during my testing was shocked by the sticker price. The unit carries an MSRP of $1,400, which doesn't include installation or installation hardware. That's a pretty big pill to swallow, but the 8000NEX is also probably more fully featured than many users actually need. Fortunately, the car audio world is famous for its deep discounts, so it's easy to find the 8000NEX for less than $1,000 with a bit of online shopping.
To save a few bucks, look further down the NEX lineup at the AVIC 7000NEX, 6000NEX, 5000NEX, and AVH-4000NEX, which sacrifice a few advanced features but reduce the price to as low as $550 to $750, if you shop around. Those who are interested in Apple CarPlay and nothing more should wait for the upcoming AppRadio 4, which ditches everything except the smartphone connectivity hardware at an MSRP of about $600.
The AVIC-8000NEX is only available in the US. In the UK or Australia, you'll have to look to the AVIC-F960 and AVH-8600 series for CarPlay compatibility.