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Best car gifts in 2019: Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and dashcams

Give one of these best gifts (aside from a car) to the drivers in your life.

dash cams
CNET
This story is part of Holiday Gift Guide 2019, your source for the season's best gifts and deals, hand-picked by the experts at CNET.

I find annoying all the ads that suggest you're going to give someone a car as a holiday gift. If you have that kind of money, you aren't reading this; you have a personal shopper. So forget the giant bow and delight the cool car enthusiast in your life and buy them one of the three best tech toys for their vehicle this holiday season. They'll use this perfect gift every time they're driving and you won't have to spend five figures and check their garage size. Plus, these driving gadgets are more fun than accessories like a car charger, emergency kit, air freshener, or floor mats. (Also check out Roadshow's affordable gift guide for gearheads.)

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Dashcam

Your best overall pick is a dashcam. It's both very useful and completely new to most drivers in the US. At their most basic, dashcams are perfect at recording everything going on outside the vehicle all the time. That means capturing accident evidence, perfect scenery and weird stuff (like car racing -- just kidding!) your recipients can post to make their social accounts less boring. A good, basic dashcam will make a great gift and you can buy one by spending $30 to maybe $100 at the most.

Amazon

The complete basic features of a dashcam are found in this model with a generous rear screen for viewing footage or making adjustments. And, unlike most dashcams, it has a car clean design (no substitute for a trip to the car wash, though) that won't be an eyesore in your vehicle.

A more advanced dashcam can step up to 4K resolution, a second camera looking either into the cabin or out the rear of the car and driver assistance alerts if the car is drifting out of its lane or closing too fast on the car ahead. The price range for advanced dashcams is $100 to $250, depending on accessories you might purchase with it.

Amazon

The Nextbase 522GW offers better-than-HD 1440 front resolution, built-in Amazon Alexa voice control and connectivity through your phone. Without built-in 4G LTE technology it can't claim to be a true connected dashcam, but it sits on the border of being one and carries no separate monthly cost.

The top tier of dashcams are connected or "smart" models that combine all the previous features and also have a 4G LTE connection so owners can get remote alerts if their car is hit or tampered with while parked. The connection also allows viewing of live video or recorded clips from anywhere. Another selling point is the ability of these cams to call 911 in the event of a detected collision and to provide some indication of the crash's severity. Connected dashcams typically cost $200 to $400 but also carry a monthly service charge to enable all their connected features and cloud storage. Keep in mind, that's a lot if a car sits in a garage most of the time.

Amazon

The Owlcam is a top-drawer connected dashcam with excellent build quality and innovative car mount accessories.

You might consider a cheaper alternative that also has built-in 4G LTE for remote access and cloud recording, but with a forward view that's only 1080p, compared with the higher 1440p resolution of the Owlcam.

Puregear

The PureCam offers the greatest hits of connected, "smart" dashcams for a price that lets it compete with several of the better nonconnected cameras. It also functions as an in-car Wi-Fi hotspot.

Update, Nov. 19: Now through Dec. 2, get 20% off this product at pure-cam.com with code BlackFri2019

Car smart speaker

Calling out commands to a smart speaker has become second nature for many of us, but having that ability in a car needs little explanation -- and it's pretty cool. Amazon's Alexa Auto, the JBL Link Drive and the Anker Roav Bolt bring a smart assistant to the car, but unlike smart speakers in the home, these use the speakers in your car via Bluetooth, and the 4G LTE connection in your phone. Sounds a lot like the phone you already own, doesn't it, so what's the point of a car version?

alexa auto microphones

The Amazon Alexa Auto smart speaker differs from your phone in its array of microphones that deal with road noise.

CNET

Dedicated smart speakers for the car tend have several specially tuned microphones that defeat road noise, as well as offering a degree of single-purpose dedication that may make for a more robust experience. And the Amazon Alexa Auto functions as a Bluetooth bridge for any older car that has an Aux jack but not built-in Bluetooth wireless tech. All in all, it's more fun than jumper cables or a spare tire.

If you do gift one of these, you'll spend $30 to $60. For the reasons I mentioned, I'm a bit tepid on this category, but if you're looking for an on-trend gift -- and something that's fun for a long ride or road trip -- this could be perfect for 2019. If your recipient isn't going to be impressed by one of these devices, maybe you just need to get them a Bluetooth FM modulator or a Bluetooth-AUX adapter.

Amazon

This Bluetooth FM modulator kit connects your phone to an FM radio frequency with robustness and quality I've never found in any other FM modulator kit.

Amazon

If your recipient already uses Alexa, this cool gift is self-explanatory. Less clear is why they don't just use the Alexa app on their phone.

Amazon

If your gift recipient is an Android user, here's an Android alternative.

Android Auto/Apple CarPlay

OK, big spender, if you really want to revolutionize the ride of a car enthusiast, buy a new stereo kit, or "head unit" as they're called today, that has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto technology. This essentially gives your giftee what they already enjoy dangerously -- their phone as the central infotainment device behind the wheel -- but presented in a better, larger interface with nonessential applications of the phone suppressed. Audio, communications and navigation are all present with perfect voice control, but the phone stays down and all its allowed functions are carried out on the dash. Podcasts and streams are promoted to full priority alongside radio, and clunky carmaker navigation and interface go away. Sure beats a keychain, air freshener, or jump starter, right?

Now the downside: Unlike almost most other tech gifts, these can be a bear to install. Don't assume your recipient will plug this into their car themselves unless they're perfect at working on vehicle electrical systems. Most likely it will need to be installed by a local car stereo shop or Best Buy auto installation center

new head unit wiring

A CarPlay/Android Auto head unit sure looks slick in your dash (left), but to get there you need to deal with all the stuff on the back of the thing (right).

Crutchfield

Another smart buyers' note: The latest of these phone-savvy head units offer a wireless connection to the driver's phone with no need for a cable. I wouldn't sweat that too much since wireless technology in this category can be buggy in my experience and the car enthusiast in question is probably going to cable the phone to charge while driving anyway.

Crutchfield

The Boss BVCP9685A does everything you need an Android Auto/Apple CarPlay head unit to do and nothing else. No CD/DVD player, and no wireless connection for Android Auto and CarPlay, but it does have Bluetooth for wireless calling and audio playback outside of Android Auto and CarPlay.

Crutchfield

This premium head unit is shaped to be shallow in the back, allowing it to fit more easily into the dashboard of almost any car. If you want to add an amp later, it just docks on the back, a unique Alpine feature.

Crutchfield

If you want it all, this is your huckleberry. The Pioneer AVIC-W8500NEX does just about anything a car stereo ever did or does except play eight-tracks, but you'll pay for all that choice in the price. Wireless CarPlay and Android Auto are supported, even though they can be fussy depending on the phone you have.

Note that all these units are all the same general size, the standard "double DIN" shape that is universal across the car audio industry. Your recipient will almost certainly need a dash kit for their specific car from either Scosche or Metra.