Android phones and iPhones are the two major players today, and each offers useful features for the automotive environment. And automakers offer various levels of integration and apps for each phone platform.
So which type of smartphone is the best companion for your long, lonely drives? We compared each one in the following categories to find the answer:
• MP3 playback
• Bluetooth audio
• Pandora audio
• Bluetooth phoning
• Automaker apps
• Automotive apps
• Aftermarket integration
Read on to see how each phone platform stacks up.
Android came out of the gate with excellent navigation from its Google Maps app; that's not too surprising, as Google created the Android OS. Google frequently updates the app, and it's free.
Although the iPhone comes with a Google Maps app, it does not work well enough for navigation. But you can get navigation apps, complete with accessories such as a GPS-enhanced cradle, to turn the iPhone into a very good navigation device. These apps tend to be pricey, as they use much of the same software as a portable navigation device.
MP3 playback on Android phones has always been a feature, one among many, but not a dominant aspect of the phone. And different phone makers might implement MP3 playback and file structures differently. As such, there are no cars offering specific Android MP3 player integration at this time. Some Androids will work as a mass storage device using a car's USB connection.
Since 2005, automakers have been offering iPod integration in their vehicles, and just about every vehicle we test offers it now. Apple used its iPod technology as a component of the iPhone, so when a car has iPod integration, it works just as well with an iPhone. Here, Apple's early dominance of the MP3 player market with the iPod essentially made it a standard for automakers, and the iPhone piggybacks on that compatibility.
Android held an early advantage for Bluetooth audio streaming, but Apple quickly caught up, enabling it on the iPhone 3G. Now, neither phone holds an advantage in this area. With the current implementation, you have to use the phone to select music. The car interface only lets you play, pause, and skip music.
Both phone platforms are capable of giving car stereos control over the Pandora app, but in different ways. For the iPhone, it's through the 30-pin dock connector. On Android, it's over Bluetooth. Functionality doesn't vary for either connection method.
For Pandora, it comes down to compatibility. Ford's AppLink works with both Android and iPhone. But BMW, Mini, and Scion only offer Pandora integration for iPhone at this time. In the aftermarket, there are many receivers that support Pandora on the iPhone, but only two that support Android.
The great thing about Bluetooth hands-free calling (HFP) and address book sync (PBAP) is that these standards have been around since the days of the dumbphones. Both Android and iPhone support both of these wireless protocols with no major differences in operation.
In this area, we need merely look at which automakers support which platforms:
• BMW Connected: iPhone
• Mini Connected: iPhone
• Buick IntelliLink: iPhone, Android
• Chevy MyLink: iPhone, Android
• GM OnStar app: iPhone, Android
• Mercedes-Benz Mbrace: iPhone
• Nissan Leaf: iPhone, Android
• Toyota Entune: iPhone, Android
Slight advantage: iPhone
Most of the major apps are cross-platform, or you can easily find apps with similar functionality on Android and iPhone. However, there are more free apps available for Android. For example, although Vlingo is cross-platform, the Android version is both free and more fully featured than the iPhone version.
Further, the Android market includes a Transportation category, which makes it easier to find car-related apps. In the iTunes Store, there is a Navigation category, but other automotive apps will be found under either the broad categories of Travel or Utilities.
Slight advantage: Android
Like OEM audio playback and integration, iPhone rules the roost here. While not every aftermarket receiver we test offers iPhone compatibility, the vast majority of them do. Some, like Pioneer with its AppRadio, are starting to build whole car audio platforms around the iPhone. And while Android phones could ideally be connected to any USB port as a mass storage drive, the implementation is so inconsistent that users are often stuck using the auxiliary input.
Of course, that is as it stands today. Automakers and aftermarket equipment manufacturers are constantly evolving compatibility based on audience demand. The iPhone got an early lead because of market share, but Android has caught up quickly.
Android's primary hurdle is the lack of unified hardware standards, making it more difficult for each automaker to test for compatibility. But Apple also has a history of changing its hardware without regard to other companies. A move such as changing the iPhone's 30-pin connector would instantly lose much of its current compatibility.
And, of course, an Android phone might fit your own car better. For example, a car with a Bluetooth audio connection, but no navigation system or iPod integration, is perfect for an Android phone.