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Parrot Asteroid review: Parrot Asteroid

Parrot Asteroid

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Antuan Goodwin
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Antuan Goodwin

Reviews Editor / Cars

Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and performance to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.

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9 min read

From the front, the Parrot Asteroid doesn't look much different from any other single-DIN CD receiver. It's got a bank of buttons surrounding a physical control knob on the left half of its faceplate. There's a largish 3.2-inch color display on the right half. You'd be forgiven for mistaking the Asteroid for one of our other favorite single-slot receivers: the Alpine IDA-X305S.

Parrot Asteroid
7.3

Parrot Asteroid

The Good

Being powered by the Android OS means that the <b>Parrot Asteroid</b> can download and run apps. Parrot's hands-free calling system is one of the best in the business. Digital media on USB-connected mass storage devices, iPods, and SD cards can be voice-controlled. A ton of functionality is crammed into a single-DIN form factor.

The Bad

Getting the Asteroid connected to the Internet requires a USB wireless 3G dongle, not provided. Only Parrot-approved apps are supported and many of the launch apps, particularly Maps, are not very compelling or useful.

The Bottom Line

The Parrot Asteroid falls a bit short on delivering the Internet and a rich app experience in the car, but it's still a solid receiver for users looking to add great digital audio connectivity and a top-tier hands-free calling experience to any vehicle.

However, pop the Asteroid out of its home in your dashboard and take a look at its chassis and you'll find that this is not your average receiver. For starters, it's only about half as deep as the average CD receiver, because it's not actually a CD receiver at all. This "mechless" receiver lacks an optical media drive. In fact, unless you count the control knob and the buttons on the detachable faceplate, the Asteroid is completely lacking in moving parts.

And that's not even the oddest of the Asteroid's attributes! Peel back the surface (or take a look at our lead-up coverage) and you'll find that the Asteroid is also the first car stereo to be powered by the Android mobile operating system (albeit a highly customized version). Of course, my first reaction was, "Awesome!" but in the weeks between its announcement and its ultimate release, I began to wonder, "What's the point?"

With the Asteroid finally installed in our test car's dashboard, I put the first Android-powered car stereo to the test.

Design and physical interface
Let's start by taking a look at the Asteroid's front panel, since after it's installed that's where all of your interactions will take place.

At the far left are the phone buttons, which are used to answer (top) and end (bottom) incoming calls when paired with a Bluetooth-enabled phone. Tapping the answer button also initiates Parrot's darn-good voice dialer, which guides you through initiating calls with onscreen and spoken prompts, and holding that button for a few beats initiates a redial of the last call. Likewise, the call end button doubles as the device's power button when held for a few moments.

Continuing right, we're met with the Source selection button, which cycles between available and active audio sources, which include AM/FM radio, an analog auxiliary input, the SD card reader, Bluetooth audio streaming, and a dedicated iPhone input. When a searchable digital audio source is present (USB media, iPhone, or SD card, but not Bluetooth A2DP), you can tap the large white Voice Search button to queue media by speaking the name of an artist or album.

The Back, Home, and Menu buttons behave largely as they would on an Android phone and will be discussed in greater detail in the Interface section below; the Play/Pause and Skip buttons that line the bottom edge of the device should be pretty self-explanatory.

In the middle of the button bank is the large, clear plastic control knob that is used to navigate the unit's interface, adjust volume, and make selections with its large center button. This may be purely subjective, but the combination of this knob's slick finish and its crisp, 90-degree edge looked great, but never really felt good in my hand. If you've ever creased your wrist on the edge of a MacBook Pro, you'll understand why this harsh-edged knob is so annoying. A bit of texture and a more inviting finish on the part of the hardware that is most often handled by the user would be greatly appreciated.

While the left side of the unit is occupied by the physical controls, the right half of the face is completely occupied by a 3.2-inch color LCD. This screen is not touch-sensitive, but that didn't stop me from occasionally (and fruitlessly) jabbing a finger at its icon-based interface.

At the far left is a chrome button that causes the physical controls of the faceplate to detach for security, leaving only the LCD visible and revealing the unit's SD card slot in the process. The detachable portion of the faceplate affixes with a strong magnet and latch and is remarkably easy to place and remove single-handedly. The unit ships with a small fabric sack for storing the faceplate when not in use.

Installation and connectivity
I've already stated that the most interesting part of the Parrot Asteroid is beneath the surface. Spinning this mechless audio receiver around reveals a chassis that, as mentioned above, is only about half as deep as your average CD receiver. This little bit of saved space definitely comes in handy because the Asteroid sports about as many connections out back as a fully featured desktop PC--you'll need all of the extra room you can get for all of the cables you'll be plugging into the unit's rear end during installation.

The Asteroid starts with a universal wiring harness with connections for 12-volt power, ground, speakers, and so on. Our test car wasn't compatible with this harness, so I had to cut off one end and connect our vehicle-specific wire harness--I predict that most DIY installers will need to do as much. Additionally, there are a pair of full-range preamp RCA stereo outputs, a stereo RCA subwoofer preamp output, a 3.5mm analog auxiliary input for the included audio patch cable, a microphone input for use with the included double microphone with noise and echo cancellation, a steering wheel control input, and four USB ports. One of those USB ports is a dedicated full-speed iPod connection for use with the included Apple Dock cable. The other three are used to accommodate the included GPS antenna, a USB mass storage device (one USB extension cable is included in the box), or a USB 3G wireless Internet dongle (not included).

Placing the GPS antenna where it will get the best signal and routing the double microphone will require a bit more foresight and dashboard disassembly than for your average single-DIN receiver. However, installers and DIYers who have experience with all-in-one navigation receiver installations and an ability to connect a USB cable will find getting the Asteroid up and running to be a cakewalk.

Immediately after installation, you'll want to check the Asteroid's menu to ensure that you're running the newest available firmware. Version 1.5 adds a number of small visual improvements to the unit's menus and interface, support for many OEM steering wheel controls (additional hardware may be required), and, most importantly, Bluetooth and USB Internet sharing with compatible smartphones. This last feature will allow users to tether their smartphones to an Asteroid unit to feed the receiver's applications with Internet connectivity without the need for a separate USB 3G/4G dongle.

Updating the Parrot Asteroid's firmware (photos)

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Interface and features
I stated earlier that the Asteroid was the first car stereo to be powered by the Android mobile operating system, but you wouldn't know that by looking at it. The 3.2-inch screen displays an interface that is wholly unlike any Android device that I've ever seen before. Rather than a desktop-metaphor home screen, pressing the Asteroid's Home button calls up an icon-based list where the user can scroll through the various functions, sources, and applications present on the Asteroid, one at a time.

Those sources include the aforementioned AM/FM radio with RDS Text+ display, playback of MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, and OGG files stored on USB media or an SD card, analog audio, and iPod/iPhone playback, but also Asteroid applications such as Maps, Road Trip, Wikango HD, TuneIn Radio, and Weather. All of these Asteroid apps require a GPS and 3G connection, so make sure you have access to a USB access point. Additionally, a list of Bluetooth-synced Contacts and a Settings menu can be selected from this list.

On its own, the Asteroid is a solidly performing receiver. Audio quality is pretty good thanks to a variety of custom EQ settings, a three-level loudness mode, and automatic volume adjustment that boosts the sound levels to overcome road noise. Phone calls made through the Asteroid sound fantastic on both ends of the line--the Parrot brand is no stranger to Bluetooth speakerphones and hands-free calling hardware. However, the Asteroid relies on its apps to stand out and, unfortunately, the apps are actually its weakest link...for now.

Let's start with Maps. Although powered by Google, the Maps app on the Asteroid has more in common with Maps on the iPhone than it does with any pre-Eclair (version 2.1) Android phone. For starters, Maps doesn't offer live turn-by-turn directions, automatic rerouting, or spoken instructions. Rather, after locating a destination, you must manually advance the list of turns using the skip back and forward buttons while reading the instructions on the tiny screen--an annoying and, at times, dangerous affair.

Speaking of destination entry, Maps is severely limited in this respect as well. You can't input an address and must search POIs using either the list of preset categories or by painstakingly inputting a search term using the control knob. Even then, you can only search for POIs in the immediate area, making this function useless for finding destinations that aren't close by. Outside of specific testing, I found myself getting annoyed with the Maps app and just voice searching for a destination and navigating using my Bluetooth-paired Android phone's true Google Maps with Navigation app.

While on the road, you can also take advantage of the Road Trip app, which aids in finding destinations while traveling in new cities, and Wikango HD, a subscription-based application that alerts drivers to potential road hazards, red light and speed cameras, and speed traps. Unfortunately, without a proper navigation app backing it up Road Trip comes off as pretty useless, and Wikango HD's reliance on a subscription is a tough rub on a device that already requires that you pay for your own data connection.

However, not all of the apps preinstalled on the Asteroid are frustrating. The weather app, while simple, is useful and can automatically read forecasts and current conditions aloud upon launch. Likewise, TuneIn Radio is an Internet audio-streaming app that gives users access to local, worldwide, and Internet-only radio stations for music, talk, and sports and streaming episodes of many popular podcasts organized by category.

Like the other app-centric receiver on the market, Pioneer's AppRadio, the Parrot Asteroid will live or die by the breadth and quality of the apps that it supports, and this first generation is severely lacking. A partnership with an app developer that provides true turn-by-turn directions, for example, is needed to justify the added complexity of installing the GPS receiver and 3G data connection. It may not be long before that gap is filled--Parrot has announced plans to partner with more app providers and a downloader/installer is built right into the current UI--but until then I think that most users will be just as happy with a standard (read, not necessarily running Android) receiver and an A2DP-paired smartphone.

In sum
Parrot is breaking new ground with its Android-powered Asteroid. The hardware is solid and the OS is stable, but until the company can offer a variety of useful apps to justify the additional hardware complexity, it will have a hard time making a case for this device. Likewise, requiring that users supply their own 3G USB dongle is an additional barrier to entry here. The geeky audience that has expressed an interest in the Asteroid is far more likely to have access to a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot than a USB dongle. Even I had a hard time locating one floating around CNET's office! I do appreciate that the 1.5 firmware update's addition of USB and Bluetooth smartphone tethering gives users more connectivity options.

Fortunately, Parrot is already addressing these issues. I predict that we'll see more apps in Parrot's bag of tricks and Wi-Fi has already been announced for the next generation of the Asteroid line, as well as units with onboard turn-by-turn navigation. However, if I've already got a smartphone that runs apps, do I really need a car stereo that runs limited versions of those apps too?

Although the first Android-powered car stereo has fallen a bit short when it comes to delivering the Internet and a rich app experience in the car, the Asteroid is still a darn good car stereo for users looking to add great smartphone connectivity and a top-tier hands-free calling experience to any car with a single-DIN opening in its dashboard. Plus, as more apps come along, there's a good chance that this stereo will get better with time. How many car audio receivers can make that claim?

Parrot Asteroid
7.3

Parrot Asteroid

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 9Performance 6