It's been over a year since we took a look at of Parrot's first Android-powered car stereo, now called the Asteroid Classic. The original showed much promise, but was also rather flawed. Now, Parrot takes another, more ambitious stab at bringing Android power to the dashboard with three new Asteroid receivers and and the Asteroid Market of apps to power them.
I've gotten my hands all over the top-tier Parrot Asteroid Smart double-DIN touch-screen receiver to see if the competition needs to worry about this Asteroid being a hit.
From its place in the car's dashboard, the Parrot Asteroid Smart looks a lot like any and every other double-DIN-size touch-screen receiver that I've tested.
Users interact with the Asteroid Smart via its 6.2-inch capacitive touch screen, a multitouch-capable display on which you can pinch to zoom in apps designed for that. The colors are crisp and easy to view in direct sunlight. Touch sensitivity and interface responsiveness are also good.
The interface itself is a lightly skinned version of Android 2.3 in a landscape orientation. The left edge of the screen, closest to the driver, is where you'll find the operating system's virtual buttons for Home, Back, Menu, and Task Switching contrasted against a black background.
Tap the Home button from anywhere in the Asteroid interface to bring up the home screen with icons for the Asteroid Market, Apps, Settings, Phone, Voice Commands, and Music. A quick swipe of the home screen reveals more icons, for iGo, Coyote Series, Rear Camera, and Video In. We'll get back to the Apps and the Asteroid Market in a bit.
The sole physical controls on the unit's face are a small illuminated power button in the lower left corner of the glossy black bezel and an eject button that triggers Parrot's oddball take on the detachable faceplate security gimmick. Rather than the entire screen and faceplate being removable, only a thin sliver of the bezel pops off, taking the power button with it and disabling the unit. However, I think a would-be thief would probably still see that glossy 6.2-inch screen in your dashboard and smash your window anyway, so you're probably best just not parking your car down dark alleys in shady neighborhoods.
With the "faceplate" removed, the Asteroid's full-size SD card slot is revealed, the unit's sole front input. There is no CD/DVD player on this mechless receiver. The Smart ships with an 8GB SD card installed in this slot -- it's a PITA to remove without needle-nosed pliers -- which largely behaves as the microSD card slot on any Android phone would, storing data, music, and photos for playback on the device. The rest of the inputs and outputs are either located on the back of the Asteroid Smart or connected wirelessly.
Preinstalled apps and audio sources
Without a CD receiver, users will have to make do with their portable digital media. The Asteroid Smart will play back MP3 and AAC audio files stored on a connected USB storage device or saved to a folder on the SD card. Connect an iPod to one of the Asteroid's USB ports and you'll also be able to play back audio stored locally and browse your playlists, artist, albums, and genres.
Bluetooth connectivity is standard, as is the A2DP audio streaming profile.
An AM/FM radio tuner, a 3.5mm analog audio input, and an analog audio/video input round out the onboard audio sources. However, the Asteroid's selling point is that it can run apps.
The unit comes preloaded with iGo Primo Navigation, a fully featured turn-by-turn navigation app that includes locally stored map data to allow offline navigation. The app works best, however, when connected to the Internet, where it can access the most accurate database of points of interest; still, address input worked flawlessly out of the box and offline.
Coyote Series is a driver aid app that notifies of upcoming speed cameras, accidents, and road incidents. Due to the nature of its alerts, you'll want to connect to the Web before launching it.
Pop into the Applications menu on the home screen to be greeted by the full list of apps installed on the Asteroid Smart. This includes the apps mentioned above, any apps installed from the Asteroid Market, and a few oddball leftover apps included as part of the underlying Android operating system. I can't see why you'd want to access the browser, calculator, calendar, clock, e-mail, or photo gallery apps from your dashboard, but they're there for your use. Better to have and not need than need and not have, I suppose.
Apps and the Asteroid market
Users aren't limited to the apps preinstalled on the Asteroid Smart. The unit can also connect to the Asteroid Market, Parrot's own app store of Asteroid-compatible Android applications, to further flesh out the receiver's feature set.
The registration process starts on the Web in the Asteroid Market Web site. Once a username and password have been chosen, the owner will connect their Asteroid Smart to the Web (we'll discuss how that works below), enter the username and password, and start downloading apps. Most of the nine apps available in the U.S. version of the Asteroid Market at the time of publication are free, with only one $1.99 app to be found.
Wikango HD is an app that provides speed camera and red-light camera alerts, road work and incident notifications, and traffic alerts. The service is free for six months, after which a $24.99 annual subscription is required.
Glympse is a very cool location-sharing app that lets you notify your friends or family of where you are via Facebook, Twitter, SMS, or e-mail with just a few quick taps. Check out CNET's review of Glympse over on Download.com
Best Parking is a location-aware parking app that helps find nearby parking, reserve spaces, and view pricing. Parkopedia, the only paid app, offers similar functionality for $1.99.
Users can also download a simplified version of Google Maps that doesn't include the turn-by-turn directions. Because the Asteroid runs on Android, it's a good tool to have for searching for destinations before quickly punting an address over to, for example, iGo for navigation. Likewise, the Roadtrip app is good for quickly finding nearby attractions, complete with photos, Wikipedia links, and the option to send the address to a more capable navigation app.
Parrot Weather offers location-aware, Web-connected weather forecasts and current conditions.
The rear panel of the Asteroid Smart is where you'll find the unit's array of physical inputs, outputs, and connections for power.
Most users will likely be interested in the Smart's four USB ports. One of those ports is dedicated to full-speed iPod connectivity and will be filled with the included USB extension cable that terminates in a USB-to-dock-connector adapter for use with iPod devices that feature Apple's 30-pin connection. Simply yank off the adapter to reveal the USB terminal to use the Asteroid with your iPhone 5's Lightning-to-USB adapter. Another port will be filled with the included USB GPS receiver to enable location awareness. The remaining two USB ports are for your digital media on portable mass-storage devices. Parrot includes a second USB extension cable to allow you to hang a USB pigtail through your glove compartment or center console.
Near the USB ports is a 2.5mm microphone input for connecting the included noise-canceling microphone, which is useful for hands-free calling and inputting voice commands.
If you want to hook the Smart up to an external amplifier you can use any of the three stereo preamp outputs -- two full-range and one dedicated subwoofer output. You'll also find an analog RCA audio/video input for connecting an external source such as a DVD player or game console, an RCA output for passing audio and video to a rear-seat entertainment system, and a dedicated analog video input for connecting a rearview camera.
There's also a standard car stereo wire harness that includes the usual array of ignition, ground, and accessory power connections, as well as speaker-level outputs, power antenna leads, and a parking brake sensor that locks out video playback when the vehicle is in motion. There are also connections for your car's AM/FM antenna and steering-wheel controls (with the aid of an adapter that is sold separately).
A Micro-USB connection rounds out the physical ports and is used for connecting the Asteroid to a PC for developer and debugging purposes -- most users won't be doing this.
The Asteroid Market and many of the Asteroid Smart's apps and features require an Internet connection, so the device provides a number of options for wirelessly connecting to the Web.
For many people, the most obvious choice will be wireless tethering via Bluetooth on supported phones. The Asteroid will likely already be connected to your phone via Bluetooth for hands-free calling with address book sync and voice-command dialing of synced contacts. A2DP audio streaming gives smartphone users another option for playing back music stored on their phones or streamed through their apps via the Asteroid Smart.
Wi-Fi connectivity is also supported for those who want to Wi-Fi tether with a supported smartphone or connect to their home network when parked in their garage.
There's also the option of connecting a 3G/4G USB dongle or USB-tethered smartphone to one of the Asteroid Smart's USB ports (or USB pigtails) to connect the receiver to wireless mobile network.
The Parrot Asteroid Smart is a tough sell at $549 to $599 depending on retailer and promotions, especially with such a limited batch of launch apps and Pioneer's AppRadio and AppRadio 2 offering a much larger selection of apps.
Where the Pioneer AppRadio and the upcoming batch of MirrorLink-enabled receivers make use of and mirror the apps that are already on your phone, Parrot's paradigm of installing apps on the receiver itself is an interesting break from this still-new convention. On the one hand, I like the simplicity of just installing an app on the receiver and it working with little more than a Bluetooth connection to my phone and the Internet. There is none of the rigamarole of connecting the phone via HDMI and multiple adapters, which I found to be fiddly when I tested the Pioneer AppRadio 2 late last year. On the other hand, I'm not excited about the prospect of having to maintain a relationship and an account with yet another app store.
The Parrot Asteroid Smart earns a reasonably high design score thanks to the interesting simplicity of the way that the receiver goes about bringing apps to the dashboard, but only a middling feature score due to the limited number of apps available at launch. As the Asteroid Market begins to fill up with more choices of audio-streaming, navigation, and driver aid apps, my opinion of the device and the ecosystem will improve and I'll consider revising the score to reflect that change in opinion. Until then, only early adopters need apply; everyone else should stay tuned.