Pioneer's AppRadio is the first of its kind. This double-DIN in-dash car audio receiver is almost completely powered by a connected Apple iPhone 4 and positions itself as the ultimate car stereo for app addicts--the kind of person who hasn't seen a CD since the iTunes store launched and would sooner buy a navigation app than a portable navigation device. If that's you, AppRadio aims to provide everything you need (such as iPhone connectivity, hands-free calling, and advanced app control) and nothing you don't (for example, an optical disk drive, multiple inputs and outputs, and compatibility with non-iPhone devices) at a seriously low price.
Upon unboxing the AppRadio, we were amazed that--despite sharing dimensions with every other double-DIN receiver on the market--the receiver was very lightweight. That's because it's basically an empty shell. Without a motorized faceplate or optical disk drive (and the dampening hardware that goes with it) weighing it down, the AppRadio saves ounces over even the average single-DIN CD receiver that's crossed our test bench.
The AppRadio doesn't have a CD/DVD player. What it does have is an AM/FM radio tuner, a Bluetooth receiver for hands-free calling with an external microphone, an external GPS antenna, and a 50-watt by four-channel MOSFET amplifier. And, most importantly, it has a 30-pin full-speed iPod dock connector for connecting an Apple iPhone (without which an AppRadio is little more than a very attractive touch-screen AM/FM radio).
On the business end, the AppRadio features a 6.1-inch glass LCD display (not the 7 inches that we initially estimated in our First Look video). The screen has a resolution of 800x480 pixels and a glossy finish. The capacitive touch screen is very responsive, requiring only the slightest touch. It registers multitouch inputs, such as pinch-to-zoom and multifinger taps, consistently and accurately in apps that support such inputs. However, unlike the resistive screens that most other touch-screen receivers use, the AppRadio's cannot be used while wearing gloves.
The AppRadio's external GPS antenna is more sensitive than the A-GPS antenna in the iPhone, but the receiver is able to use both to help establish the position of the vehicle when you use a navigation app. Usually, the AppRadio uses the more accurate external antenna, but when clear skies aren't available (such as in a parking garage or a tunnel) the system is able to switch over to the iPhone's internal positioning system to establish an approximate location using cellular tower and Wi-Fi hot-spot triangulation. Once in the clear again, the AppRadio can then switch back to its own antenna.
Because of limitations on the sort of data that can be transmitted over the iPhone's dock connection, AppRadio uses Bluetooth to connect to the iPhone for hands-free calling. The unit has an external microphone that can be mounted on the dashboard, visor, or steering column for increased call quality over the microphone in the iPhone itself. The vehicle's speakers provide the audio output for hands-free calls. A2DP audio streaming is not supported, but isn't necessary for iPhone use since it's already likely to be sending its audio via the dock connector. However, the omission of A2DP, along with the lack of any sort of auxiliary audio input, pretty much locks any other type of device out of the AppRadio party. So, if you've got a passenger who wants to connect a BlackBerry or Android device, he or she will be out of luck.
Simple is the name of the game with AppRadio, so there aren't many physical controls on the bezel beneath the touch screen. From left to right, you'll find a volume rocker, a home key in the center, and--hidden behind a small door--a microSD card slot. However, the card slot is not used for media storage and playback, but for firmware updates if and when available.
Out back, in addition to the connections for the radio antenna, speakers, power, and aforementioned external microphone and GPS antenna, the AppRadio has connections for a rearview camera input, a reverse gear sensor, a parking brake sensor, a remote amplifier turn-on lead, and input for a steering-wheel control adapter. System builders and audiophiles will be disappointed to find a single set of stereo preamp outputs, which can be set to subwoofer or full-range output.
The AppRadio also lacks Pioneer's proprietary Bus connection for external modules, so this is not the receiver to choose if you think you'll want to add HD Radio or satellite radio sometime down the line.
Fire up the AppRadio and you'll be taken to the home screen. Here is where you'll find icons for access to the various core functions, including AM/FM Radio, iPod Playback, Apps, and Phone (hands-free calling). Just above these icons is a large digital clock, and in either of the upper corners are smaller icons for accessing the settings menu and manually triggering the rearview camera if one is installed.
The Settings menu holds a large number of options, which are organized into three major categories. Audio Settings is where you will find the 12-band graphic equalizer with seven presets (two of which are customizable). Steering Wheel Control allows you to customize the functions of up to 22 steering-wheel buttons when used in conjunction with a conversion module. Finally, General Settings is where the vast majority of the AppRadio's options are found, including display options, setting the date/time, radio region, RCA preamp output settings, language, and audio levels for the AppRadio's three major sources: radio, iPhone, and hands-free calls. You can also choose between dark and light background color themes.
The Phone menu is where you can view missed calls, received calls, and previously dialed calls, and browse your handset's phone book. Pairing uses the Bluetooth HFP standard, so technically any Bluetooth phone can be paired with AppRadio, but the rest of the app is pretty deeply invested in the iPhone ecosystem, so you will likely just pair your iPhone. The Phone menu is also home to a numerical dial pad for manual initiation of calls and its own Options menu for enabling functions such as auto connect, auto answer, and phone book sync.
The bits of the interface that are rendered by AppRadio itself (the main menu, settings, AM/FM tuner, phone, and--as we'll discuss later--Pandora Internet radio) are attractive, with crisply rendered text that is easy to read. However, parts of the AppRadio interface are actually rendered by the apps themselves on the connected iPhone and sent to the AppRadio's screen via iOS' video output. These screens, which include the iPod player and most of the screens under the Apps menu, are visibly of a lower resolution than the native screens (which may be a small issue for some users) and vary wildly in design and organization of information (which is a bigger issue at highway speeds).
Putting the apps into AppRadio
We mentioned that the Pioneer AppRadio is the first of its kind; that's because--with the exception of the AM/FM tuner--nearly every function of this receiver requires or is powered by a connected iPhone 4.
Out of the box, a connected iPhone will play back iPod audio and video. Via the iPod icon in AppRadio's home menu, you can browse your media with full access to the iPod app's taxonomy, including organization by artist, album, genre, and song title, as well as separate categories for videos, audiobooks, and podcasts. Disappointingly, the actual category headings as displayed on the screen are not touch-sensitive. Instead, you'll have to scroll up and down using a set of arrow keys on the left edge of the screen and make selections using a virtual OK button. This, as it was explained to us by Pioneer, is a limitation of the iPod Out protocol that the iPhone uses, but it makes navigating long lists of artists or songs clunky and seems like an awful waste of touch-screen real estate.
Touching the Apps icon in the main menu launches the Pioneer AppRadio app on the connected iPhone--or cues you to install it if the app isn't already present. With that app running, you can browse and access the rest of the apps that AppRadio supports from the 6.1-inch touch screen, including Google Maps, Contacts, Calendar, Photos, and Suggested Apps. Clicking Suggested Apps takes you to a list of third-party apps that AppRadio supports with download links. At the time of this review, the listed apps were Pandora Internet Radio, Rdio, MotionX GPS Drive navigation, and Inrix Traffic.
The AppRadio version of Google Maps offers essentially the same level of functionality that the native Google Maps app for iPhone offers, including satellite, road, and hybrid maps, Google Local Search for points of interest, and directions. However, it also carries the same major limitations of the iPhone app in that its turn-by-turn directions don't give spoken prompts, don't do live updates, and will not reroute if you go off-course. So you'll have to manually advance the directions as you go and read the prompts on the screen. You could probably make this setup work with a passenger acting as navigator. But for a solo driver, the level of interaction with the screen makes this a relatively unsafe affair.
Next up, there are calendar, contacts, and photo apps, which also take advantage of data stored locally on the iPhone and do pretty much what they advertise. Calendar lets you view appointments from the iPhone calendar. Photos lets you browse photos in the iPhone gallery and display a slideshow (when the vehicle is parked with the handbrake engaged). Contacts lets you browse contacts stored in the iPhone's address book. Tapping a phone number associated with a contact initiates a hands-free call using the Bluetooth speakerphone. Tapping an e-mail address sends an e-mail to the contact giving the vehicle's current GPS location.
If you want true turn-by-turn directions through your AppRadio, you'll have to install the MotionX GPS Drive navigation app. This app offers live-updating, spoken, turn-by-turn directions with text-to-speech pronunciation of street, exit, and highway names. It's as close as the AppRadio gets to providing the level of navigation functionality provided by its older sibling, the Pioneer AVIC-Z130BT. However, this level of functionality isn't free, as MotionX GPS Drive is powered by a subscription. The app will cost 99 cents to download and $2.99 per month or $19.99 per year thereafter. Some users will bristle at the thought of subscription-based navigation, but economically, it's not too bad of a deal. It would take 30 years at the rate of $20 per year to make up the $600 price difference between the AppRadio and Pioneer's next-least expensive navigation receiver, the AVIC-X930BT.
However, if there's one issue that we take with the MotionX GPS Drive app, it's that it treats the AppRadio display as a secondary screen used to display the map and turn data. There's not much you can do on the AppRadio's touch screen aside from scrolling and zooming the map and changing the display mode from 2D to 3D or heading up to North up. For all other functions--including destination entry and search--you'll have to use the MotionX app interface on the iPhone's screen. This lends itself to some interesting configurations, such as using the AppRadio for the main map and the iPhone to display a list of upcoming turns, but we were a bit miffed at having to touch the phone at all while behind the wheel.
In fact, all of the third-party apps will require the user to take advantage of the iPhone's task switcher (double-tap on the iPhone's home key to select from a list of running apps) to jump between them and the core AppRadio app. This means you will need to keep the iPhone visible and within reach to, for example, jump between the navigation app and one of the Internet radio players, which works against the primary advantage that the AppRadio offers over a simple iPhone dashboard mount and an auxiliary audio cable.
Speaking of Internet radio apps, AppRadio supports two of them: Pandora and Rdio. Pandora Internet Radio accesses its Music Genome-generated stations and displays song metadata and album artwork. Controls include play, pause, bookmark, thumbs-up, and thumbs-down. Pandora is unique in AppRadio's catalog in that it appears to be the only app not using the iPhone's video output to display its interface on the 6.1-inch screen. Rather Pandora uses AppRadio's native rendering engine, which results in its onscreen text and graphics appearing much sharper than the rest of the supported apps.
Meanwhile, Rdio features a more complex interface that gives you access to a variety of Web-streamed audio content from the Rdio collection, saved playlists, and categories such as Heavy Rotation, New Releases, Top Charts, and Recommended. Tapping an album or song on one of these lists takes you to a Now Playing screen that displays a massive image of the album artwork alongside a list of queued tracks and skip back, play/pause, and skip controls. Tapping the album artwork toggles between the play queue and a progress scrubber with icons for selecting repeat and shuffle modes.
The last app in the AppRadio catalog is Inrix Traffic, a free app that displays traffic flow and incident data on a Google map using a combination of color-coded overlays on visible roads and icons. Inrix is the only one of the three mapping apps that supports pinch-to-zoom. The map has a few alternate views that drivers may find useful. For example, the comparative traffic mode highlights the areas where traffic is significantly better or worse than usual with blue and black highlights, respectively. Predictive traffic allows you to virtually turn the clock forward to get an estimate of what delays may look like a few hours into the future. Finally, a list view for incident data is also available, but the font is a bit small for easy reading on the largish touch screen. Those who opt to upgrade to the Premium version of the Inrix Traffic app also get access to a My Commutes menu that lets users save commonly accessed trips for easy retrieval with live-updating travel times and forecast estimates for the best departure times for the stored commutes, and view live images from any traffic cameras in Inrix's network. Interestingly, most of Inrix Traffic's features seem to be of the most use before you get behind the wheel, making this app the odd bird in the AppRadio mix.
Each app running on the connected iPhone is discrete, not actively communicating with the others, so the traffic data provided by Inrix Traffic doesn't affect the turn-by-turn directions of Google Maps or MotionX GPS Drive.
Like all first-generation technology, the AppRadio has quite a few kinks that need to be ironed out. We joked many times during the testing of this receiver that perhaps AppRadio Beta would be a more appropriate moniker.
We aren't fans of the lack of built-in app switching. We understand that this is mostly due to a limitation of how iOS handles multitasking, but picking up the phone to jump from Inrix to Pandora, for example, is inconvenient, unsafe, and questionably legal. Of course, one could use a dashboard mount to keep the iPhone within tapping range with the bonus of a cool double-display effect with an app like MotionX GPS Drive. But again, finding a place to mount the handset almost defeats the purpose of installing a double-DIN receiver in the first place.
However, because the AppRadio is powered primarily by the apps that reside on the iPhone, it is in the unique position of being able to grow as quickly as the software does. It would take little more than Pioneer's app partners adding "Back to AppRadio" buttons to their interfaces and 90 percent of our problems with AppRadio would be solved. Additionally, the list of supported apps is also likely to grow as more developers adopt Apple's and Pioneer's APIs. Because Pioneer is taking advantage of a gateway that is built into Apple iOS, AppRadio can also improve as the iOS platform evolves and adds functionality to the iPhone.
It may be the case that we'll return to take a second look at AppRadio two months, six months, or a year from now and find that it's a completely different experience with all of our problems resolved and a massive catalog of apps to choose from. We certainly hope that's the case--Pioneer has expressed a dedication to making this platform work. For now, our final impression is that AppRadio needs a bit more time to bake before it's ready for prime time.