Pioneer's latest mega multimedia receiver is a quadruple threat of Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, MirrorLink, and on-board Here navigation.
There's no in-car connectivity protocol that I can think of that isn't represented here in Pioneer's new flagship, the AVIC-8100NEX. This is a receiver that takes the kitchen-sink approach to in-car multimedia and smartphone connectivity.
In addition to the big three smartphone-mirroring technologies, the 8100 also supports Bluetooth, USB/iPod-mode, and Pioneer's own AppRadio mode for legacy app connectivity to iPhone 4 and pre-Lollipop Android devices. There's CD/DVD playback, HD Radio reception, and standalone Aha Radio and Pandora Radio connectivity. The list of available features and audio sources is, frankly, staggering. And it should be. At an MSRP of $1,400 (about AU$1,840 or £950, converted directly), the AVIC-8100NEX needs to be a do-it-all device to justify its price.
But the biggest news for the NEX series is the aforementioned addition of Google's Android Auto to its deep bag of tricks. I've been a dedicated Android user since the Motorola Droid, so any sort of purpose-built in-car functionality beyond basic Bluetooth audio streaming has been a long time coming. Being the first to the market with Android Auto is a big get for Pioneer. But this is Android, so the other side of that first-gen coin is that there will be bugs.
Dropping the 8100NEX into the dashboard should be simple enough for 12-volt enthusiasts familiar with car stereo installation. The receiver uses a largely standard car audio wire harness for power and speaker connections, as well as connections for the included GPS antenna and hands-free microphone. On the back panel, the 8100 features two USB ports labeled 1 and 2. Take care when plugging into these ports; though they look universal they're also application-specific for the two connectivity protocols. Apple CarPlay devices can only use port 1, while Android Auto and MirrorLink devices can only be plugged into 2. I learned the hard way that mixing up your connections will cause the 8100NEX to fail to recognize your device and you'll have to pull the stereo out and swap the ports.
When connected via USB to an Android device running software version Lollipop Android 5.x, the receiver triggers the Android Auto software to start on the host phone. After an initial setup on the phone that installs the Android Auto app, Google Maps, Google Music and Google Voice Search if they're not already installed on the device, there's a quick walk-through on the NEX receiver's screen before the driver is presented with the Android Auto overview screen.
The overview screen should be familiar to Android Lollipop users, because it's basically a car-focused version of the Google Now interface. Here, the driver is presented with contextual shortcuts to suggested destinations (based on search history and habits) with travel time, notifications for missed calls and messages, and cards displaying information about weather and more. As you roll along, the contextual information displayed on the overview screen will change. So when I get into the car in the morning, my commute time and one-click navigation into the office will be at the top of the list. But on Friday date night, the top like could be my significant other's place. Again, this should be familiar to Android users with experience with Google Now's eerie insights into their habits.
Along the bottom of the screen are shortcuts to the overview screen, the recent hands-free call log, Google Maps navigation, audio streaming apps, and a button to return to Pioneer's onboard software. Incoming notifications for calls and texts also peek down from the top edge of the screen when received before hiding away. Tapping one of these notifications will answer the incoming call or read the text message aloud via text-to-speech software. One thing that Android Auto didn't do during my demo is allow me to view the text of the message; it's a voice only interaction and that's a very good thing.
The navigation by Google Maps is similar to the mobile experience and is primarily interacted with via voice commands. Tapping a contextual menu icon in the upper-left corner of the screen brings up suggested destinations and category browsing, but there didn't appear to be anywhere to type a destination search. Again, voice search is the way to go.
The audio button brings up a very simplified version of the Google Music app with large controls to play, pause and skip songs as well as easy-to-read song metadata. Tapping the audio icon again brings up a list of installed and supported audio streaming apps, such as Spotify, iHeart and Pocket Casts. These apps can also be interacted with via (you guessed it) voice commands. For example, it will respond to a verbal command like "Listen to the Strokes on Spotify."
Being so integral to the operation of Android Auto, I was pleased to note that the voice search software allowed for remarkably conversational requests and commands. Rather than staccato barks of "Navigation, destination," I could just say "Take me to the nearest Taco Bell." I could ask "What's a good Chinese restaurant near here?" or say "Text Katherine and say 'Want to get dinner?'"
Prompts aren't just limited to commands; all of Google Voice Search was at my beck and call. I could ask almost any question, such as "Did the Braves win last night?" and Android Auto's robotic voice would reply "Yes, the Braves beat the Marlins, 3 to 2." This freedom occasionally resulted in some funky responses; when asked "What's the meaning of life?" the robot responded by reading from a complex Wikipedia summary that seemed to go on forever. A simple "42" will do, Google.
From an interface standpoint, Android Auto's bright, simple graphics and heavy reliance on voice input are almost without flaw. Almost. I have one small nitpick concerning the upper-right-corner placement of the voice input button. Google has placed probably the most commonly tapped button in this interface in the furthest corner of the driver's reach. Admittedly, this is only an issue in left-hand drive cars and is fairly easily mitigated with an adapter for steering wheel controls, and it is a very minor annoyance.
Boasting both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay makes the NEX models ideal for cross-platform households. When connected to an iPhone running iOS version 8 or better, the 8100NEX boasts features identical in scope and operation to what we saw last year on the AVIC-8000NEX . Being able to experience the two systems side-by-side on the same hardware, I noticed that CarPlay seemed just a hair smoother in operation than Android Auto, particularly during the pairing phase. I suspect that has more to do with the phones' operating systems than Pioneer's hardware; Apple's version of this tech just seems to be more plug and play.
Users can jump back and forth between CarPlay and Android Auto by plugging in either phone to one of the AVIC-8100NEX's two USB ports. However, the transition between the two protocols isn't exactly seamless, requiring a trip into the Options menu to toggle between "Apple CarPlay" and "Other" USB connection modes. To its credit, the 8100 is smart enough to notice that I've plugged in an Android phone when in Apple mode (and vice versa) and prompts me with a pop-up shortcut to the appropriate menu where the toggle can be made, minimizing the amount of tapping needed to get going.
Pioneer's 8100NEX can also multi-task to a degree. I was able to run Android Auto with one of its USB ports while listening to music from a paired iPhone using the iPod-mode functionality of its second USB port. Likewise, the receiver can listen to CD audio or HD Radio while running Google or Apple's navigation software. The NEX also features its own on-board navigation software that can be used while listening to audio from any source, including Android Auto or CarPlay. Factor in the ability to add rear-seat entertainment to the mix and expand the list of audio sources -- adding, for example, an external satellite radio tuner -- and the the 8100NEX starts looking like a hugely flexible all-in-one dashboard command center.
When asked, Pioneer stated that the current crop of NEX models will not be supporting the new wireless CarPlay functionality debuted in iOS version 8.3, due to their lack of the necessary Wi-Fi hardware.
I've had the AVIC-8100NEX installed in CNET's 2007 Chevrolet Aveo test car for two months now and my initial impression that the multimedia receiver is a do-it-all device hasn't faded. If anything, I've gotten more impressed with the breadth of the receiver's functionality. Actually there's maybe too much functionality for one driver and most will probably never touch every bullet point in the 8100NEX's list of features. However, for vehicle-sharing families with a variety of media preferences -- a mix of iPhones and Androids, beloved old CDs and radio stations -- the 8100NEX covers every possible entertainment base.
My only reservation is the $1,400 price tag. Shop around and it's already possible to find the 8100NEX at a significant discount. If that's still too much, the less expensive AVIC-7100NEX and AVH-4100NEX (the latter being my personal choice of the NEX series) offer slightly reduced feature sets for $1,200 and $700 MSRP, respectively.