Transform your Nexus 7 into a car tech powerhouse

With the aid of a few apps (and a bit of self-restraint), the Nexus 7 can become the navigation and media center of your car's dashboard.

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 electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
  • North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
Antuan Goodwin
6 min read

Your Google Nexus 7's new home could be in your car's cabin. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

So, you've got your shiny new Google Nexus 7 in the mail and, after watching the lackluster "Transformers" movie that was included with the purchase, you're looking for something interesting to do with the 7-inch tablet. Why not transform your Nexus 7 into an automotive toolkit that helps you get from point A to B safely and can entertain you along the way?

OK, I'm sure that a number of you are already rolling your eyes and shouting something about distracted driving, which is a genuine concern. I don't see how the 7-inch Nexus 7 could be any more of a distraction than the 7-inch Magellan RoadMate 9055-LM that I recently reviewed. The Nexus 7's lack of an always-on data connection should remove the temptation to check your e-mail, but, yes, slapping a tablet onto your dashboard will require quite a bit of self-control on your part to resist undue distraction. With that caveat in mind, let's get started.

Mounting and power
The first thing you'll need to do is figure out how to mount the Nexus 7 safely in your car's cabin. You'll want a location that provides easy access, but you also don't want the bright, 7-inch screen filling up your entire field of vision. Ultimately, the best location for your tablet will depend on your vehicle, but here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Magellan 9055 in car
My preferred Nexus 7 mounting configuration would be similar to this Magellan 9055 setup. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

  • I wouldn't recommend windshield mounting. The Google Nexus 7's screen is smaller than the almost-10-inch iPad's, but still probably takes up too much windshield real estate to be used safely while driving.
  • Dashboard mounting is probably the best setup for most users because of its simplicity. However, you'll want the tablet as low on the dash as possible to keep it out of your field of view while driving. In a pinch, look for a windshield mounting arm that's maybe a little longer than you think you need and try to hang the tablet below your sight line with a dashboard puck like I did with the Magellan GPS in the photo.
  • The benefit to using something like the Satechi Cup Holder Mount is that the tablet sits about as low as it possibly can, but there are a few tradeoffs. Extra-low mounting means that you'll have to move your eyes (and maybe your head) farther to simply glance at a map. Additionally, depending on the position of your cup holders, the tablet could interfere with the operation of the shifter.

With the Nexus 7 mounted, you'll need a car charger. (You could elect to skip this step, as the tablet's battery life is probably good enough for most short trips.) Tablets suck a lot more power than smartphones, thanks in part to their larger screens. So, if you want to arrive at your destination with a fully charged battery, I'd suggest you invest in a 2.1-amp USB charger. My personal favorite is the Qmadix Twin Tablet Charger 4.2 because it features a pair of high-output charging points (which can come in handy if you want to also charge a cell phone or hot spot), but there are literally dozens of good single-port 2.1-amp choices to be found, so just take your pick.

Connecting to your car stereo
Your tablet is mounted and connected to power. Now, you actually have to connect it to your car's stereo. Normally, the easiest, most applicable way to do this is simply to use a patch cable to connect the Nexus 7's headphone jack to the car's analog audio input. However, I've found the Nexus 7's headphone jack to be oddly placed in such a way that none of the half-dozen 3.5mm patch cables on my desk will make a clean connection. Your patch cable may work, but this route didn't work for me.

In cars that support it, Bluetooth A2DP streaming is your best bet. This wireless connection saves you from having to drape an extra cable in your cabin, involves no fiddling with the Nexus 7's headphone jack, and automatically reconnects when you enter the vehicle.

For more ideas on connecting the Nexus 7 to your ride, check out this handy guide to using an Android device in the car.

Apps to bring it all together
Now, it's time for the fun part: picking your dashboard apps! Depending on your needs, there are apps for navigation, audio playback, and a number of other functions that could come in handy behind the wheel of a car.

  • The built-in Google Maps app seems like the obvious navigation choice thanks to its new ability to cache map data for offline use. However, it does have its drawbacks. For starters, you can only plan a trip while connected to the Internet. Once you're under way, Google Maps can continue routing and even handle simple rerouting of missed turns, but you'll need to be in range of a Wi-Fi hot spot at the beginning of every trip, somewhat limiting the usefulness of this app.
  • NavFree USA is a free navigation app that lets you download offline maps, search for destinations, and navigate without an Internet connection. Its available list of points of interest isn't as complete as you would get from a connected Google search, but it's good enough to get the job done.
  • The Nexus 7 tablet (top) is as large and powerful as the Magellan Roadmate 9055 portable navigator when running the CoPilot GPS app. Antuan Goodwin/CNET
    A premium navigation app like CoPilot GPS is probably your best bet for the Wi-Fi-only Nexus 7. This fully featured GPS software features onboard route calculations and the ability to download local maps for your part of the world. You'll need 1.3GB of space to download the full North American maps data, but I was able to specify the Southwest U.S., which includes my current home state of California and requires only 172.6MB of my Nexus 7's 16GB of storage space.
  • The stock Google Play Music app will let you download your music library for local playback once you leave the warm glow of Wi-Fi connectivity and will probably be your first stop on the road to driving tunes.
  • Internet radio apps such as Spotify and Mog will also let you save music and playlists for offline use.
  • If you love podcasts, check out my favorite podcatcher app for Android, DoggCatcher, which can also sync unplayed episodes of your favorite shows on Wi-Fi for offline playback.
  • Google Wallet's compatibility with MasterCard PayPass stations and the fact that it can be used offline after initial setup means that you can grab your tablet when you stop for fuel to pay for gas or buy snacks on the go. Sure, a Google Wallet-enable smartphone would be even more convenient, but I'm just pointing out a possibility.
  • Apps like Torque can make your Nexus 7 into a secondary instrument cluster and data logger. Antuan Goodwin/CNET
    Data-logging software such as Torque and Torque Pro can transform the Nexus 7 into a secondary instrument cluster for monitoring your car's cornering G-forces, acceleration, 0-60, and quarter-mile times. With the help of a Bluetooth OBD-II connection like the $99 PLX Kiwi Bluetooth, the Nexus can even give you a look into the inner workings of your engine and its sensors.

To tether or not to tether?
As I said, the Nexus 7's lack of an always-on data connection can keep you from distracting yourself with Facebook and IMs, but it can also limit the device, preventing it from being used with many great free navigation apps like Waze and streaming-music sources like Pandora. The simple addition of a Wi-Fi-tethered smartphone or portable wireless hot spot can make the tablet much more powerful. (Of course, if you're going through the trouble of Wi-Fi tethering to a smartphone, you may decide to simply use the smartphone as the primary device.)