Android Auto is Google’s system for getting information and entertainment to your dashboard as you drive. CarPlay is Apple’s take on the same thing, and which you prefer will depend on whether you use an Android or iPhone. Either way, they make last year’s CD player about as useful as eight-track stereo.
A complete implementation includes satellite navigation, phone calls and messages, and music playback - not just from your own collection but from online services like Spotify.
You can specify one or other system with many new cars, and there are after-market models from JVC, Pioneer, Kenwood and others at your local Halfords. But you don’t necessarily need to go down either road to get the functionality.
While built-in dashboard units offer the convenience of being always on, with no need for charging and no trailing cables, they are also extremely expensive, and - although the apps and software will update, you’ll be stuck with the same hardware for as long as you keep the vehicle.
Your phone, on the other hand, is as up-to-date as you want it to be, and since you take it with you anyway, it doesn’t take much more effort to stick it to the windscreen.
Android Auto is the more flexible of the systems because it doesn’t have to be built in to either your car or its stereo; it can be run as a standalone app on any recent Android phone. If your dashboard unit supports it, you can use its screen instead of your phone’s, and link the two with a USB cable. If not, you can fix the phone itself to the dashboard with one of the hundreds of universal mounts available online and in pound shops.
The Android Auto app doesn’t add any functions to those already on your phone, but it does display all the relevant ones on a single screen - a far more convenient arrangement while you drive. And you can control it with your voice, rather than having to take your eyes off the road to press buttons.
The app will recognise the music apps you already have, and it can display messages from the most common services on its home screen. If you have a car stereo with Bluetooth, you can use your car’s speakers instead of the phone’s, for both music playback and phone calls. If not, you may be able to run an audio cable to the phone.
But it’s mapping that is the app’s main attraction. Your Android phone already has Google Navigation built in, and the latest version allows you to download map regions to your phone’s SD card, rather than call them up on demand. This means you’re not dependent on having a phone signal when you’re on the move - and it saves on your data allowance. Used in this way, your phone behaves much more like a standalone sat nav unit, with the advantage that the maps are always up-to-date and not limited to a single country or even continent.
Music, too, can be stored locally on your phone. Your own record collection may be there already, and if you have a paid Spotify account, you can make individual tracks or albums available offline. Think of it as a glove compartment full of cassettes - but finally, there’s room for your gloves.