Google’s ‘smart plugs’ are a cheap audio upgrade for your car

This 'smart plug' connects your car's lighter socket to your speakers
This 'smart plug' connects your car's lighter socket to your speakers
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The more ways there are to connect one device to another, the less chance there is of them playing happily together.

This is especially true in your car, where the complication of licensing the rights to use someone else’s brand name adds pounds to the value of many audio units. It means you are likely to be paying for the privilege of having a “made for iPhone” badge on your stereo, whether you have an iPhone or not.

Even when you do manage to get sound from your phone to the speakers on your parcel shelf, the software often doesn’t work as you expect. Some of Pioneer’s in-car units, for instance, insist on installing a proprietary app on your phone whose only function seems to be to eat up your disc space.

If such technology isn’t redundant already, it soon will be – because Google is now introducing its own accessories to position itself even more directly on your dashboard.

A range produced In partnership with Anker, JBL and other manufacturers turns your lighter socket into a smart hub: a single point for charging, playing music and calling up directions – all of which you can do without taking your hands off the wheel.

Already available in the US and due here soon with an expected price of around £50, its smallest unit operates on the same principle as the Amazon Echo and other artificial intelligence units available for your living room, which listen out for voice commands and act upon them accordingly.

The new, palm-size “smart plugs” are made by the charger manufacturer Anker and the speaker brand JBL. They can sit in your car socket more or less permanently, connecting to your phone via Bluetooth and to your stereo via a standard mini-jack cable, which is included in the package. Your phone does the donkey work, finding music on Spotify or any other services you use, and playing it through your car’s speakers. Your voice is captured by a microphone on top of the plug which relays your commands to the Google Assistant app, also on your phone.

You can tell it to play something by the Beatles and direct you home at the same time, and if your handset is on a window mount you’re able to use it just like a sat nav. You can also make hands-free calls and connect the phone to a USB port on the side of the plug to save your battery. A second port lets you use the lighter socket for its original purpose.

The beauty of this is that the system uses only those apps already on your handset, so there is nothing more to install or pay for, and no extra drain on your phone’s resources.

On the downside, it works fully only with Android devices; support for iPhones is limited, though that will doubtless arrive in the future.

For best results, you will need an aux socket on your stereo. Most modern units have these already but if necessary you can upgrade your dashboard unit for around £35.

Given that the cheapest built-in Android car unit is currently £230 at Halfords, this sounds like a bargain, and indeed these £50 Anker and JBL plugs encompass all the functionality of the more expensive units. The extra money buys you only the convenience of not having wires trailing across your dashboard or having to turn on Bluetooth whenever you get in the car.

There is no word yet on when exactly the plugs will be introduced to Britain, but if you can wait a few months, they may be your best option for a cheap audio upgrade on the move.