It's almost perfect. Almost.
I'm a huge fan of Android Auto. Actually, I'm a huge fan of anything that gets folks' phones out of their fat fingers while flying down the highway. Or at stoplights. Anywhere, really. And the good news is we have more options than ever. A car mount and Bluetooth are OK. Apple's CarPlay isn't too awful.
But Android Auto is what all infotainment systems should strive to be. It's easy to use. It looks nice.
And most important is that it doesn't just make it impractical to use your phone while driving — it mostly makes it so you don't even want to touch the thing.
But all is not perfect in Google's implementation of a car mode. So as we enter into a new year of hardware and services — knowing full well that things on the horizon are liable to change our views as they come into focus — let's take a look at what's working, and what needs improvement.
Android Auto is the safest — and easiest — way to use your phone in your car.
Android Auto: The basics
Your car doesn't "run" Android Auto. It's not natively baked into your vehicle. (Yet.) No, whether you've got the factory infotainment system, or an aftermarket head unit, you'll still have to contend with the crappy built-in user interface. It's just a fact of life.
Android Auto is separate and runs alongside that factory experience. It's powered by your Android phone. The apps live on your Android phone. And that's a good thing. Because any car that can use Android Auto can use your Android Auto. Your apps. Your music. Your experience.
The biggest change for Android Auto over the past year or so actually came at the end of 2016. Until then, Android Auto was an app on your phone that projected itself onto a car's infotainment screen, and only that screen. Your phone would go dark, effectively (but not completely) locking you out while it did the heavy lifting and projected a driver-friendly UI into the car.
Now? Android Auto starts as an excellent phone-based car mode app. It doesn't matter how old your car is, or whether it has a radio at all, never mind one with a 7-inch display. No expensive aftermarket installations, and no having to deal with potentially clunky wiring. (More on that in a second.)
But if you do have a compatible head unit, you get a bigger, better experience. Bigger album art. Larger maps. Large touch targets. And something that's more built-in, which to me makes it feel like something you use and don't necessarily play with. You currently have to plug your phone in for it to work, though that'll start to change this year as wireless connections finally see the light of day.
But by and large, whether you're using the phone version of Android Auto or the in-dash variety, they're mostly the same experience.
And of course you can talk to your car with Android Auto. If you've got a "talk" button on your steering wheel, by all means use that. If you don't, you can hit the on-screen microphone button. Or you can just have your phone set to respond to "OK, Google," and that'll take care of things automatically.
What cars have Android Auto capability built in? A lot, with more being added all the time. (Google says more than 400, though.) And aftermarket options from Pioneer, Kenwood, Sony and more make the full Android Auto experience available to pretty much anyone with a doube-DIN sized hole in their dash.
There are some holdouts, though. BMW? Forget it. Mercedes? Only if you're lucky. And Mazda is still struggling to add Android Auto for some reason.
Android Auto: The apps
Every app that works on the built-in version of Android Auto works on the phone version of Android Auto. That's because there aren't really any special apps for Android Auto. Instead, think of AA as a framework for existing apps that reworks features into a car-friendly interface. Google Maps is Google Maps — it also happens to work on Android Auto. Pocket Casts is the same great podcatcher that also happens to work on Android Auto. Waze is Waze.
You can put Android Auto apps (erm, apps that also work on Android Auto) into three categories: Entertainment, messaging, and maps. How many are there? I don't know. Google's promotional page is incomplete. But it's a fairly deep repository.
Not every app works with Android Auto — and apps that do work with Android Auto have to follow a pretty specific set of guidelines, for ease of use as well as safety reasons. You're not going to be watching video while you drive. (And you really shouldn't anyway.)
And to complicate matters a little further, the Uber-popular Waze — which is and always has been a mapping app on your phone — works on Android Auto on the full-screen experience, but not on the phone version of Android Auto. Go figure.
The Android Auto User Interface
You can think of Android Auto as a system within a system. It's got a background, and a sort of home screen. But you'll only be using one application at a time, with notifications at a bare minimum, and only from messaging apps that have been extended to Android Auto. The whole point, of course, is to have a few distractions as possible while still actually being able to use the thing.
The main options are all docked at the bottom of the screen. Navigation. Phone calls. Your home screen. Audio. This is where you'll switch between apps, and open up the app picker if you've got more than one in a given category. (And you probably do.)
The home screen is customized with information from your Google account. The weather shows up here. Upcoming events will appear. Recent calls (incoming and outgoing) and messages will be seen. Any current media that's been playing is here. And it's all done in an easy-to-read, easier-to-deal-with way.
Entertainment apps on Android Auto
While "entertainment" isn't quite the right word for this subcategory of Android Auto apps (technically it's "audio"), it's close enough. Music apps are in there. Google Play Music is usually included by default. And as you'd expect, it works great on Android Auto. But it's far from the only choice. Spotify is supported. Amazon Music is in there. So, too, are Pandora and Deezer. As are others.
Podcast apps — podcatchers — fall into this category as well. Google's own is built in to Google Play Music, of course. But other apps like Pocket Casts and Dogcatcher and BeyondPod have included Android Auto.
Android Auto doesn't really care what you're listening to. It's just concerned about how it looks. To that end every audio app looks and works pretty much the same way, with the same styled buttons and menus. That's by design, and it generally works pretty well.
Messaging apps on Android Auto
Skype is available for Android Auto. If that doesn't give you a sense of dread, I don't know what will. But for as distracting as messaging apps tend to be on a phone or computer, Android Auto has done well to keep what otherwise is a black hole of notifications — you're never getting out of this one — and turning it into something safe and usable.
It's simple, really. A messaging app on Android Auto routes the app to your screen in the form of a notification — and not the message itself. You can choose to listen to it, or not. And you can choose to reply with your voice, or not. That's it. It reads the message aloud (which can be fun depending on the message, and whether anyone else is in the car with you), and you can reply.
This goes for things like SMS text messages, Skype, WhatsApp — anything that supports Android Auto. Your experience will vary depending on the frequency of messages — being bombarded is especially annoying here — and by how many emoji your kids might use in a single stretch. You haven't lived until Android Auto gives you a readout of gold star gold star unicorn watermelon rainbow lighting bolt smiley face Canadian flag clapping missing tooth poop poop poop poop poop poop poop poop fireworks fireworks heart heart poop.
And that would be a short one.
You also can initiate messages using your just your voice. Again, the whole idea is to keep your eyes on the road.
Map apps on Android Auto
You can have any navigation app on Android Auto, so long as it's Google Maps or, more recently, Waze. (Coincidentally, both of those apps are owned by Google.)
This is one of those times when the lack of choice should be bemoaned. But on the other hand I don't know what other app I'd use.
Both apps hook into your calendar, so upcoming destinations are literally a tap away.
Which should you use — Google Maps or Waze? As I explained in my deep dive, I'd use Google Maps when I don't know where I'm going. It's got better routing, and the map UI is much better. I use Waze when I know where I am, or when getting real-time notifications of hazards (or speed traps) are desired.
Phone calls on Android Auto
Yes, you can make phone calls over Android Auto, too. When you're plugged in, any media audio is routed over the USB connection. But phone calls are still a Bluetooth matter.
Android Auto's contacts and dialer are done in the same "Material Design" scheme you'd find on a phone. Because — wait for it — they're the exact same apps you have on your phone, just with the output redesigned for Android Auto.
You can use a traditional dial pad if you're stationary. (There's a full keyboard tucked away in here, too, though I seldom use it.) You can call with your voice. You can easily answer and reject calls.
If you've got a built-in microphone in your head unit — and if you're using the full-display experience, you probably do — Android Auto routes through that, just as it should.
Google Assistant on Android Auto
Perhaps even more important is that Android Auto has full access to Google Assistant. Pretty much anything you can ask your Google to do on your phone, you can also do in Android Auto, using only your voice.
Have connected lights? Command them to turn on while you're driving home. Prefer to manually set the thermostat on your commute? Just tell Google Assistant to do it. It doesn't care where you are. It just does it.
Same goes for all those random questions we ask Google. What time does the sun set? How many movies has George Clooney been in? Do dogs and bees smell fear? Having Google Assistant built in means you can answer any random question your kids yell at you from the backseat.
In other words, Google Assistant is the same on Android Auto as it is on your phone. Because Google Assistant is on your phone.
What's broken, and what's next
Android Auto isn't perfect. And for as simple as it is, there are a lot of variables at work here — particularly when we're talking about the full-display AA experience and not just using it as a car mode on your phone.
If there's been one single bugaboo that should be called out, it's connection problems.
For Android Auto to be truly great, the connection has to work the first time, every time.
Again, lots of variables here. The phone itself. (Is it USB-C? MicroUSB? Did the manufacturer do something dumb when it senses that a cable's been connected?) There's the cable itself. (Are there manufacturing defects, or some other property that causes it to not work properly?) There's whatever the phone's connecting to — be it a factory-installed infotainment system, or aftermarket head unit. (And what about any extension cables used with them?)
That's also something that conceivable will be fixed — or at least circumvented — with the addition of wireless connections to Android Auto. Though one man's fix is another's problem waiting to happen.
I also want to see more control over which apps appear on Android Auto. For example: I've got the New York Times app on my phone, but I don't necessarily want it showing up in my Android Auto list. There needs to be an option to hide apps from the app picker. I've got six apps in my entertainment app picker. But I only listen to two — and one of them requires me to scroll down a couple times when I switch between the two.
The bottom line
Gripes aside, this much is true: There's no better in-car experience than Android Auto. It's one of those pet projects that doesn't get as much credit as it deserves — and that's all too often a rare thing in this industry.
Android Auto has shown that it's possible to create a distraction-free interface that's usable. Android Auto is easy to use. It's intuitive, and it just works. And it's safe.
And Android Auto looks fantastic. It's one of the better examples of design meeting both form and function goals in the same package. It makes any factory infotainment user interface look like the utter garbage it generally is. It makes Apple's CarPlay seem as boring as it is jumbled.
And that Android Auto is now available to everyone with an Android phone is a huge step toward curing one of the biggest hurdles on the road — getting our phones out of our hands.