Tech in cars is often left behind as soon as the latest model comes out, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve retrofitted Apple CarPlay into my car by replacing the existing radio with an aftermarket unit to give my car a new and smarter lease of life.
Why I Did It
The first thing you’re probably wondering is why I ended up buying an aftermarket radio – surely a phone holder isn’t that bad? Well, there’s a few reasons I ended up finally swapping out the radio after using a phone cradle since I started driving.
Firstly, it’s just safer – the user interface on CarPlay is designed for use in cars and when driving, versus a phone interface which is designed to be used in your hand and not across your dashboard. Secondly, the radio is fully self-contained, so everything is in one place – if I’m listening to the radio through the antenna on my car roof and fancy switching to CarPlay, it’s just two taps away without having to worry and faff around with Bluetooth pairing and navigating apps that aren’t designed for the car.
So once the decision had been made, I needed to figure out what to actually buy. After shopping around between JVC, Sony and Pioneer (as well as briefly looking at some generic units on eBay), I ended up opting for the Sony XAV-AX1005DB which offered everything I was looking for.
Why I Chose Sony
There were a few reasons why I chose Sony. Firstly, it’s a reputable brand that I’ve had experience with before in the past, so I know I’ll be able to get any manufacturer support if I need to. The XAV-AX1005DB is also one of the more affordable choices on the market, which was another big reason why I ended up with this.
Prices for CarPlay units, in particular, can quickly jump in price, however Sony seems to have done a decent job at providing not only for the high-end but also for entry-level folks, like myself, who are looking for a tidy aftermarket unit.
The final thing that drew me towards Sony was the tidiness of the user interface. In comparison to some other interfaces, the Sony interface looks streamlined, clean and isn’t overly flashy. So, there’s no sudden change of feel when moving between the flat design of the Sony interface to the flat iOS design of CarPlay.
The CarPlay Experience
Now it’s time to shift focus to CarPlay, which is the reason why I bought this aftermarket radio in the first place. I’ve been using CarPlay for around 2 or 3 months now and have been very pleased overall with the experience that I’ve had using it. If you’re used to using an iPhone, CarPlay very much feels like an automotive extension of iOS – it’s straightforward to use and is tidy and not distracting.
The main screen of CarPlay gives you access to iOS media controls for controlling apps such as Spotify, Apple Music and BBC Sounds – giving you easy access to track controls as well as a large map view which can be handy for gauging traffic as well as quickly starting route navigation.
You’ll be glad to hear that the map view on this page isn’t only limited to Apple Maps, you can also use supported third-party maps apps such as Google Maps or Tomtom. I like to have this screen open when driving around as it allows me to anticipate any upcoming traffic and easily find a route around it if I need to.
Swiping over to the right, you’re greeted with a typical app home screen which will list all CarPlay apps from the connected iPhone – this icon layout is customisable from within CarPlay settings on your iPhone and other elements such as the wallpaper can be changed from CarPlay directly.
When it comes to using apps, the user interface is standardised – even more so than on iOS itself. This makes the experience of using CarPlay safer as you know where to expect the various buttons and information that an app may present you and all CarPlay apps follow iOS design guidelines, rather than their own. Other apps such as Messages and WhatsApp have a more driver-friendly functionality which ties in with Siri to send and read out recent messages, so you can keep your eyes on the road.
Down the side, there’s a persistent sidebar which displays three recently used apps for quick switching as well as a home button that can be held down to use Siri for voice controls. Siri can be used for the usual business, such as controlling music or making phone calls.
It is worth noting that the experience and swiftness of CarPlay is driven by your iPhone – so if you have an older iPhone, it may run slower than if you had the latest iPhone. This is because the car radio is only displaying a video and audio feed that is being sent over USB by your iPhone. My iPhone 12 mini is still pretty new, so I’ve not run into any slowdowns – however if your iPhone is a bit older you may notice the occasional slow-down.
What Could Be Improved
It’s not all sunshine and roses, I would like to see a couple of improvements that would tie up the experience nicely for me. I would like to see a bit more flexibility on home-screen layout, as everything is fixed in place, the arrangement of the music/map view is as-is and can’t be changed at all.
I’d also like to see some technical changes, mostly relating to connectivity. A rural problem that I experience is that phone signal isn’t that great in the countryside and streaming apps such as Spotify rely on a constant connection pretty heavily for streaming audio. I have a couple of playlists downloaded to my phone, however when using CarPlay, Spotify still needs to connect to the internet as it tries to download a list of all my playlists and won’t recognise what is cached and saved on my phone. To tie in with this, I wish that CarPlay was a bit more persistent with automatically re-trying to load when it can’t connect to the internet.
My final “like to see” is specific to this Sony unit itself. I’d like to see the Radio interface store the name of the station in the pre-sets list, so that I can see a tangible name versus a frequency. I’m sure this behaves differently if I had a DAB antenna plugged into the back of it – however it is something that I’d like to see.
Would I Recommend It?
So, time for the verdict – would I recommend retrofitting CarPlay into your car? I think if you mainly listen to the radio and have no need to use navigation that much – there’s probably not too much of a benefit. However, if you are a heavy user of music streaming services, or just have your own music collection on your phone I’d say so – the seamless integration with maps is also quite nice.
It is a shame that the cost of entry is into the hundreds, but now that I’ve spent time with CarPlay – I can’t really see myself going on without it. If I were to get a new car at some point, for me it would be a must that CarPlay comes along with it.