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Monday, June 13, 2011

We Sample Pioneer’s AppRadio Infotainment System, Discover It’s Not a Kludge of Overwhelming Jankitude

As in-car infotainment goes, Audi’s latest MMI system is seriously impressive. It maintains the intuitive nature of the company’s earlier attempts at in-car infotainment and seamlessly delivers Google-sourced content as an overlay via a T-Mobile connection while delivering an in-car wireless hotspot. It’s also out of date as you read this.

The new trend, as evidenced by Saab’s in-the-works iQon and Toyota’s launching-imminently Entune, is leveraging the competitive, constantly updated nature of mobile-phone hardware and software to deliver the wired world to the driver’s seat. We had a chance to play with Entune last week during the Prius V press preview and if we didn’t come away floored by the UI, it’s at least not a well-meaning kludge of overwhelming jankitude like MyFord Touch.

We could say the same of AppRadio—and did, even, in the above headline—which is Pioneer’s foray into the aftermarket phone-based infotainment space, which, like Entune, relies primarily on your smartphone to power it. Unlike Entune, which also works with Android and BlackBerry phones, AppRadio only works with the iPhone and iPod Touch.

While the name suggests an infinite array of digital doohickies sprouting from your head unit like so many distracted-driver lawsuits waiting to happen, the reality is a bit more sensible than that. Only approved apps developed using Pioneer’s API are available for use on the system. At launch, the golden five are Google Maps, the ubiquitous Pandora internet radio service, traffic information from industry heavyweight Inrix, music subscription service Rdio and MotionX’s GPS Drive navigation app. The ins and outs of the vetting process aren’t crystal-clear, but essentially, a developer with an application already available in the iTunes store can pitch it to Pioneer. If approved, the company will allow access to their API for automotive-suitability tweaking. Which, in Pandora’s case, meant removing some of the more driver-distracting features like station creation. In fact, many app features are disabled unless the vehicle’s handbrake is engaged. We imagine that creative installers will defeat this feature posthaste.

When it arrives in June, don’t count on AppRadio as a central hub for your hyperconnected dee-luxe sound system, though. While you can plug in a backup camera, you can’t connect even a 1/8-inch auxiliary in. During the press presentation, the demo video featured a Volkswagen driver with shabby-chic hair routing his entire life through his iPhone, including a coffee date with an impatient girl named Sara in Moorpark, California (“Where life can be this good”). He’s apparently AppRadio’s target market, as the unit features no satellite-radio input, no USB connectivity and no provision for your retro six-disc changer. We imagine that in the future, Pioneer will offer pricier AppRadio head units with more versatility; assuming the iPhone-centric model doesn’t utterly fall on its face in the market, future Android support’s practically a given.

Is AppRadio an under-$500 replacement for a fully integrated system with nicely weighted and knurled knobs? No, but it does free one from the expense of repairing an Audi. Plus, there’s no additional data plan to buy and assuming the developers want to stay relevant in the marketplace, it will be continually updated over time. While Pioneer remains mum on whether AppRadio will be compatible with the upcoming iPhone 5, the unit does contain a MicroSD slot to enable firmware updates. While the iPad is not officially supported, it may work. Your mileage may vary, all that and whatnot.

We have 160-GB iPod Classic packed with music and an iPhone 4 that we use for communications. While we could plug in the iPod for music and use Bluetooth for hands-free calling, we’d lose on-screen app availability. Also, as a double-DIN-sized unit, it won’t fit in our old Porsche’s single-DIN slot. AppRadio’s a compelling start in a space that’s sure to grow, but it doesn’t fit the way we currently use in-car technology. Pioneer’s bet, however, is that we’re not most people.

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