What's the Best Android Car Stereo?

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Some Android car stereos actually run on the Android OS, while others simply provide connectivity to Android phones. Gebber86/Vetta/Getty Images

Question: What’s the best Android car stereo?

My phone runs on Android, and I also have an Android tablet, so naturally I want to find the best Android car stereo out there. Some of my friends have pretty near stereos that are set up to integrate with their iOS devices, and I’d like to show them what Android can really do. What’s my best bet for a head unit that’s really going to make the most out of my Android-powered phone or tablet?

Answer:

The main difference between Android car stereos and head units that are designed from the ground up for iOS devices is that there’s no such thing as direct iPod control for Android. However, that’s actually a good thing. Since Android is an open platform, you can find car stereos that actually run on Android, and you can also find head units that are capable of directly interfacing with your Android phone or tablet via USB. This isn’t just the next best thing to direct iPod control—in some cases, it’s even better. Of course, if you prefer wireless connections, then the best Android car stereo for you is going to be one that supports Bluetooth.

Music Browsing and Playback

Depending on how you listen to music in your car, there are a handful of features that may or may not be important to you. If you have a lot of music or podcast files stored on your phone or tablet, then the best Android car stereo for you is going to be one that supports music browsing and playback through the head unit.

This is the sort of functionality that your Apple-devoted friends are getting out of their direct iPod control head units, and it’s pretty nice. Instead of having to fiddle with your phone or tablet to queue up and play songs (which is necessary when you’re using an auxiliary input), you can just browse and select music through the head unit itself.

Android App Control

Of course, not everyone is still chained to physical storage media for their digital music. If you prefer your streaming services (i.e. Pandora, rdio, Spotify, etc), then what you’re looking for is a head unit that supports app control. These head units hook into your phone and take direct control of streaming radio apps. Again, this saves you the trouble of having to fiddle around with your phone when you want to skip a track or change the station.

USB Vs. Bluetooth

Although some head units are starting to offer USB connections for Android devices, compatibility isn’t always 100 percent. For instance, Pioneer’s maintains a list of the phones that its AppRadio line is compatible with. The list is long, but in some cases an additional adapter is required. Depending on your listening habits, Bluetooth may be a better option anyway. In that case, the best Android car stereo for you is going to be one that supports the A2DP Bluetooth protocol.

Android Car Stereos

While the term “android car stereo” can be used in reference to head units that are compatible with Android phones and tablets, there are also a handful of car stereos that actually run on Android. This is a rapidly changing field, and even the latest models of Android car stereos lag significantly behind handsets and tablets.

For instance, Clarion’s Mirage was the first OEM-grade Android-powered head unit. Released in Q1 2012, it ran on Android 2.2 Froyo. At that time, Froyo was already two years old. So if you’re looking for the best Android car stereo, and you want it to actually run the Android OS, make sure to check into what version it’s running.