Review: Pioneer NEX4100 with Android Auto

Review: Pioneer NEX4100 with Android Auto

The average vehicle age in the United States currently stands at 11.5 years. To give that figure a little perspective, that means that the average person is driving around a car, truck or SUV that pre-dates the first iPhone by a solid three years.

Needless to say, a lot has changed since 2003 model year vehicles populated dealer lots. Once-exotic features like Bluetooth, navigation and backup cameras are now commonplace in virtually every segment of the automotive industry. That’s all well and good for new car shoppers, but what about John Q. Public and his 11.5 year old car?

Aftermarket solutions intended to bring a car’s infotainment features up to date are nothing new but, if we’re being honest, none of them have been a viable alternative to factory-installed systems. However, Pioneer is hoping to change that with the advent of Google’s Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay.

The battle for your dash

For those unfamiliar with Android Auto and CarPlay, a little background first.

Tech giants Google and Apple have been expanding their reach in recent years, with the car dashboard representing the latest battleground. In a nutshell, Android Auto and CarPlay turn your car’s infotainment screen into an extension of your Android or iOS device. Simply plug in your smartphone of choice and the system populates your mobile apps and features on the car’s center screen.

New car makers are increasingly jumping on the Android Auto/CarPlay bandwagon to satisfy today’s tech-hungry buyers, but the technology could potentially have just as big of an impact on the nation’s fleet of older autos. Suddenly that eleven-and-a-half year old car could have some of the same tech features as a brand new 2016 model.

Pioneer is one of the first companies trying to tap into the Android Auto/CarPlay aftermarket with its latest NEX line of receivers. Curious to see if Pioneer had really developed a solution for aftermarket infotainment, we decided to give the NEX a try.

The test subjects

For our evaluation we used the Pioneer AVH-4100NEX, which is the entry point into Pioneer’s 7-inch touchscreen NEX line. Although it’s technically the baby of the NEX line, the 4100 still packs plenty of features and a somewhat steep $700 price tag. For those that want a few more bells and whistles, the 7100NEX adds a built in navigation system for $1,200 while the top-spec 8100NEX includes GPS and a capacitive touchscreen for $1,400. Luckily, most units can be found at prices below MSRP.

Since the 4100NEX is obviously an aftermarket part, it requires installation. Those adept at wiring should be able to install the NEX system on their own. We can’t tell a wiring schematic from the morning news paper, so we opted to have ours put in by an authorized Pioneer dealer.

What we thought would be a quick install turned out to be a two-day marathon. The initial installation took about six hours, but even after that day-long adventure the audio for some of the Android Auto features wasn’t working, so it was back to the authorized dealer a day later for a lengthy round of troubleshooting. After several more hours the system was finally up and running.

Those results are somewhat troubling considering our test car was a 2006 Dodge Magnum R/T — a vehicle that is well documented in the aftermarket audio world and also fairly basic as far as electronics are concerned. Our experience could have been an anomaly, but we wonder how long a similar install might take on a more modern (read: complex) vehicle.

Although the installation process was time consuming, there was some good news along the way. The Pioneer head unit plays nice with aftermarket control units, meaning you can setup your brand new Android Auto/CarPlay system to work with your old school steering wheel buttons. The aftermarket unit we used even allowed for multiple controls for the same button (a tap for one function and a longer hold for a second) so we could maximize the real estate we were working with. Moreover, the entire setup is totally customizable, so you can tailor the button layout to your preferences.

In addition to the control unit, we also had a Bluetooth microphone, SirusXM Satellite radio and a backup camera installed to complete the modern update. Like a factory setup, the backup camera was wired to automatically turn on whenever the car is put into reverse.

To wrap up the aesthetics of the new head unit — which is much larger than the radio it replaced — we purchased an OEM faceplate from eBay that was originally fitted to a navigation-equipped Magnum. Since navigation has been optional on cars for quite a few years now, this could be a viable option for those looking for a touchscreen infotainment system without severely altering the factory look of their dash.

The NEX replaced a standalone Sirius radio in our Magnum, which further helped to clean things up. As you can see from our before and after shots, the NEX’s large touchscreen and lack of external cords makes a world of difference in the visual appearance of our 9-year-old car.

Nuts and bolts

Although the availability of Android Auto and CarPlay is the big selling point of the NEX line, the head unit still runs Pioneer software for many of its functions. For example, if you want to listen to terrestrial radio, satellite radio or a streaming service like Pandora, you still go through the Pioneer interface (although the latter still requires your smartphone for an internet connection). Those screens are logically laid out and easy to navigate. The screen is also fast to react to its native controls. Resolution is very good, but at 800×480, it fails to deliver high-definition images.

The NEX links to the car’s electronics, so its screen is bright during the daytime and then goes into a darker night mode whenever the headlights are switched on. The NEX also has its own Bluetooth system, so you can make and receive calls or even stream music independent of Android Auto. A remote control is include, but we never felt the need to use it. Ditto for the CD and SD card slots located behind the faceplate.

In addition to its on-screen controls, the NEX has physical buttons along its bottom edge for things like volume and navigating between screens. Although obviously not reconfigurable, you can change the backlight color of the physical buttons via an on-screen menu. Likewise, you can choose from several pre-load background screens or upload your own picture to act as a wallpaper. In the name of security, the entire 7-inch screen is detachable.

Although the 4100NEX is SiriusXM satellite compatible, you will need to purchase a Sirius radio kit separately to get the service. We opted for Sirius’s latest SXV300v1 kit, which includes niceties like Tune Mix and Tune Start. Those advanced features — which essentially act as a DVR for your satellite radio — are just now arriving in brand new cars, so again it was a nice update for our nearly decade-old wagon. Unfortunately the kit couldn’t utilize our factory-installed satellite radio antenna, so a second unit was added to the back of the vehicle.

Life with Android Auto

While the NEX unit is capable of running CarPlay, our evaluation focused exclusively on Android Auto, run by an HTC One M8 with Android 5.0.

Like all Android Auto systems to date, Pioneer’s NEX head unit requires a hardwire to the phone. We had the micro USB port — which also charges your smartphone — wired into our center console, but we also had an Apple plug installed just in case we ever make the jump to iPhone. The switch within the system is fairly straightforward for such a move, requiring just a flip in the settings menu from Android Auto to CarPlay.

Once you’ve downloaded the Android Auto app, the system will automatic jump to the Android Auto ecosystem any time your phone is plugged in. Like OEM systems, Pioneer’s NEX defaults to the Android Auto home screen, which displays things like the local weather, recent phone calls or any meetings you might have scheduled for the day.

From the home screen you can navigate to Google Maps, phone, Google Play Music and the settings menu. A round button located in the center of the lower screen is available to bring you back to the home screen at any time. You can also jump back to the Pioneer system (which runs media in the background if you’re not using Google Play Music) via on on-screen button or a physical button located on the faceplate.

Perhaps the biggest perk of Android Auto is the availability of Google Now. The Siri-like voice assistant can be activated at any time by either touching the microphone button at the top right corner of the screen or by pushing a programmed button on your steering wheel. As with your handheld device, you can ask Google Now for things like the weather forecast or directions to the nearest coffee shop. Google Now can also read and send voice-to-text messages, which goes a long way in the fight against distracted driving. Unfortunately, Google Now can’t read or send emails (CarPlay does offer that functionality).

Overall we found the addition of Android Auto to be very useful, particularly for its Google Maps and Google Now features.

Although GPS isn’t embedded within the system, the NEX will quiet whatever music is playing — not just tunes from Google Play Music — for turn-by-turn directions being dictated by Google Maps. That’s a nice upgrade over just using your phone, which can sometime be drowned out if you’re rocking out too hard.

Our favorite feature of Google Now was its ability to read and send text messages, but it has many other handy perks, including the ability to make hands-free calls or enter a navigation destination on the fly. The Android Auto version of Google Now seems a little more limited than its smartphone counterpart, but the breadth of its searching abilities is certainly vast enough for over-the-road use.

Android Auto and the Pioneer NEX aren’t without their flaws, however. On the Android Auto front, it is somewhat annoying that you have to plug your phone in to activate the system, mostly because you end up forgetting your phone in the car. On countless occasions we arrived at our destination only to have to trudge back to the parking lot to retrieve our phone from the umbilical cord of Android Auto. It’s too bad you can’t get your car to ding whenever you leave your phone plugged in, like when you accidentally leave the headlights on.

The Android Auto screens are also slower to react than the native Pioneer interfaces. We’re not sure if this is an Android, Pioneer or HTC issue, but it is something to be aware of. Sometime the touchscreen lagged by several seconds, making us wonder if we pushed the button in the first place.

But the biggest annoyance we experienced, by far, was a hiccup that prevented the system from automatically launching Android Auto. Instead of loading Android Auto as soon as we plugged in our phone, the NEX often threw an error message or simply displayed a blank screen in place of the Android home screen. Moreover, we typically had to unplug and then plug our phone back in three to four times before Android Auto loaded properly.

Again, we’re not exactly sure what was causing the breakdown, but it’s certainly cause for concern. We talked to Pioneer about the issue and couldn’t find any technical issues that might be causing the glitch. However, there are a few different versions of Android and even Android Auto out there, so it’s possible that something got out of sync somewhere along the line. We haven’t spent enough time with factory-installed Android Auto systems to definitively say if our problem is universal or limited to the aftermarket.

Leftlane’s bottom line

The Pioneer NEX4100 might represent the future of aftermarket infotainment, but it’s hard to recommend it as the solution for today.

When it works properly, the NEX4100 and its Android Auto functionality is nothing short of stellar, bringing the latest in-vehicle technology to even the oldest jalopy. However, with an as-installed price that can breach four-digits, it’s simply unacceptable that the NEX sometimes refuses to launch Android Auto on the first try. Hopefully as Android Auto improves, so does Pioneer’s NEX4100.

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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