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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Finding An Android Auto Compatible Phone Can Be A Nightmare [Smartphone List]

Personally speaking, I live on the iOS side of things. But keeping up with this website demands an Android perspective too. So, I've owned my fair share of Android smartphones in recent times. In testing Pioneer's AppRadio Mode on Android, I have gone through a few devices in the past ranging from the Samsung Galaxy lineup to Motorola and LG.

And now Android Auto, as you may know, is one of the two big players in the car infotainment playing field; Apple CarPlay being the other one. But unlike CarPlay which works on any lightning iPhone running iOS 7.1 or later, finding an Android Auto compatible smartphone is not as straightforward.

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But this piece is not necessarily about iOS versus Android (although it might end up being one). This is for those of you who want Android Auto in your car but don't own one of the latest smartphones.

Lollipop is mandatory

First things first. Android Auto requires a smartphone running Android 5.0 Lollipop or later. But Google clearly mentions on their Android Auto website that not all Android smartphones running Lollipop may be Android Auto compatible. So which phones are compatible?

Well, Google doesn't have a definitive answer to that question. To be fair to them, Android is a fragmented OS. In other words, each smartphone manufacturer is free to use a customized Android version of their liking. Not only that, even cell phone carriers can dictate which features are included and which are left out.

This leads to the big issue - all Lollipop versions of Android aren't created equal. The Lollipop rollout almost happened in slow motion with smartphone manufacturers and carriers taking their own sweet time in making the OS available to its customers.

Android Auto issues with the Lollipop rollout

Those waiting for Lollipop to use Android Auto in their car, were greeted with quite a few issues at the start. Android Auto had quite a few issues at first, many of which have been fixed since. But some users are still unable to get a stable version of Android Auto working. 

Aftermarket Head Units - The less expensive alternative to buying a new car

When it comes to getting an aftermarket head unit that does Android Auto, your choices are finite. There are three Pioneer head units and two Kenwood head units available at the moment in the aftermarket (Pioneer AVIC-8100NEX, AVIC-7100NEX & AVH-4100NEX and Kenwood DDX9902S & DDX9702S - All five head units are also CarPlay-capable). As far as smartphones go, there is no definite list available.

Google had an Android Auto compatibility check tool in the past but that doesn't seem to work anymore.

List of Android Auto compatible smartphones

Multiple sources, forum threads and comment sections later, I've come up with a short list myself. So here is the definitive list of Android Auto compatible smartphones...

1. Motorola Google Nexus 6
2. LG Google Nexus 5
3. Samsung Galaxy S6
4. Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge
5. Samsung Galaxy S5 (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint)
6. Samsung Galaxy S4 (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint)
7. Samsung Galaxy Note 5
8. Samsung Galaxy Note 4
9. Samsung Galaxy Note 3
10. HTC One M9
11. HTC One M8
12. Motorola Moto X 2014

For the record, I own a Nexus 5 running the latest Android 5.1 Lollipop and it works great with Android Auto on my Pioneer AVH-4100NEX. 

I'm sure there are more smartphone models that are Android Auto compatible but that information is almost impossible to find. I tried looking everywhere on the internet and couldn't come up with any more items to add to the list above. But that doesn't mean that only 12 smartphone models are Android Auto compatible.

The Motorola Moto G 2015 "circus"

"Everyone says it works, but it doesn't for me!" This was a common phrase you'd hear from most Motorola Moto G 2015 users trying to get Android Auto to work. Google finally came out and admitted to an issue with the smartphone and says it is working with Motorola on a fix. 

That admission from Google came two weeks ago but there's still no solution. This issue has been particularly disappointing for users who specially went out and bought the Moto G 2015 hoping to use Android Auto. Hopefully a fix comes soon.

Verizon is the problem for many

Verizon is notorious for installing bloatware on most Android smartphones it sells. Most are add-ons you'll probably never use. The problem arises when you connect your smartphone to an Android Auto capable head unit or dashboard via USB.

For some reason, Verizon treats an active USB connection as an opportunity to suggest software to install. This prevents the head unit from recognizing your smartphone which in turn prevents Android Auto from starting. There is a fix though according to Android Central.

The fix was explained on a Verizon Galaxy Note 5 but should work for other smartphones too. All you need to do is change the USB connection on your smartphone to MTP or Media Transfer Protocol. 

The way you do it is by pulling down your notification bar after connecting the smartphone to the head unit and clicking on "Connected as an Installer" or "Other USB options". From there choose "MTP" and the head unit should detect the smartphone. An alternative fix is by turning ON USB debugging through the phone's settings menu.

The cost

I recently went to a popular big box retailer that has a dedicated Mobile section where you can buy any smartphone on any carrier. I was curious to know if I could find an answer to a simple question - "Which is the least expensive Android smartphone (unlocked, no contract) I can get that will work with Android Auto?"

Quite expectedly I was pointed in the direction of $600 and above smartphones. I rep went looking for one with Lollipop installed on it and came back with the Galaxy S6 and HTC One M9. Then she found the Motorola Moto G 2015 for $179. But I had to show her Google's Android Auto page which clearly mentions the existing connectivity issue with Android Auto.

In the end I didn't get a definitive answer. The options I was presented with had price tags well in excess of $600. Couple that with a $500+ head unit and you have a $1000+ conundrum to get Android Auto in the car you already own. You can always save a few extra bucks by buying a used smartphone and/or head unit or signing a carrier contract and get most of those phones for much less upfront. 

The rep did mention the Blu Products brand of smartphones, some of which run Android 5.0 Lollipop. Whether those are Android Auto capable or not is anyone's guess.

The comparison - CarPlay vs. Android Auto

I had promised a comparison, so here it is. Say you're starting from scratch and want either Apple CarPlay or Google's Android Auto in your existing vehicle for the least damage to your wallet. 

CarPlay: Used iPhone 5 and Pioneer AppRadio 4 (SPH-DA120) - Total price estimate $550-$600. 
Android Auto: Used Nexus 5 and Pioneer AVH-4100NEX - Total price estimate $650-$700.

Both platforms have their own set of issues but let's focus on the positives. Android Auto currently brings 34 third-party apps to your dashboard whereas Apple CarPlay brings less than half the number - 16. 

Other differences - Android Auto locking you out of your smartphone while connected; CarPlay allows you to use your iPhone simultaneously.
- CarPlay is available on a few extra head units like Pioneer's first generation NEX head units, Pioneer AppRadio 4 and the Alpine iLX-007.

If anyone wants to add to my list of compatible smartphones, let me know in the comments below. I will try and add to the list myself over the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

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