Pioneer AppRadio 3-005

Not more than a few minutes ago I finished a demo of Pioneer’s AppRadio 3.  So suffice to say, this hands on is hot of the press, so to speak.

AppRadio 3 is Pioneer’s third iteration (as the name suggests) of the device.  The first version of the head unit was unveiled in 2011 and was quickly followed by a new version in the beginning of 2012 that notably included a larger 7-inch screen (almost 1-inch bigger).

I’m told that the AppRadio 3 hardware is the same as the AppRadio 2, which is a bit of a disappointment since I was hoping for a marked improvement in speed and fluidity of the interface.  That said, I never actually used the AppRadio 1 or 2, but reviews of the first head unit were littered with complaints about its sluggish and slow interface.    Pioneer’s AppRadio 3 does, however, now include a DVD options at a $100 premium over the non-DVD, in addition to a cleaner, more polished interface.  So it stands to reason that AppRadio 2 and 3 are pretty much the same, barring the purchase of the version with a DVD/CD player.

Pioneer AppRadio 3-004

Pioneer’s National Trainer for their Car Electronics Division says that the AppRadio 3 is selling very well, especially at Best Buy.  When I prodded him for total adoption he said he didn’t know.  That being said, the AppRadio 3 is clearly targeted at a very specific user.  First, you’ll need to own a compatible phone, which includes a wide array of Android devices, as well as the iPhone 4 and 5.  Next, you’ll have to be wiling to undergo the installation process and if needed purchase a kit that makes the head unit seamlessly fit into the center stack.  Both of these are an added expense, and this is tacked onto the AppRadio’s cost, which starts at $400 ($500 for the DVD version).  And lastly, you’ll want, in all likelihood, to own your car, since a lease requires that the vehicle be returned in its original state.  No easy feat if you’ve ripped out the stock radio.

I drive a 2003 GTI, and putting aside the cost, I’m right in Pioneer’s cross hairs in terms of demo target.  I continue to use a tape adapter to playback music from my handset, I own my car outright, and it features the necessary double din slot.  Moreover, I drive a stick, so to make a call I need a headset plugged in and attached to my ear – the AppRadio 3 comes with a mic in the box and features Bluetooth connectivity.

Pioneer AppRadio 3

Currently the AppRadio 3 has 40 compatible apps.  Unfortunately, I don’t know how that breaks down in Android, but it’s probably fair to assume that this largely applies to iOS, since the first version for the AppRadio was exclusive to iPhone.  In addition to installing and running Pioneer’s AppRadio app, you’ll need to have each respective app installed on your phone since the AppRadio 3 actually performs a “handshake” with your device and pulls the necessary interface and features from the app itself.  And while you can make calls and stream music over Bluetooth, you’ll need a compatible adapter for your smartphone if you want to use the AppRadio 3 as it’s intended.

Much like a smartphone, the AppRadio 3 includes a home screen.  There you can manipulate the head units settings, access the FM/AM/XM radio, connect via Bluetooth, and access Pandora – Pandora is the only native app to the AppRadio 3, which is to say the UI is built-in, though you’ll still need the app on your phone for login info.  The center button is effectively the Home button, while the left three buttons control eject (for the DVD version only) and volume.  The two right buttons are for Android devices, allowing you to Go Back and access each app’s Settings menu.  The Home screen also includes an iPod app, which doesn’t work with the iPhone 5 – something to do with a digital vs analog connection – though rest assured you can still playback your iTunes music, though you’ll need to launch a Pioneer specific app.

Pioneer AppRadio 3-002

The 7-inch capacitive screen boasts a 640×480 resolution.  It’s easily viewable while seated in the shotgun position and can even be seen in relative glare despite the reflective nature of my photos.  Aesthetically the AppRadio 3′s housing is clean and minimalist.  The frame around the screen is relatively thin and I dug the polished metal bevel which houses the aforementioned buttons, which mind you are reactive and appropriately tactile to the touch.  Unfortunately, the same can’t exactly be said about the AppRadio’s screen/interface.  While it’s no worse or better than any car manufacturer’s infotainment system in terms of fluidity, it’s not an experience that runs parallel to that of the iPhone 5 or any current gen Android handset.  That being said, it’s not distracting, though I didn’t drive and use the system so it’s difficult for me to glean a true experience from a 40-minute sit down.

Any attempts to use Siri with the system, which is now designed to work with a car’s Bluetooth system, were faltered by what were appeared to be a poor data connection – it seemed particular slow to even load apps despite the Verizon LTE connection.  Unlike Siri on your iPhone, you won’t be able to launch apps by voice, but you will be able to get weather and perform a few other basic commands.

Pioneer AppRadio 3-001

Waze, which appeared pretty quickly looked like an analogous experience to the phone, though again, I didn’t have a chance to really get to use it.   With any app running, the iPhone’s screen is set to a default AppRadio image, and renders the phone unusable – this is the same as BMW’s apps for the iPhone – unless you exit the app.  Surprisingly, certain apps require that you authenticate on the phone by hitting a button before the AppRadio can access them.  It’s an interesting caveat and one that seems to run contrary to NHTSA safety standards.

Of note, Pioneer includes MirrorLink in the AppRadio 3.  This is a standard created by  the Car Connectivity Consortium, and simply allows phones that wouldn’t be compatible with the head unit to still access music, map services, and phone from the interface.  A special cable is required to use this feature, though anyone with an Android or iOS device won’t look twice at this since its functionality is limited.

In concept I love the AppRadio 3.  It’s appears to be a the perfect solution, offering an interface that is intended to be analogous to that of our smartphones, and plays to the whole “don’t touch your phone or you’ll get a ticket”.  Bluetooth is standard, as is a mic, though you’ll have to spend an extra $100 if you want to playback DVDs or CDs (with the parking break on the DVD player and visual elements won’t work).  There is even a web browser via Opera, though much like the web browser I don’t see many people using it over their phone, which is a much faster experience.  However, I’m reluctant to give the AppRadio 3 a thumbs up.  The UI, while good looking and better than the last, feels slightly sluggish.  Nevertheless, there is no disputing the AppRadio’s feature set.

Christen Costa

Grew up back East, got sick of the cold and headed West. Since I was small I have been pushing buttons - both electronic and human. With an insatiable need for tech I thought "why not start a blog focusing on technology, and use my dislikes and likes to post on gadgets."