CarPC Android Auto Dongle Review

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CROWDFUNDING REVIEW – Many vehicles support Android Auto or Apple CarPlay on the infotainment system’s touchscreen. These interfaces only support a limited number of applications and operating modes. The CarPC AA dongle uses custom software to enable a full Android experience in your car. I have one to review. Read on to see what I think!

What is that?

The CarPC is a USB device that plugs into the USB interface of an automotive infotainment system. Once the CarPC has completed the boot sequence, the car should recognize the CarPC as an Android device and should allow the Android Auto app to communicate with the car. The CarPC AA uses a custom Android Auto app on the device to display a custom launcher on the car screen rather than the standard Android Auto UI. The launcher includes a Google Play Store app so a wide variety of the millions of Android apps can be used on the device. The device also includes GPS, accelerometers, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a microphone. In addition, the device includes a slot for a micro SIM and a microSD.

What’s in the box?

Hardware specifications

  • Model: CarPC-01
  • Device Name: Chuanzhi CarPC
  • Android 9.0 operating system
  • Compatible with Android Auto and MirrorLink
  • Processor: Mediatek Helio P22 OctaCore Processor
  • Cores: 8x Cortex A53, 4 @ 400 MHz – 1500 Mhz, 4 @ 900 MHz – 2001 Mhz
  • Graphics Card: Imagination Technologies PowerVR Rogue GE8320
  • Lite model: 3GB RAM + 32GB ROM
  • Basic and Pro model: 4 GB of RAM + 64 GB of ROM
  • Integrated 4G LTE SIM slot
  • Dual MEMS microphones
  • AGPS and GNSS GPS systems
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • Maximum microSD capacity: 128 GB
  • Product size: approximately 2.5 cm by 3/4″ at the base and approximately 1 1/16″ in diameter at the top. About 3 inches in total.

Design and features

Unpacking

The CarPC comes in a small gift box printed with a device graphic on the front and device information on the back. There are specs of the device on the back of the box but there isn’t enough information to really describe what it is without some explanation.

The CarPC dongle is packed inside the box in bubble wrap. There is no other letter or instructions provided with the device.

To install

Before installing the CarPC in the car, you can install a microSD card and/or a micro SIM card in the device. the unit I am reviewing does not support SIM cards, but I installed a SIM card so the correct positioning could be shown. The CarPC can read up to 128 GB of storage.

When installed in a computer USB port, the device will mount the microSD reader.

The included Youtube Music app even plays .flac audio through the vehicle’s Bluetooth.

The CarPC website describes a simple plug and play setup in order to get the device working, but my experience was more complicated. There are three states to the LED ring, flashing blue, solid blue, and amber. I’m not sure if the system needs to be in a particular state, but I couldn’t figure out when it was time to start the Android Auto app. I kept getting a message saying I need to “connect a compatible device”. I wasn’t even sure the device worked at all. Luckily the device that comes with USB debugging is enabled and I was able to use scrcpy to view the screen on my laptop. After connecting the device to my computer, I was finally able to connect the device to my car. I tested the device on a 2018 Volvo XC90 and a 2021 Subaru Forester.

Once the device is connected, the first thing you need to do is configure the settings app. Setting up wireless access is easy and can be done via WI-FI or Bluetooth. For bandwidth reasons, a WI-FI connection is strongly suggested.

The app has settings to connect wireless, set time zone, and set other personal settings.

I recommend installing the date and time settings shortcut which provides access to the Android 9 settings app which is otherwise not available on the launcher. This will access menus for Bluetooth, WI-FI, apps and other settings that are part of the operating system.

Design

The CarPC looks like a gigantic USB stick. It comes with a black protective cap that snaps into place with a satisfying tactile click.

Without the cap, the end of the CarPC is a bit oversized. The CarPC is probably blocking an adjacent USB port if your vehicle has one.

The USB side has foam rubber to hold it in place when plugged into the car, but some New England pot holes can cause it to come loose. Since my USB connection is under the armrest, I used a USB extension cable to connect the dongle and it stayed connected on all my drives.

The end of the dongle has a small opening for a microphone. The Google app was able to interpret my speech while driving with defrost on and GBoard worked great with it as well.

The end of the dongle also features an LED under a circular ring that can glow orange, cyan, or cyan. There are no instructions on what each of these states indicates, although I believe the blue breath indicates the system is booting up.

Transaction

Using the CarPC is very similar to using an Android phone and is very intuitive, even while driving. The CarPC offers unlimited use of the Android operating system. It is the user’s responsibility to comply with the laws of their state and exercise caution when using the CarPC. The CarPC has a few apps to make it easier to use the device while driving. In the settings, there is an option to activate a feature called “Safe Touch” which will automatically remove ads on YouTube as soon as possible without driver intervention. There is also a function to turn off the video above 10 km/h.

The built-in Nitro launcher works well for use while driving. App icons are well spaced out and can be set to chime when selected.

A long press on the icon will produce a menu which can be used to remove the app.

Tap the Overview/Recents button to view all running apps. Swiping up on this screen will close the app and long press on the app title will select apps to use in split screen mode.

If an app is full screen, a few carrots are drawn at the bottom of the screen so that the Android buttons are visible again.

The CarPC comes with the Google Voice Assistant disabled and the best way to enable it is to search for Google in the Play Store and then open the app from there. The launcher used by CarPC is great for the road but is not configured to use widgets. The Niagara launcher also works well with the resolution available for Android Auto devices and will also allow access to widgets and the full inventory of installed apps.

Android Auto in the vehicle will by default use the connected device as the main source for audio and a phone, but it is possible to use another device connected to the car’s Bluetooth as an auxiliary audio input. So even if the CarPC is the phone connected to the vehicle, it is still possible to use the vehicle’s microphone and speakers to communicate with the user’s main phone.

I had difficulty connecting the CarPC to a Bluetooth dongle for the ODBII connector because the screen that asks for the passwords is quickly hidden on the CarPC.

Performance

The CarPC takes about a full minute to get to the point where it can be used. That’s normally not long for a device, but we tend to like using things in our car as soon as it starts. It would be great if an additional battery could be developed to keep the CarPC on standby for 12-24 hours.

The GPS system gets the coordinates quickly and seems to be tracking well. One issue is that the gyroscope assumes the position of the device is mounted with the LED parallel to the road and the microphone towards the rear of the car. Mounting the device in any other way will give incorrect results in the map application’s bearing calculations.

Wi-Fi is also fast with a strong 5 GHz connection. The CarPC also allows the creation of hotspots itself, so if one wishes to have a persistent hotspot in the car, for a dashcam for example, this device can serve the purpose.

The CarPC scored a measly 74250 on Antutu. Graphics rendering was the main shortcoming, where individual images scrolled unobtrusively across the screen. The other scores were also low, but the video decoding seemed pretty decent. The rendering should be sufficient for any mapping software that can be used on this system. In fact, despite the low render scores, it’s actually possible to play Shadow Fight and other GPU-intensive games.

What I like

  • Unique opportunity to evolve into a “smart” car

What I would change

  • Include documentation
  • Allow “fast start” or sleep mode
  • Include USB extension cable

Final Thoughts

The CarPC has a few quirks, but it’s a unique device that can run apps that weren’t developed or approved for Android Auto. Although use of this device requires the driver to understand the risks associated with accessing and viewing information, providing the information to the vehicle’s infotainment system may be a safer alternative to using a phone while driving. If you think there are apps you want to access on your infotainment system that aren’t currently supported on Android Auto, the CarPC might be the easiest way to get that capability.

Price: $100.00
Or buy: CarPC and Kickstarter
Source: The sample of this product was provided by CarPC.

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