Five years after the launch of Android Auto, Google announced the first major platform renewal at Google I / O earlier this year. That renewal – which comes as standard with an updated layout, app launcher, a notification tab, new font and dark mode – is starting to arrive this week on Android phones around the world. In general, Android Auto now looks a lot more like your Android phone, with large, colorful icons that emphasize all the things you can do better than looking for apps on different tabs.
In the old version of Android Auto, there were small icons along the bottom navigation bar that split everything into categories: navigation, calls, home screen, music, and exit. Now everything is summarized in the app launch button on the left, a notification bell on the right, and a Google Assistant shortcut. It is a much more intuitive way to use Android Auto, since all your compatible apps are pre-defined in the app launcher.
However, not all icons work as you think. Although the icons for third-party apps, such as Spotify and Audible, launch their respective apps, hitting Google News does not necessarily bring out your news immediately. Instead, Google apps such as Calendar and Podcasts only show Google Assistant, which eventually asks you to complete the task by voice.
This one technically makes sense, since Android Auto is designed to make you touch the screen as little as possible physically. But in practice this felt super unnecessary. It was annoying to see that although the icons for all of your Google apps were there, most of them simply led you back to the Google Assistant. This overkill is marked by the permanent Google Assistant button on the right side of the navigation bar at the bottom, because you could have always activated it with speech or via the voice command button on your steering wheel.
In addition to other UI changes, almost everything is now larger except the time, which is now hidden in the upper left corner. I hate this placement. In my Ford Escape 2018, the sunken screen means that a large part of the left side of the screen is usually blocked from the driver's view. I must at least be able to tell what time it is while I'm driving! And while the new left-aligned app launcher is supposed to make it easier to reach, it's actually harder for cars that use this type of screen configuration. From where I am sitting, I can't even see where I am reaching, and it is certainly not the intention to find that button while I really should drive.
Although this new layout means that information can sometimes be clumsy, luckily incoming calls, text messages and now playing bars are marked much more clearly against the dark background. You can view a summary of your notifications by tapping the call icon – a huge improvement over the old home screen that mentioned way too many things in different information blocks. In this section you can easily view a text when you stop at a red light to see messages that you may have missed. It is also much more logical; previously this was mixed on the home screen with the weather forecast that is now being played, making it difficult to take a look at who tried to contact you and when.
In the main view of Google Maps, everything looks largely the same. When you connect your phone, your Maps app will first be opened, with favorite addresses that are displayed in advance alongside live commuting. You can still choose to use other navigation apps such as Waze. If a supported media app is used, whether it is YouTube Music or Plex, the icon appears at the bottom to pause, rewind, or skip. The reverse is also true if you are in the full screen version of a music app; if you open an app while navigating anywhere on Google Maps, the prompts remain at the bottom of the screen so that you can view the album covers or follow the progress for what you are listening to, without losing sight of the bends next one. That screen that is now playing is also a bit more info-dense than before, because you can see exactly how long a song is playing and how much is left, which is great when listening to a podcast or audiobook.
Although these additional controls are useful, I wish you could hide the bottom navigation bar if it is not used to better view the map. I usually control music with the buttons on my steering wheel, so although it was handy to have the buttons on the front, I didn't always want it on the screen.
Besides, none of these user interface changes comes in the mobile version of Android Auto. Instead, Google says it will release a separate update through the Google Assistant app called the driving mode.
Although the new Android Auto looks and feels refreshed, I didn't find the redesign much more useful than the last iteration. Perhaps I had become so used to relying on Android Auto by speaking and listening that I almost never tapped the screen to find something I needed anyway. Making the platform work more like a phone is useful for people who have never used something like this, but in the end you usually want to use it mainly with speech, so you can concentrate on the road.
What I wanted Android Auto to improve was the actual functionality. It still takes about five times to and fro with Google Assistant to send a text message and you still can't choose a standard media player, although you can choose a standard navigation app. Shortening the number of ticks to get anywhere on Android Auto is nice, but shortening the number of spoken instructions until an action is complete would be a lot of more useful.
As more car manufacturers use Android Auto compatibility, I hope that Google will update the platform with a more frequent cadence. The new Android Auto starts to feel a smoother transition when you jump from your phone to your car. But please don't let us wait another five years for the next major update.
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