Jon Bentley takes a spin with the Parrot Asteroid
Our smartphones' usefulness seems to vanish the moment we get behind the wheels of our cars. Just when we need functions like touchscreen navigation, and hands-free calling and media playback the most, we get embroiled in a distracting world of cradles, cables, and flaky Bluetooth connections.
New systems like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aim to improve on this state of affairs by replacing your car’s normal multimedia head unit with one that plugs directly into your phone and offers many of its functions. But the device I tried in this week’s show, the Parrot Asteroid Tablet, takes a different approach.
The major selling point of the Asteroid is that instead of replacing your car's existing multimedia system, it aims to work with it and enhance it. This should be useful in cars where the electronics are scattered round the dash rather than contained within a more easily swappable head unit.
The Asteroid comprises a touchscreen tablet about the size of a standalone satnav unit, microphones for hands-free calling, and some hardware that’s concealed behind the dash including its own power amplifier to boost audio quality when playing media through the unit. I reported to Parrot's fitting centre in my hired Fiesta and watched as much of the dash was dismantled, and the large payload of wires and electronics shoehorned into any available space.
First impressions were disappointing. Top of my list of hoped for features was Google Maps, with its live traffic information, in a more convenient form than using the phone. But the Asteroid doesn’t allow access to Google’s Play Store. Instead you have to use the tiny Asteroid Market which requires an incredibly long-winded registration process and doesn’t include Google Maps. I did eventually download a free navigation app but it was nothing like as good and, incredibly, you lose your destination every time you turn off the ignition. Stop at the motorway services for the loo and you have to re-enter it again. Unbelievable.
I was also worried that the Asteroid is based on a very old version of Android, 2.3 Gingerbread, so obsolescence seems built in from the start. On the positive side media playback through the Parrot’s SD card slot and dedicated amplifier was slightly better than through the Fiesta’s system. However, as I was still using the car’s standard speakers, the difference was marginal. And I was disappointed to see there was no DAB tuner on offer – an upgrade I’d find very useful on an older car.
As you'd expect from Parrot's pedigree in the area the phone bit of it works well with excellent hands-free calling but the chances are your car offers this anyway and, even if it doesn’t, there are much cheaper and more convenient ways of getting this feature than the Asteroid.
It won’t be on my shopping list.