Parrot Asteroid Smart £500
6th Aug 2013 | 23:01
Can Android revolutionise in-car entertainment?
Car manufacturers are racing each other to bring cool technology to in-car entertainment. The catch is that you need to buy a new car to access it. Parrot is one of a handful of after-market companies delivering high-tech entertainment to the car.
The Asteroid Smart is a double-din head unit with a twist. Running the 6.2-inch touchscreen in-car entertainment unit is a customised version of Google's Android mobile operating system.
This gives the Asteroid system two very distinct advantages. The first is the ability to take advantage of a mobile internet connection - either via a USB dongle, Wi-Fi hotspot or through tethering your smartphone - to deliver online services directly to your car.
The second advantage is the ability to download and install apps. That said, there's no Angry Birds on here - but we'll go into more detail about the app marketplace later.
The head unit is simplicity itself to look at. The 6.2-inch screen fits rather neatly within the double-din head unit space, and there are finishing bezels to keep things looking nice depending on the make and model of your car.
Aside from the touchscreen, there's not a lot in the way of buttons on the display. A power button rests on the bottom left of the screen for manually switching the screen off.
Above that, in the top left of the unit, is a little knob that lets you pull a security strip out of the head unit. It's essentially an anti-theft device, albeit a much more convenient one than removing the entire screen. The Smart won't work without it, but it's small enough to put into a pocket and not feel uncomfortable.
Hidden away in your glove box is a series of USB connections for different devices, which lets you charge your phone as well as connect an iPod for offline music and podcasts.
At the top of your windscreen, there's also a unique double microphone that both captures voice commands and acts as the mic for Bluetooth hands free conversations.
For those fortunate enough to drive a car with steering wheel controls, Parrot's Asteroid range can plug in through an adapter. That said, our installer had multiple issues with getting this set up, which was rather frustrating.
But once it's all set up, the steering wheel controls give you access to all the main features, like volume, audio select and voice controls.
That is, until there's a software update that resets the default mode for the steering wheel controls to off, which as the moment, forces you to manually go in and switch them on again every time you turn on the car. But more on that later.
Connectivity and Controls
One of the key benefits of this unit is its ability to connect to the wonders of the internet.
A whole bunch of cables run from the back of the unit to the glove box, which lets you plug in USB modems as well as iPods, although the default is the old 30-pin iPod connector rather than the new Lightning port.
If you don't want to spring for another SIM card and modem, the Asteroid can also connect to your smartphone's data connection, either through Wi-Fi via a personal hotspot, or via Bluetooth.
That Bluetooth connectivity is pretty useful, too. While any head unit worth its salt these days connects to your phone for Bluetooth audio, the Parrot also lets you stream Bluetooth audio from your devices.
That's right: devices. It can connect to two phones at the same time, letting you remain connected whether you're the passenger or the driver.
Coupled with the ability to share your phone's data connection via Bluetooth, and it suddenly offers plenty of versatility.
While it all sounds good on paper though, things do get a little frustrating when you're actually pairing. The Asteroid unit doesn't appear to store your address book on the device, instead synchronising contacts when you turn on the car and it pairs to your phone.
That's all well and good if your address book is nice and light. But if you have hundreds of contacts stored in your phone, the synchronisation process can take a while.
And the problem with this is that the voice control functions won't let you call someone from your address book until your contacts have synced up. So if you're running down the shops and need to call home to check if you need milk, it may be easier to wait until you get there.
Given Android's native address book and calling functions, this seems like a fairly simple oversight.
Despite the fact the Asteroid Smart runs Android as its core operating system, Parrot has done a lot of work with the user interface to make it easier to control when behind the wheel.
Two rows of three icons adorn the home screen with multiple home screens on offer. Some apps, like TuneIn Radio, offer widgets as well, although they do require the internet connection to update, which isn't always practical.
Down the left hand side of the screen runs five dedicated soft buttons: Back, Home, Menu, Running apps and Volume. The icons are lifted straight from Android, and are instantly familiar, which is helpful for navigation.
Icons on the home screen can be organised by the user, and though there's no option for folders on the screen, you can pop your most used apps on the home screen to have them easily accessible for when you start the car.
As mentioned earlier, the Smart system also includes the option for steering wheel controls, although actual installation of the system was interesting.
According to the installer, most steering wheel units use simple tones to dictate the controls of different buttons on the steering wheel. The Parrot Unika system uses its own method of communication, which is different for every vehicle the Smart system is installed in.
After three trips to the installer, they finally managed to get the system to work. And work it did, right up until the point a software update was released for both the Smart and the Unika steering wheel controls.
Since then, the system has a tendency to reset the steering wheel controls to "Off" every time the car is switched off. It's easy to switch them back on through the settings menu, but it's a three step process that is often more trouble than it's worth for short trips.
Hopefully bugs like this will be worked out for the next software update, but it is frustrating.
Voice Controls and Apps
With laws coming into effect all around the world banning the use of mobile phones while driving, the prospect of controlling your phone with the power of your voice is an enticing one.
Parrot has opted to use its own voice recognition technology in the Asteroid Smart, which is isn't necessarily a bad thing, but does mean that you don't get the advantages of having Google-driven services like Google Now included in the unit.
Voice controls on the Smart can be used to control two main functions of the device - calling contacts or searching for music.
Both work the same way: You select the voice control app on the Smart's screen, then opt for either music or contacts and speak your desired person or song after the beep.
If you happen to have steering wheel controls, you can have a button dedicated to activating the voice control function. Although which app it controls using this method appears to be completely random.
The results are simultaneously good and bad. For searching contacts, we found the Smart relatively accurate. Occasionally it would pull something way out from left field, but for the most part, it delivered the desired contact to the 6.2-inch screen.
Music was a different beast altogether, especially when paired to a third party app like Spotify. No matter what we searched for in Music, the results were spectacularly varied.
The catch with the voice control functions is the time it takes to boot up. As mentioned previously, having to wait for your address book to sync in order to make a call is a serious design flaw, and one we hope is fixed in future updates.
The Google Play Store has hundreds of thousands of apps, all ready to take advantage of the power of the Android device in your hand. The Parrot Asteroid system, despite its Android core, has between about 15 and 50, depending on what part of the world you're accessing it from.
In Australia, where we tested, there are currently 18 apps available for the Asteroid Smart. The vast majority of those are GPS-based, offering either navigation or other information based on your present location.
The system comes pre-loaded with the iGo navigation software, which does a reasonable job of getting you where you need to go.
While it's not as clean or fast as some of the latest dedicated sat navs from Tomtom or Garmin, the Smart does come with the option to buy completely different navigation software through the Asteroid Market, including TomTom's own mapping software.
The other apps are largely entertainment based, offering services like Spotify and TuneIn Radio, although there are email and Facebook clients as well.
It is largely a tough market for Parrot to crack. The potential for a vibrant marketplace is there, but until the Asteroid ecosystem is more common place, there's no real incentive for developers to bring their apps to the platform.
While we understand the restrictions on the platform - in order to prevent drivers slingshotting their car into incoming traffic while playing a quick game of Angry Birds in traffic - the limitations on the apps available is seriously disappointing.
Even apps like Pandora, which you would expect to be common place, are nowhere to be found. Other opportunities, like an app that reads you text messages and lets you compose your responses verbally, aren't available on the platform.
That's not to say that they won't some day appear, but when it comes to paying out a grand or so to install one of these systems and you don't get as much functionality as sticking your smartphone onto a dashboard mount, it's somewhat disappointing.
That said, there are plenty of things that the Smart does offer that a standard smartphone can't. While we didn't test it, the Android in-car system can control a reversing camera, as well as power multiple screens, allowing you to shut up the kids behind you by giving them their own videos to watch while you listen to death metal in the front of the car.
There's also control over the car's speaker system, with spatial awareness to mix just the right levels for the people in the vehicle.
Make no mistake - there's potential in the Parrot ecosystem, but as yet, it's sadly unfulfilled.
There's something of an unpolished beauty in the Asteroid Smart. It has the promise of a smartly connected device, powered by an intelligent operating system that lets you stay connected in the car.
But the implementation is still a bit buggy, and the ecosystem of apps is still paltry compared to the app stores for mobile platforms. Admittedly, it's a chicken and egg problem, and one that can only improve as time goes on for Parrot, but still a frustration for a product that costs around a grand.
The good news is that there isn't a single complaint we have about this product that can't be fixed with a firmware update or an incentive for developers to get on board the platform.
The bad news is that both of those things are going to take time, especially given the relative newness of the Asteroid platform.
The comprehensive connectivity options on the Asteroid Smart are a welcome addition to any vehicle.
While most new cars these days offer iPod connectivity and Bluetooth hands-free, having the ability to connect multiple phones simultaneously, while switching between SD card, USB storage and a dedicated iPod is great.
The ability to offer regular firmware updates is also welcome.
Apps, apps, our kingdom for more apps. While some enterprising young chaps have worked out how to root the device to give access to the Google Play store, we just wish Parrot would offer more incentives for developers to get on board.
The fact there's no Pandora app for example, which is available in more than 2.5 million cars around the world, is a clear indicator that Parrot could be doing more to get more apps on its platform.
Also frustrating is the bugginess that saw the steering wheel controls deactivate themselves every time the car is switched off following a firmware update. Hopefully that problem gets remedied with the next update.
But when all is said and done, if you are looking for a smart option for in-car entertainment that allows you to get and stay connected to the internet while driving, this is a decent option.
Sure, you'll pay for the experience and you may find elements slightly underwhelming, but given time, the potential for the Asteroid Smart to grow is huge.
Whether it actually does live up to that potential... well, let's just see how much love Parrot invests in the platform, shall we?