The AppRadio 4 (SPH-DA120) has been Pioneer’s ‘go to’ headunit for people seeking an Apple CarPlay enabled receiver, whilst on a budget. Currently retailing at £299 in the UK ($429 US) the AppRadio 4 is in the same league as Alpine’s later released iLX-700 (iLX-007 in the US) and the newly announced system releasing early this year from JBL, the Legend C1000, which is rumoured to cost a wallet-friendly $399. But is the AppRadio 4 the best ‘budget’ CarPlay receiver out there? Let’s find out…
Out of the box it is clear that Pioneer has chosen to mimic the look of Apple’s iOS devices. With its silver edge rimmed bezel design, the AppRadio 4 carries a close resemblance to an Apple iPad. The glass-fronted display houses a 6.2-inch capacitive touch-screen, with a resolution of 800×480 – similar to both the Alpine and JBL headunits, and most other headunits selling in 2016 come to think of it.
Compared to the Alpine the AppRadio 4 has a smaller screen size, which is due to the left edge of the bezel being slightly thicker, to accommodate a handful of touch-sensitive function buttons. A ‘home’ function button is placed in the middle of the pack, with the upper half housing volume buttons. The lower half features a ‘mode’ button to switch between App and AV screens and below this you’ll find the seek/skip forward and back buttons. Just like the Alpine, these buttons are also touch-sensitive buttons, so they are not the kind of buttons you physically have to depress down – meaning you’ll need to de-glove in the winter if you want to operate these buttons.
Around the back Pioneer has given us a generous line-up of ports, including: external GPS antenna, 2x USB ports, 1x HDMI port, backup camera port, power amp ports, rear seat audio, RGB port, Sirius XM port, iDatalink port, external microphone port, car antenna input port, an external remote port, the usual power supply/cable loom socket and both front and rear speaker connections. The AppRadio 4 is certainly feature packed for a ‘budget’ receiver, and it will allow you many media options, all of which I’ll touch on later.
Powering up the Pioneer you’re taken to its main home screen. In today’s age of digital displays and tough-screens, I think it is now time for Pioneer to heavily invest some time in this area. For me, their current menu screens feel somewhat archaic. It’s practically ancient now, in its design, and it oozes that ‘boy racer’ style and doesn’t carry the sophistication that Apple has ushered into our lives and will be something iOS owners will be accustomed to. Navigating through the menus can feel you’re physically running through a mental mind maze, regularly finding yourself taking the wrong turn and ending up at a dead end.
Interface & Apple CarPlay
The real reason you’re here though is CarPlay isn’t it? So let me tell you all about that…
It is worth highlighting that CarPlay is an evolving software platform that lives on your Apple iOS device, not in the receiver itself. So whichever aftermarket receiver you choose to install in your vehicle, the OS experience will be the same throughout – Don’t let any dealer tell you otherwise!
We will see over many days, months and years, Apple’s CarPlay experience continually evolving via regular iOS updates. The same can be said with CarPlay compatible applications on your iOS device, these too will have intermittent updates from its developers that will usher new features, improvements and functionality to their CarPlay experience.
I will not report on CarPlay itself on the Pioneer because, what is written today can change or could be improved upon next month with software updates, so be sure to read our other articles for opinions on Apple CarPlay OS, its app updates and changes to Apple’s CarPlay platform with each new iOS update.
The AppRadio 4’s interface features menus, upon menus; a sea of buttons and options litter the front screen from the very start, all begging for your attention, and with no clear winner. Thankfully, with an iOS device connected, a ‘CarPlay’ option sits prominently in to top corner of the front screen, so Apple users can dive right in and feel right at home with Apple’s ‘clean and simple’ user interface. MirrorLink is also here, should you have a non-Apple device.
CarPlay on the Pioneer AppRadio 4 is as it is on most enabled receivers. The capacitive screen helps with scrolling and interaction with the CarPlay interface is fairly responsive and on par with the Alpine, and like the Alpine, changing the location of the CarPlay side bar is done via the settings menu. One major criticism I have, is when connecting the iPhone you always get a disclaimer screen that you have to interact with to start using CarPlay. You don’t get this with the Alpine and it is unknown why Pioneer has to put you through this jarring process, every time you fire up Apple’s in-car platform.
Without a CD/DVD drive, you’re limited to radio and media over USB or HDMI, but by simply connecting your smartphone to the AppRadio 4, it will bring new life into the headunit, with the possibility of feeding it a variety of your own content, not only through Apple’s CarPlay platform or MirrorLInk, but with your device connected, applications such as Apple Music, Spotify or Pandora can be played through the receivers own audio player. This is great if you find CarPlay’s crashing a real burden from time to time, and it’s a nice way to have something a bit more stable to use until Apple iron out all the niggles that its CarPlay platform can bring!
Wireless Bluetooth Audio
If wireless CarPlay is a requirement, you will not find it here in the AppRadio 4; but there is an alternative option that the Alpine’s iLX-700 severely misses out on, and that is built-in Bluetooth. Once paired, the audio from your smartphone can be beamed into your car’s speakers, without a cable in sight! OK, so you will not get what Apple is promising with its wireless CarPlay, but audio is all you need 99% of the time in the car, and the AppRadio 4 allows you to do this over its competition in the same price range. Bluetooth audio can be controlled via its built-in music player, with music meta-data such as title, artist, album name and genre being populated into the player’s interface. Navigating through tracks is then done either on the device, via the controls on the headunit or by your own steering wheel interface controls (if compatible).
Customisation is important to many of us when it comes to in-car systems, and the AppRadio 4 has a number of features to help it blend into your car interior’s environment. By entering the ‘Themes’ area in the settings menu, you can choose from a variety of backgrounds, including a way to add your own images from a USB drive. In the ‘Illumination’ area, you can select from a few key colours that will change the colour of the touch-sensitive buttons on the side of the headunit. If you can’t find the right colour to match your interior you can enter the colour wheel and select any colour you desire. Over in the ‘Themes’ sub area, you can choose from a small selection of colours that change the interface colour scheme of the home area of the display. And finally, in the ‘Splash Screen’ section you can change the start up screen of the headunit. Once again, you can add your own image here by plugging in a USB drive and selecting your launch image of choice.
Many Media Options
This Pioneer packs a number of media options that out paces its ‘budget’ rivals. With its two USB ports, you’ll have one spare port to connect a USB drive with a whole host of files you can throw at this headunit. Want to watch DivX, H.264, MPEG4 and MKV video? Sure, you can do that using the built in media player. Want to have a slideshow of images/photos? Well, you can do that too! If you have an alternative video source; via the HDMI port at the back, you can plug this source in and have its content display on the AppRadio 4’s screen.
Like other CarPlay compatible receivers, the AppRadio 4 also supports backup camera input. By simply connecting up to your car’s backup camera, the receiver will show its rear-view video feed on the display along with parking assist guidelines. This is coming pretty standard in media receivers these days.
For audiophiles, the AppRadio 4 offers a number of features and modes to cater for your critical ears. Pre-set and customisable equalisers allow you achieve the type of sound you want, however if you’re on the lazy side, you can plug in a microphone and let the Auto EQ measure your vehicle’s acoustics and adjust the receiver’s audio levels automatically to suit your car’s interior.
Another common feature found in Pioneer’s headunits is MIXTRAX – a technology that creates non-stop mixes of selections from your audio library, complete with DJ effects that make your music sound as if a DJ is sitting in the back seat. This is a particular feature that I don’t see ever using on the AppRadio 4. With most of my own music streamed from Spotify, it rules out any chances of a local library of music files that this feature needs, however if you want to entertain your passengers with flashy graphics and a customised DJ experience, then MIXTRAX might be for you – glow sticks not included.
Let’s Wrap Up
With very few CarPlay enabled budget receivers on the market, the choice of getting Apple in your car for under £400 is fairly limited. So which should you buy? Well that depends on your wants and desires, as well as what media sources you plan on connecting to it. The Pioneer has a great list of connections, the best in fact, for its price. With two USB ports, you have the opportunity to have a fixed connection for your iPhone whilst having the ability to connect additional media, such as video and image files. The HDMI port opens up many more media possibilities in the car and the equaliser and visual customisation options will please many.
For me though, even with all these media source options, I would still go back to my Alpine iLX-700. Why? We’ll, all I want to do is just connect my iPhone and use CarPlay, and with its slightly bigger screen, the Alpine feels and looks better in the car in my opinion. CarPlay already uses up the side of the screen with its interface ‘side dock’ bar, so having a wider display reduces the hit caused by Apple’s user interface – I really don’t see the point in reducing the user experience even more with these 6.2” headunits.
My instant reaction, when turning on the Pioneer, was that the screen felt lower in quality. The pixels on CarPlay icons looked more pixelated than on the Alpine, even though both displays share the same resolution of 800×480, and the Alpine’s display is bigger.
This resolution is criminal in this day and age of high DPI retina displays, and it is something I feel that ALL manufactures should catch up on – even $1000+ CarPlay units carry this same resolution, and it shows, badly.
One killer feature that the AppRadio 4 has over the Alpine, is its Bluetooth audio streaming support. This simple feature, found in most headunits today (apart from the Alpine!), opens the ability to stream audio wirelessly, for that short trip home and without the need to take the phone out of your pocket, or allow your passengers in the car to become the DJ during your trip.
So it all crunches down to your own preferences really. If pimping your display with the right colour scheme floats your boat, or you see yourself playing movies or flicking through images in your car a thing you’ll do quite often, or perhaps you can’t live without bluetooth audio streaming, then the AppRadio 4 is a very good deal for its price point and a very worthy ‘low-entry’ model into the Apple CarPlay ecosystem. But for me, there isn’t enough here to make we want to swap out my Alpine for the AppRadio 4, purely for its wider screen and no-frills ‘cleaner’ interface, it’s just a shame about the missing Bluetooth, that the AppRadio 4 has.