Why Android Auto may not be worth the wait (yet)

Limited apps and software, combined with a mediocre messaging experience shows that Google still has some work to do with Android Auto.

The battlefront for mobile platforms is hitting the road, literally.

Later this year, vehicles from more than two dozen brands will offer in-car systems built on both Android and iOS. One car, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata, already has Android Auto as an option and Ars Technica's Ron Amadeo took it for a test drive.

The early verdict? Nicer than the standard car-maker's info-tainment system but still very much a beta experience and very limited, suggesting Google has work to do yet.

For starters, it might surprise you that the implementation found on the Sonata is based on Android 2.3 Gingerbread software. Google launched Gingerbread in December 2010, so it's fairly limited compared to the latest and greatest version of Android.

How so? Amadeo notes that this version of Android Auto only supports screen resolutions of 800 x 480, for example, making it feel like "a crappy 2011 Android tablet." Voice control doesn't yet sound as good as it is on handsets either.

The interface is also limited, but that's by design. Google isn't yet allowing any phone app to work with the in-car system. At the moment, only 17 Play Store apps are compatible with Android Auto and they're based on messaging and media activities.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. From a safety perspective, you really don't want immersive experiences on the dashboard when you're driving. Media apps such as Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn, Google Play Music and the like make sense here.

Personally, I'm not too keen on the supported messaging apps. Do we need Skype, WhatsApp, and Google Hangouts to take our attention away from the road? Google must think so because they -- and many other similar apps -- are on the supported app list. Even there, there's work to be done though, according to Amadeo.

Incoming texts are read aloud by Android Auto but without any context:

"It's also hard to not feel like an idiot when you tap on a message and get "New Message: OK."--we really can't see text even for really short messages? And remember, with no text, there's no message history and no context. So when you get that inevitable "OK" message, you'd better remember what your last conversation with that person was about."

And you'd better hope nobody sends you a text message with a link while you're driving. The system will read the link aloud character by character.

On the plus side, key functionality such as Maps works as well as you'd expect, and it adds a satellite view while driving; something Maps on a phone doesn't offer to those who want it.

Even so, Android Auto still sounds like a very limited, version 1.0 software product.

Will it get better over time? Very likely, yes, as Google removes some developer limitations -- apps can only focus on messages and media for now -- and as the platform matures.

Much of that maturity can come in the form of software updates; good since software can be changed far faster than hardware in vehicles that have a yearly refresh cycle. Even so, based on the early look, it sounds like you're betting on the future of Android Auto now rather than getting a compelling experience on day one.

Don't forget also that the phone you connect to the car for Android Auto requires Android 5.0 software or better; if you don't have one, your Android Auto experience will stall out before you even start the car.