Pioneer announces AppRadio iPhone in-car unit

Thanks to things like GPS apps and large music collections on our iOS devices, iPods/iPhones and cars go hand-in-hand these days. On Wednesday, Pioneer Electronics announced what it hopes will be the next stage of in-car connectivity—the AppRadio, an in-dash system that can display iOS apps on its screen.

I got a chance to play with a demo unit at a press briefing Wednesday at the W Hotel in San Francisco.

The AppRadio features an 800-by-480-pixel, 6.1-inch capacitive touchscreen display (Pioneer says this is the first after-market system to use the type of display you’ll find on an iOS device) and volume up, volume down, and home hardware buttons. When you connect an iPhone 4 or fourth-generation iPod touch to the unit’s 30-pin dock connector cable, you not only get access to the music on it, but also to some of your apps.

I say some because Pioneer has worked closely with a few app makers, who’ve updated their apps specifically to work the head unit. As of Wednesday, those apps are Inrix Traffic, Pandora Radio, Rdio, and MotionX GPS Drive (representatives from those companies were on hand to demo their apps).

Pioneer also supports the built-in Maps app, and the company hopes to add more apps by the time the product launches in June, as well as after launch. A free Pioneer AppRadio app enables access to the iPhone or iPod touch’s data and connectivity.

In playing with the apps, I found that the larger screen made using them much easier. With the Inrix app, for example, I could scroll through maps with my finger and pinch to zoom in and out (just as with an iOS device). And you can start using an app in your house—choose a route in MotionX or start playing music in Pandora or Rdio—and then plug in and continue what you were doing in the car.

For safety reasons, Pioneer only plans to allow certain apps to display and work on the AppRadio. Also, certain features of apps are disabled, such as the search function on Pandora. It was unclear whether disabled features are the decision of Pioneer, app makers, or both (one company told me Pioneer locked out a feature, while another said it came up with the features to disable).

And strangely, the way apps work with the AppRadio doesn’t seem to have been standardized. With three of the apps, the iOS screen turns into a Pioneer splash screen when you launch an app. But with MotionX, the iOS screen stays active and can display items and information that the AppRadio screen currently doesn’t. Also, to switch from one app to another requires you to tap its icon on the iPhone or iPod touch itself, which detracts somewhat from the idea of safety that Pioneer talked a lot about.

The AppRadio with MotionX GPS Drive app.

The AppRadio also offers AM/FM radio, and access to the music on your device. For the iPod function, there are on-screen buttons that let you scroll though your artists, albums, playlists, and so on. If you hold down a button, it will scroll fast and display the letter of the alphabet you’re currently scrolling past. When you play music, you’ll see a track’s metadata, as well as album art, on the screen.

There’s also built-in Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free calling (the kit includes a microphone) and Pioneer told me that all of your iPhone contacts will display on the screen.

Besides the dock connector, there are two additional inputs on the unit. One is for an optional rear camera that will display on the screen when you’re backing up the car, the other is for wired remote control to allow the built-in buttons on many steering wheels to control the AppRadio’s volume and tracks.

The AppRadio should be available in late June, at a price Pioneer will only describe as “below $500”—I’m betting on $499.99.

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