Today we’re taking a look at something a bit different. The
CarDongle USB dongle brings some great features to your car, even if you don’t have a compatible mobile device. It’s a USB plug-in device that interfaces with your cars stereo, powered by the mini-pc enclosed in the tiny device.
We’ve had one for a couple of weeks now and testing it has been interesting. There’s a couple of false starts along the way, discovering that not all stereos are compatible.
What is it?
The device itself is a 2Ghz processor with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. On the storage, you’ve got an Android 9 operating system with support for Android Auto. If the 64GB of storage isn’t enough, the device does have a MicroSD card slot for further storage if you’re regularly out of range for mobile reception.
Other features include GPS, Wi-Fi connectivity and Bluetooth 5 which give you the tools you need to make the CarDongle a really useful tool, not just for entertainment. What impressed me more than the feature set was that it just works…
How does it work?
When you boot it up you’ll need to wait a couple of minutes for it to boot, but then you’ll be greeted with the boot screen on your stereo. Once booted, you’ll have the landing screen in front of you which includes the Play Store to install any app you want to for productivity or media consumption.
As part of my testing, I hooked up the unit to my PC into a USB port and Mirroid. It was here I set up the apps I wanted to use, entered the settings required to connect to my mobile phone hotspot and added the accounts I needed to have access to my data.
The interface once loaded reminds me a lot of Apple CarPlay in that it’s very focused on one-touch access to apps. Versus Android Auto that automatically loads maps immediately, with easy access to your chosen music app. That is a conscious decision from the development team though because it’s not really Android Auto you’re looking at, it’s Android with the ability to use almost any app you like.
The user experience
Once I got it running (as earlier mentioned, my car stereo isn’t compatible) the user experience was excellent. The easiest way to describe it is the CarDongle turns your car stereo into an Android Tablet. Using apps is almost exactly the experience you would expect from the previous statement.
Interfacing is smooth and quick, the apps load remarkably quickly and because there’s plenty of processing power in the CarDongle; video playback is so much better than I expected. In fact, I’d say that the video playback is only really limited by the quality of the screen you’re using.
If you’re looking for navigation options, they’re there too with the unit capable of running Google Maps, Waze or any other Android-based navigation app. The CarDongle has a built-in GPS antenna that feeds the necessary data into the software for navigating, but — more on this shortly — this is one area where, depending on your car and stereo mounting option, may create some issues for you.
If you’re using this in your car, aside from navigation, media is likely to be your main use. During our testing, we tried a number of media — both music and video — streaming apps. This covered YouTube Music, Spotify, YouTube, Netflix and Disney Plus. Of all of these apps, despite some reasonably significant time testing, I can’t fault it. Playback started nearly instantly after selecting a song or video. Video playback was so smooth, with no artifacts or buffering (that is, of course, dependent on your mobile network) making it just surprisingly good to use.
I will add that the testing of video playback was completed with the vehicle parked, off of the road or with me in the passenger seat. This leads me to some issues with the CarDongle and some specific concerns around the legality of using some of its features on Australian roads.
Limitations and legal worries
There are a few limitations of this system and they’re based on the hardware setup. One that really caught me by surprise is how long the GPS takes to start working. When I first used it, the device seemed to think I was in the far North of South Australia, with a near 7-hour drive to get home. I was actually only around 10 minutes from home at the time, so that delay in initiating the GPS could be very frustrating for many buyers.
Now, fraught with danger is a setting that you’ll need to change if you want to use maps, but it opens you up to potential issues with the law. Maps register as a video when you’re using it so as a default, your screen will continually go black every few minutes, requiring you to touch the screen to wake it up. This same setting prevents users from letting YouTube or Netflix videos play while driving.
From one standpoint, I get that because videos pose a potential distraction to the driver and lead me to the concern of legal worries. Dependent on the state you’re in, there are different laws around mobile phone use and “driver distraction”.
Regardless of your location, the underlying consideration is the driver keeping their eyes on the road: So restricting video usage while the vehicle is in motion makes perfect sense.
We cannot overstate this enough: Watching videos while you are driving is illegal and incredibly dangerous. If you decide to purchase a CarDongle device for your vehicle, it’s a great feature but do NOT use the video feature while driving!
Conclusion: It’s interesting and it’s functional, but will it sell?
This is a really interesting product and in a limited market, I believe it will sell. The issue in my eyes is that the market is so limited. Unless someone wants to get more from Android Auto that they’re not already getting, then there really isn’t an advantage to having the CarDongle in your car. In fact, by not plugging your phone in you’ll lose little top-ups of battery that could affect your daily use patterns.
If perhaps you’re still on an old phone that really doesn’t perform well with Android Auto, has another branded phone without support, or even a candy bar and are happy with that then the CarDongle could be a very good solution to your needs. It really does accomplish a lot in such a small package, even adding to the entertainment experience in your vehicle. This is a really interesting, somewhat innovative product but you need to be really careful of the legalities of its use.