We are often asked ‘What is an Android Headunit?’ and it is not surprising that people are often confused due to the different systems available. The answer would be ‘A car headunit running the Android operating system’ but that doesn’t really cut through the confusion.
Made in China
Android headunit are made in China, there are huge factories devoted to making the components for these devices and more factories to put the parts together. Their full name is ‘Chinese Android Head units’, but we shorten that to just ‘Android Headunits’. The sheer volume of production and skill that the Chinese manufacturers have at making low cost electronics has given you the Android headunit and made it an affordable upgrade.
What the Android Headunit can do is very much like your phone and primarily it’s job is to install and run APPs or APKs. The same apps you have on your phone, top examples are Google Maps, Waze, Nexflix, Spotify, but the list is virtually endless. All apps are available on the play store and often free. Coupled with some clever electronics there is an FM radio, a reversing camera input that switches automatically, USB ports for connecting additional modules, like a DAB+ radio, a TPMS, or a USB thumbdrive, but not limited to these. The main attraction of Android is that it’s currently being developed and there are new apps being made so the headunit has a huge range of current and updated apps to run.
What an Android headunit is NOT
An Android Headunit (or Chinese Android Headnuit to give its full name) in not an ‘Android Auto Headunit’. The Android Auto headunits are typically made in Japan and are built with high quality electronic components, but their operating system is very limited in the app department. Locked-down software and very few or no additional apps available mean that you are stuck with what the manufacturer wanted you to have, then ‘Android Auto’ is used to share your phone screen to the headunit for anything else. Basically, the app runs on your phone and the headunit becomes a screen. The advantage of this is to the manufacturer. They can offer support to their locked-down operating system more cheaply. But the main selling point of these is their higher quality; better sound quality, high build quality but with a price tag to match. If you think this is for you, then take a look at this Pioneer Android Auto on Amazon.
The may look identical but one can’t install apps from the play store?
Then you may be looking at a Windows CE device. (often called WINCE) it is microsofts abandoned attempt at a mobile operating system. The wince headunits can be indistinguishable from the android headunits until they are powered up. But android and Windows CE look and operate very differently, so it won’t take much to see that it isn’t android, particularly when it comes to installing an app, from google, it just won’t. This is where the frustration starts.
Typically, WINCE needs less RAM and a less powerful processor than an Android device does to run well. This advantage makes the costs of key components initially less, making the final product cheaper and this then starts to sound like an ideal situation…. the bargain has been found.
The problems with WINCE devices are that while they are cheap, very cheap and very tempting, there are no APKs for it and very few windows programs. Nothing new and certainly no android apps. WINCE will NOT run Google Maps, Waze or Spotify as apps and this is the problem. It becomes a carplay, android auto problem where your phone becomes the processor for apps and the headunit becomes a dumb screen. Windows CE devices look good on paper, are cheap but don’t do Android things.
The footnote is: If you bought a wince by mistake, maybe tempted by the price, can it be flashed or have a compatible version of android installed on it? The answer is… No.