The Asteroid, developed by French tech firm Parrot, is the world's first car stereo powered by Google's Android mobile operating system, most commonly seen on smart phones. This £300 device promises Internet connectivity, apps that make your journey cheaper and easier, and voice control -- hell, it'll even play the odd tune. Strap on your seatbelts, friends, the era of smart car stereos is upon us -- or is it? Here are our first impressions.
Look at me now
Many high-end after-market car stereos are gaudy, littered with enough flashing lights to induce an epileptic fit. The Asteroid has a very understated design, though, and it's a real looker as a result.
The layout is simple. The majority of its controls are positioned on the left, atop a removable fascia that, once disconnected and removed from the car, renders the stereo useless. The right side of the stereo houses a 3.2-inch, 262,144-colour TFT display.
Player for life
The Asteroid has a wealth of inputs, including four USB ports on the rear. One of these is reserved for playing music stored on a USB mass storage device, while another is intended for connecting a GPS module that's included in the box. The third is dedicated to connecting an iPhone or iPod, while the fourth is designed to accept a 3G modem. You'll have to supply the modem yourself, although an Internet connection can also be achieved by tethering your own mobile phone to the Asteroid via Bluetooth.
Connecting such devices to the rear of the Asteroid isn't very practical once it's nestling inside your dashboard, so Parrot has supplied a couple of USB extension cables, which you -- or your installer -- can route to your glove compartment or centre console.
The Asteroid is also capable of playing AM/FM radio and can stream music from a mobile phone or MP3 player via the Bluetooth A2DP protocol. Sadly, the unit doesn't include a CD player or a DAB radio receiver, which could prove slightly annoying when the UK inevitably migrates from analogue to digital radio broadcasts.
Twiddle the knob
Once installed, the Asteroid is relatively easy to use. Navigation is controlled not via the screen, but via the large circular knob to the left of the fascia, which users twist or push to move around and select menu options. Retreating to the home menu and going back a step are particularly straightforward, as Parrot's supplied the familiar home and back buttons seen on most Android mobile phones.
Parrot's also incorporated a voice-recognition feature. Tap the voice icon immediately to the left of the navigation knob, speak the name of an artist or album, and the system will begin playing the first song in the first listed playlist. The accuracy of the voice-recognition system is impressive, although you'll have to ensure there's nobody else talking in the car when you issue a verbal command, or the system will become confused.
Doing the robot justice
The Asteroid's Android operating system is its most exciting, yet also most disappointing, feature. The system ships with a paltry four apps, none of which set our pulses racing during our brief test.
Arguably, the most interesting app is Orange Liveradio, which provides access to thousands of radio stations and podcasts from around the world free of charge. Unfortunately, the service requires a stable 3G mobile signal. Getting one of those is difficult enough when you're standing still, let alone travelling in a car that's hurtling from base station to base station.
Parrot says the Asteroid is capable of buffering music when you're on the move, but Internet radio is still best reserved for use in the home when you have access to a stable broadband line.
The Asteroid's Maps application, which uses data from Google Maps, is fatally flawed -- it doesn't provide turn-by-turn directions. It's merely a tool that helps the user locate points of interest close to the vehicle.
Ask the app to find an Indian restaurant, for example, and it'll hunt down every tandoori outlet within a thousand paces. It'll even give you the address and, if you've paired your mobile phone over Bluetooth, will offer to dial the phone number. Ask the app to guide you to a restaurant, however, and the best it'll do is give you a list of directions, which is pretty shoddy considering Google Maps offers free turn-based navigation on Android mobile phones.
Subscribe or die
The two remaining apps, iCoyote and Fuel for Less, are only available for use with a subscription. The former identifies speed cameras along your route, while the latter compares the prices of petrol stations close to the vehicle, so the driver can refuel at the station offering the best deal.
Both are great ideas in principle but there are numerous free apps on the Android platform that perform these tasks without asking the user to fork out an annual fee.
The Asteroid's shortcomings could be overlooked if the system allowed users to download new apps from the Android Market, but, sadly, that's not the case. Parrot says the Market is off limits due to the unusual aspect ratio of the Asteroid's 3.2-inch display, and its lack of a physical keyboard. Those are pretty weak excuses.
Parrot says it's possible to add new apps via an SD memory card, but, at the time of writing, there were absolutely no new Asteroid-compatible apps available.
The company says it's trying to entice application developers to create new software for the Asteroid, but we're not holding our breath. We've seen countless Android-based devices ship without access to the Android Market and their app selection has always been pitiful.
The Parrot Asteroid's unique selling point is the fact it can run apps that could enrich your journey. Sadly, the limited number and questionable usefulness of the available apps makes this product difficult to recommend.
If you already have a smart phone, you'd be far better off using that with your existing stereo and a windscreen mount. Your phone will probably have a bigger screen and access to far more useful apps, and you could save yourself about £300 in the process.
Edited by Charles Kloet