Thursday, April 16, 2015

Android Mirror

Over most of he last year I have been hearing about "Android Auto". Android Auto is supposed to be a smart head unit for your car. By smart head unit, it will use your phone for the brains but the controls will appear on the car display. Big buttons in easy reach, helping drivers keep their eyes on the road. It is a smart idea. It won't be available for a few more months though.

I've seen head units running Android on ebay for most of the last year, as well. I keep thinking that I would get one. These units were $130-$180 last fall, but now they are over $200. It is weird, I've seen an Ouku unit that looks the same, if it is running WinCE it is about $100, but put android on it and it cost $250.  Other brands are similar, the WinCE unit is about half the price as the Android loaded device. The reviews on these head units make them seem not quite ready for average users. The commands are complicated, and loading apps is hit and miss.

Then I saw a unique device. A rear view mirror with about a third of the glass reserved for an LCD display. Some of these are running Android. It seemed curious, because, again it keeps the eyes looking forward, and provides useful information. The fun part is, they are only about $100, well within my lets try it budget.

Some of the advertised features include, dash camera records out the window based on pressing a button, or G forces. (good for presenting the insurance company evidence that person did cut you off), rear view camera included, GPS stereo speakers, bluetooth and an FM transmitter.

The blob hanging from the mirror is the forward dash cam. This can be turned up to 350degrees for recording inside the car as well as out the front. I find out the front is probably the best place to point it. There are microphones in the mirror to pick up in the car sounds. The recordings have both sound and video.


The box is a fine, kind of modern magnet clasp unit, with an over wrapper. Inside there is a vacuformed holder for the mirror, and underneath are the extra cables. Cables included a car adapter, GPS antenna, a USB OTG cable and the rear view camera. There is a minimal manual included.

The mirror has a series of buttons and jacks around it. There are the normal power and volume buttons, as well as a physical back button, camera button and another button that I don't know what it does. The jacks are labeled, (but wrong; the labeled headphone jack is the GPS antenna jack). The power jack is a mini-USB connector. To get the rear view camera to a usable location, will take some work to run the wire.

Powering it up

I pressed the power button, and it started with an Android robot, then switched to a lens with a moving road. Once the android environment is going, the voice says "Application Started, Have a Nice Trip". I plugged in the car adapter, since I didn't know the state of the battery. The LED on the adapter didn't light up, no amount of twisting or wiggling it would make that turn on. Eventually I found out this adapter was defective. I wanted to keep my dual USB adapter in my car anyway, so I found another USB A to mini cable, and it was charging.

The initial display is a strange GUI menu thing. It seems to make sense and probably kinda easy to keep eyes on the road. The dash cam is still the predominant menu selection, the maps are at the top, FM transmitter, in the next column is the clock, an audio player, and a gallery for the videos. The lower center selection is the Android system selection, allowing access to the android app selection.

The built in apps include Google Play, along with calculator, settings, and the custom apps, GUI, and dash cam. There is a GPS tester app,  and just a couple other apps. The Google Play store started as an older app, but does get an update shortly after a bit. The start-up seemed a little slow, but I think it was updating various apps and services.

Once I turned on WiFi, it was able to connect to my home internet from the driveway. I downloaded the Google Maps app, and a podcast app. I found the maps app will need full time WiFi connections. I tried to download the Nokia Maps app, but didn't find it. The Nokia Maps app will contain offline maps and directions. I downloaded some other app, that seems to work. With the GPS plugged in, it seems to work very well.

The GPS will also allow setting the time. The GPS is very accurate time, and should be used whenever possible. (see this post to know how GPS use time to know where it is).

The FM transmitter seems very straightforward. There is an on/off icon in the upper left. When turned on, the frequency arrows and volume settings become active. The FM transmitter relies on the USB cable for an antenna, so if the unit isn't charging, it won't let the FM transmitter turn on. Sometimes the transmitter UI shows it is on, and all, but the radio doesn't receive anything. The only thing I have seen will fix this is waiting a little while and try again.

There are built in speakers, and they are almost loud enough to use while driving. They are no very Hi-Fi, very tinny. Actually the FM transmitter is a little toward the tinny side as well, music doesn't have much bass.

The specs are odd. Not bad, but not what one might expect out of a tablet or phone. The battery is only 800ma. 800ma isn't bad, since the unit needs to be plugged into the car to use the FM transmitter. There is no LTE or other phone radios, it would be handy, but not needed with a little planning. I have been downloading podcasts evenings and that is keeping things full. The processor isn't working too hard just doing video or audio, and of course isn't very powerful. Switching between apps is slow, but while driving, I don't switch much.

There is an SD card slot. The videos are saved to the SD card. The video seems to be recording always, but not saved unless you press a button. I showed up at work the other day, and there some turkeys in the parking lot. I tried to record them, so I pressed the record. When I played the video back, it actually started probably a minute before I actually pressed record. I think that is planned, for the accident recording.

The display is not bad, except at night because it is bright, there doesn't seem to be an auto dim. Leaving the display on, during the day doesn't seem to be an issue, and I am still able to see behind me in the mirror. The mirror itself isn't as bright at the stock mirror, probably because the whole glass has the same reflective as the display area. At night it is important to turn off the display. The first button on the left is the power, and is easy to manage.

In the mornings I press the power button, and press play on the podcast app. The podcasts start where I left off last night, then I press power to stop turn off the display. When I get to work, I press power, the pause in  podcast app, and power.  Occasionally I have to set the state this way or that if I want to use another feature. The audio player app in the GUI will usually let me use those controls to run the podcast player.

I will be honest, and was ready to return the whole mess the first couple days I had it. There were a few items that just seemed that I wasn't going to be able to make simple. Once I stopped playing with it, and just doing the fun basic stuff it works just fine.  

About Device: (from about tablet in settings)
Model Number:  SoftwinerCvr
Android Version: 4.0.4
Baseband version: v2.0
Kernel version: 3.0.8
Build number: crane_cvr-eng 4.0.4 IMM76D 20140819 test-keys

I think it is a good first try. Room for improvement, but there is a lot here. If the software is updated, I think this could be a popular item.

Another review here.

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