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AutoMate (Beta) Review: The unofficial Android Auto

Can free app AutoMate (Beta) give you the 'smart car' experience?

When Google announced Android Auto last June, it caused a stir. The ability to view useful info and all your Android notifications, cast from a smartphone, on a car dashboard screen holds obvious appeal.

However, at the time of writing, there’s still no current car model that supports the system, so the only way to use it is by forking out at least £700/$1,000 for a compatible Pioneer head unit. Therefore, it’s no wonder that many Android owners were asking why the Android Auto system couldn’t simply be run on a phone or tablet mounted on the dashboard.

Step forward AutoMate, an unofficial alternative app that aims to solve the problem. Currently in public beta, it can be downloaded via the developer’s Google+ community page: Since AutoMate needs access to the system and other apps, it requires a long list of permissions, along with full notifications access.

Upon launching, you’ll notice that the user interface looks very similar to that of Android Auto. It has a simple, clean design with a row of icons at the bottom – for Maps, Phone, Home, Music and Shortcuts. The main part of the screen is used to display information and notifications on Google Now-style cards. By default, the top card shows the date, battery percentage and speed (in mph or km/h). The weather card gave us conditions for Toronto at first, but a quick tap refreshed the data and switched it to our location. Other cards pop up to show various notifications, such as calls and SMS messages – just tap the card to respond. One limitation is that it only works with the default SMS app, so not Hangouts or Whatsapp etc. It doesn’t yet support calendar events either, although that’s in the pipeline.

Tapping the Phone icon brings up a stock-style screen with favourite contacts plus icons for call log, dialler and contacts list. The Music icon starts the default player, which can be switched via the left menu, with artwork, info and playback controls. Tapping the Maps icon brings up Google Maps; due to Google restrictions, using turn-by-turn navigation switches you out into that app, but it’s not a big problem and you still get voice directions when in AutoMate. The Shortcuts icon shows any apps you’ve added to this screen, plus an interactive status bar for Bluetooth, screen brightness, rotation lock and Wi-Fi.

AutoMate’s voice command system is useful for when you’re driving; after tapping the mic icon, you can issue commands such as ‘play next track’ and ‘directions to nearest hospital’. However, this feature is still in early development and proved buggy in practice.

While it has some limitations, AutoMate offers myriad settings, including an option to have incoming SMS messages read out. You can also get AutoMate to start up automatically when connected to a certain Bluetooth device. A few premium options, including using AutoMate as the phone launcher, are unlocked via a £2.53/$3.17 IAP.