It's fair to say that most car stereo systems are very basic in the extreme – most will play the radio, a CD and, if you're lucky, offer iPod connectivity, but that's usually where their sophistication ends. Parrot, makers of everything from flying toy quadrocopters to Bluetooth headsets is on a mission to drag car stereos into the 21st century with its ambitiously futuristic Asteroid range.
We recently got the chance to fondle its flagship Asteroid Smart system, double DIN head unit that slots into the 180x100mm slot on your dashboard (that's the slightly larger type you get on most new cars). The unit, which features a 6.2-inch capacity screen and a Google Android-based operating system, promises to deliver a tablet-like experience in the car, eclipsing the limited functionality offered by most of its rivals.
It is, in essence, a tablet for your car. It will play AM, FM and USB audio like any other car stereo (it won't play CDs or DAB radio) but is also capable of playing video files, accessing the Internet and running specially-developed apps via the Asteroid Market.
The apps shown to us in our hands-on demo were limited in number but broad in functionality. There's a calculator, calendar, clock and photo gallery, for instance. The system also features a host of Internet-enabled apps, which can be accessed by connecting a WiFi dongle or mobile phone to one of the unit's three USB ports, or by connecting to a mobile phone functioning as a WiFi hotspot.
With this, you can access a Web browser, email client and Internet radio via 3G or 4G, though the reliability of these apps depends entirely on the reliability of your Web connection. In typical fashion, our primary and backup Internet connection (via two separate mobile phones) proved unreliable during our brief test period so we were unable to test the online functionality for ourselves. Your mileage will vary.
Mobile phone connectivity is one of the Parrot Asteroid Smart's key strengths. The unit is able to pair with up to 10 separate mobile phones via Bluetooth, two of which can be connected simultaneously. This is a brilliant feature, as it eliminates the need for a driver and passenger to argue over who has their mobile phone connected.
We were less impressed by the integrated sat-nav functionality. The unit ships with a GPS dongle to provide guidance, but you'll want to buy yourself a proper TomTom as it doesn't provide turn-by-turn navigation, just a list of instructions you'll need to repeatedly consult.
It's worth noting that we spotted some strange glitches with its graphical user interface such as pop-up menus persisting on the display when they were supposed to have disappeared after use, and a failure to connect to WiFi networks when asked. None of this was helped by the fact the system uses a positively elderly version of Android, 2.3, when the OS is currently in its fourth generation.
Ultimately, we left our hands-on test of the Asteroid Smart feeling the system offered huge potential. It falls short of the experience you'll get on a traditional handheld tablet, but there's a definite benefit in being able to surf the Internet, listen to Web radio, and access apps on the move. It offers a better experience than the vast majority of car steroes on the market, but we couldn't help but feeling we should wait for an in-car mount for the iPad Mini.
The Asteroid Smart will be available in November, priced at £538.