My first Android phone, the original Motorola Droid, was one of the first phones to debut Google Maps Navigation. Now, Google knew that this feature would get drivers interested in using their Android phones in the car and that the tiny virtual buttons and shortcuts that worked well when the device was handheld wouldn't cut it behind the wheel. So, when users popped their Droids into their car docks, they were presented with a simplified interface with large shortcut buttons to car-centric apps, designed for safer use while driving.
Smartphones have come a long way since I retired my Droid, but -- with the exception of a few devices with customized OSes -- the Car Home feature has largely disappeared from newer Android phones. In a time where drivers are more concerned than ever about distraction behind the wheel, this is a shame.
Here's where the third-party steps in to help. We've rounded up a collection of our favorite dashboard apps that closely replicate (and in many cases, exceed) the functionally of that old Car Home app for both Android. We've also included a number of apps for iOS devices, which have never boasted such a car-specific feature.
Vlingo Virtual Assistant
Android, price: Free
Vlingo Virtual Assistant is one of my favorite apps for in-car use. When placed in its Vlingo InCar mode, the app listens for an activation phrase and responds to your voice commands without your ever having to actually touch your phone. Simply say, "Hey Vlingo, navigate home." or "Hey Vlingo, text Wayne, 'I'm going to be a bit late.'" to interact with your phone in the safest way possible. You can even ask Vlingo trivia like, "What's the capitol of California?" or "How tall is the Empire State Building?"
Android, price: $3.99 after 30-day free trial
CarHome Ultra hearkens back to the original Car Home mode that debuted as part of Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Firing up this app presents the user with large, easy to see, and tap shortcuts for functions commonly used while driving, such as Maps, Navigation, or Voice Search. Any of these buttons can be customized, so you can add shortcuts to Pandora or MOG, for example, if you're a heavy Internet radio listener. CarHome Ultra also features a Night Mode to reduce glare and can automatically disable your Wi-Fi and enable your Bluetooth when activated.
Android, price: $0.99 after 10-use free trial
CarWidget is a bit like a simpler, cheaper version of CarHome Ultra. This widget lives on your Android phone's home screen and presents six customizable shortcuts to car-centric apps such as Navigation, Phone, or your favorite music or podcast player. CarWidget can be set to automatically adjust your phone's settings when certain conditions are met -- such as pairing with your car's Bluetooth system -- to automatically disable Wi-Fi, disable the screen timeout, or adjust the volume levels for calls and media. This 4x4 widget takes up an entire homescreen, which could be problematic for some users.
Apple iOS, price: Free
Awesome HUD transforms your iPhone in a customizable GPS speedometer that also offers easily touchable shortcuts for control of your iPod music app. Put the Awesome HUD app into its HUD mode and place your phone screen up on the dashboard to see a head-up display reflected onto your car's windshield. This way, you can monitor your speed, direction, and drive time without taking your eyes off of the road. The HUD is really only visible at night and, unfortunately, Awesome HUD isn't compatible with the iPhone 5, but it's not bad for a free app.
Apple iOS, price: $1.99
Drive is probably one of the better car-specific dashboard apps for the Apple iPhone and is definitely worth its $1.99 price tag. Fire up the app and you'll be greeted with four large shortcuts for four functions. Music gives quick gesture-based control of the iPod app; Map brings up, well, a Map and enables users to track their trip; quick text fires off predefined text messages to predefined contacts, such as "I'm stuck in traffic and will be late."; and quick call puts your favorite contacts at your fingertips for quick hands-free calling.
Apple iOS, price: $1.99
iCarMode is another great dashboard app for the iPhone -- possibly better even than the aforementioned Drive -- that presents a number of large, easy-to-tap shortcuts to music controls, contacts, audio controls, and your favorite GPS navigation and audio streaming apps. Users can also search for destinations from the iCarMode interface and quickly locate their, car thanks to the app's ability to save the location of a parked car when exiting the vehicle. It can also remind you when it's time to feed the meter with the parking meter timer.
Car Dock Mode
Apple iOS, price: Free with $2.99 in-app premium feature unlock
Car Dock Mode is more of an honorable mention than a bona fide player in this space. It's designed to work with the Dension Car Dock for iPhone, but doesn't require the hardware to be installed on your iPhone. The free app presents large shortcuts to your contacts for hands-free calling, iPod music library playback, and maps. An in-app purchase unlocks the app's premium features, enabling Web Radio streaming of thousands of Internet radio stations, a GPS car finder function, and the ability to customize and re-color the app. iCarMode and Drive are much better apps, but if you're looking for a free alternative, Car Dock Mode will make do.
Odds are that you won't be using your phone's camera while you drive, so put it to work enhancing the safety of your car with the iOnRoad Augmented Driving app. This app watches the road ahead of your car for obstructions and other cars. When it detects that you're approaching an obstruction too quickly and there's potential for an collision, it sounds an alarm and flashes the screen. The app can even run in the background, if you want to also use your phone to navigate.