From the front, the Parrot Asteroid doesn't look much different from any other single-DIN CD receiver. It's got a bank of buttons surrounding a physical control knob on the left half of its faceplate. There's a largish 3.2-inch color display on the right half. You'd be forgiven for mistaking the Asteroid for one of our other favorite single-slot receivers: the Alpine IDA-X305S.
However, pop the Asteroid out of its home in your dashboard and take a look at its chassis and you'll find that this is not your average receiver. For starters, it's only about half as deep as the average CD receiver, because it's not actually a CD receiver at all. This "mechless" receiver lacks an optical media drive. In fact, unless you count the control knob and the buttons on the detachable faceplate, the Asteroid is completely lacking in moving parts.
And that's not even the oddest of the Asteroid's attributes! Peel back the surface (or take a look at our lead-up coverage) and you'll find that the Asteroid is also the first car stereo to be powered by the Android mobile operating system (albeit a highly customized version). Of course, my first reaction was, "Awesome!" but in the weeks between its announcement and its ultimate release, I began to wonder, "What's the point?"
With the Asteroid finally installed in our test car's dashboard, I put the first Android-powered car stereo to the test.
Design and physical interface
Let's start by taking a look at the Asteroid's front panel, since after it's installed that's where all of your interactions will take place.
At the far left are the phone buttons, which are used to answer (top) and end (bottom) incoming calls when paired with a Bluetooth-enabled phone. Tapping the answer button also initiates Parrot's darn-good voice dialer, which guides you through initiating calls with onscreen and spoken prompts, and holding that button for a few beats initiates a redial of the last call. Likewise, the call end button doubles as the device's power button when held for a few moments.
Continuing right, we're met with the Source selection button, which cycles between available and active audio sources, which include AM/FM radio, an analog auxiliary input, the SD card reader, Bluetooth audio streaming, and a dedicated iPhone input. When a searchable digital audio source is present (USB media, iPhone, or SD card, but not Bluetooth A2DP), you can tap the large white Voice Search button to queue media by speaking the name of an artist or album.
The Back, Home, and Menu buttons behave largely as they would on an Android phone and will be discussed in greater detail in the Interface section below; the Play/Pause and Skip buttons that line the bottom edge of the device should be pretty self-explanatory.
In the middle of the button bank is the large, clear plastic control knob that is used to navigate the unit's interface, adjust volume, and make selections with its large center button. This may be purely subjective, but the combination of this knob's slick finish and its crisp, 90-degree edge looked great, but never really felt good in my hand. If you've ever creased your wrist on the edge of a MacBook Pro, you'll understand why this harsh-edged knob is so annoying. A bit of texture and a more inviting finish on the part of the hardware that is most often handled by the user would be greatly appreciated.
While the left side of the unit is occupied by the physical controls, the right half of the face is completely occupied by a 3.2-inch color LCD. This screen is not touch-sensitive, but that didn't stop me from occasionally (and fruitlessly) jabbing a finger at its icon-based interface.
At the far left is a chrome button that causes the physical controls of the faceplate to detach for security, leaving only the LCD visible and revealing the unit's SD card slot in the process. The detachable portion of the faceplate affixes with a strong magnet and latch and is remarkably easy to place and remove single-handedly. The unit ships with a small fabric sack for storing the faceplate when not in use.
Installation and connectivity
I've already stated that the most interesting part of the Parrot Asteroid is beneath the surface. Spinning this mechless audio receiver around reveals a chassis that, as mentioned above, is only about half as deep as your average CD receiver. This little bit of saved space definitely comes in handy because the Asteroid sports about as many connections out back as a fully featured desktop PC--you'll need all of the extra room you can get for all of the cables you'll be plugging into the unit's rear end during installation.
The Asteroid starts with a universal wiring harness with connections for 12-volt power, ground, speakers, and so on. Our test car wasn't compatible with this harness, so I had to cut off one end and connect our vehicle-specific wire harness--I predict that most DIY installers will need to do as much. Additionally, there are a pair of full-range preamp RCA stereo outputs, a stereo RCA subwoofer preamp output, a 3.5mm analog auxiliary input for the included audio patch cable, a microphone input for use with the included double microphone with noise and echo cancellation, a steering wheel control input, and four USB ports. One of those USB ports is a dedicated full-speed iPod connection for use with the included Apple Dock cable. The other three are used to accommodate the included GPS antenna, a USB mass storage device (one USB extension cable is included in the box), or a USB 3G wireless Internet dongle (not included).