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ScreenDrive: From a ‘dumb’ Jeep to one with the latest Uconnect system

The latest review in our car-as-a-rolling-tablet series

Cars have become expensive, rolling gadgets that are full of screens, speakers, and sensors — but are they actually good gadgets? In our new series, ScreenDrive, we'll review cars just like any other device, starting with the basics of what they’re like to use.

I drive a “dumb” Jeep. I bought it in 2007, and I plan to run it into the ground. Impractical temptations elude me, even when surrounded by some of the most amazing and tech-forward cars in the world right here in Silicon Valley.

The problem with an old Jeep, though (aside from that whole recall fiasco), is that its Bluetooth connectivity and touchscreen display are a little outdated. Just kidding: it doesn’t have either of these things. It does have an aftermarket Bluetooth stereo that works approximately 60 percent of the time, so there’s that. Also, a CD player! Needless to say, if there’s one thing that might convince me to upgrade, it’s the tech inside the vehicle, not the vehicle itself.

In Jeeps, that’s Uconnect, the system developed internally by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. When FCA offered a brand-new Jeep Compass Limited to test-drive, I decided to find out what I was missing out on. Of course it’s an upgrade from your current ride, you might think. But just because a car has new tech in it doesn’t mean that tech is intuitive. I’ve test-driven new vehicles with dashboards so complicated it might as well be a spaceship. (Shakes fist.)

Uconnect is one of the simpler, intuitive new car systems I’ve tried. In fact, it might almost be too basic, with relatively unsophisticated voice control and limitations around what you can see on its main media screen. But this particular version of Uconnect, available now in several other new FCA cars, is boosted by one big feature: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Uconnect in the 2017 Jeep Compass now officially supports these, and to no one’s surprise, they improve the in-car experience.

That doesn’t mean CarPlay and Android Auto are perfect; they still have their own weird limitations. But they’re at least familiar enough to make navigating your vehicle’s display a whole lot easier while you’re navigating the roads.

DISPLAYS

The Jeep Compass Limited has an 8.4-inch capacitive touchscreen display, which FCA calls its Uconnect 8.4 NAV display. It’s a fine display, but still right in line with what you’d expect from a utility vehicle that is toeing the line of luxury at $30,000. It has a standard resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels; it doesn’t look warped or pixelated, but lacks the brilliance of a modern touchscreen tablet. It doesn’t pop up from the dashboard, there’s no heads-up display on the driver side windshield. It’s just a simple built-in display. You can choose between two color schemes, either red or yellow lettering, against a black background.

I asked FCA what kind of processor this version of Uconnect, the fourth generation, is running on, and was told the company does not disclose its suppliers. This is the same response I received when I asked which kernel the custom software was built on, although in the past, it’s been said that it’s QNX. In either case, the screen was responsive during the time that I test-drove the car; I never experienced any issues with the display itself.

CONTROLS

The Uconnect interface makes sense: there’s a row of virtual buttons at the bottom for radio, media, climate, UApps, settings, nav, and phone. Most of these are pretty self-explanatory, and some of them (like radio, media, and temperature) can also be controlled via physical buttons around the steering wheel and dash. Uconnect’s navigation system is rich but not overly complicated. You can view maps in full screen, as 2D maps, or as 3D maps. Added bonus: you can use the touchscreen to zoom in and out on a map.

On the downside, I found the main media screen to be mediocre; when I was streaming Spotify over Bluetooth, I had no way to view a playlist or see what song was next. In today’s age of playlist obsession, that just seemed wrong.

The Jeep Compass Limited also has built-in voice control, accessible from a shortcut button on the steering wheel. It found me the “nearest gas station” without issue and generally was able to find directions via voice command. Most commands were a two-step process, though. I couldn’t just say “Get me directions to 100 Main Street,” I would have to say “Find address,” then wait for a response, and say the address, etc.

That’s not at all uncommon for in-car systems, but that’s the problem: the language requirements feel ridiculously formal compared with phone assistants like Siri and Google Assistant. I also mixed up the one-tap and long-press function sometimes, which means I didn’t know if I was summoning Siri or the car’s built-in voice.

Really, there were a lot of things in Uconnect — the nav system, the media interface, the voice control — that worked well, but when compared with the functionality of what you could do if you just had an LTE-equipped iPad or Android tablet in the car, they made less sense. And when you consider that people pay extra money for things like advanced navigation features, you could see why you’d just want to use mobile maps.

CARPLAY / ANDROID AUTO

Which brings me to Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. In almost every car, the Compass included, you’re required to tether your phone via USB, and then port a distilled version of your smartphone onto your car’s display. The interfaces feel familiar, and a lot of key smartphone apps, with the same colorful app icons, are right there. CarPlay looks like your iPhone screen, but in your car, and simpler, with no option to text or type. Android Auto presents a cascade of information cards that it thinks you want to see: an estimation of the time it takes to get home, your Google Play Music, the local weather. And of course: Android Auto has Google Maps.

Both are easy to use. The fact that you can’t use certain apps on certain platforms, like Google Maps or Waze, on Apple CarPlay is annoying. And it takes a little time to get used to the fact that when you open messaging apps, you can only use your voice to respond (a good thing). But this is the closest you can get right now to having that aforementioned tablet in your car, with all the swipes and apps and stuff you already know. I still used Uconnect to adjust safety assistant features, change the car’s temperature, or listen to the radio. Otherwise, I was using Android Auto or CarPlay.

There was one Big Glitch: both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto just didn’t work one day. (Naturally, it was the day we had hired a photographer to take photographs of the car’s display.) After lots of troubleshooting and restarting and rebooting and USB cable testing, we determined that it was very likely the USB port that was the root of the issue (the phones weren’t drawing power, either). And the next day, it all worked again, like nothing had happened. Cars!

By the end of the week, I was sold on the smarter aspects of a new Jeep, but not necessarily Uconnect. I appreciated the Jeep’s fuel efficiency, backup camera and multitude of proximity sensors, its side-mirror warning lights, and its automatic wipers — all things that are givens in new cars. The Uconnect system was easy enough to get used to and swipe through, even while driving, but Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay were the biggest selling points. And when you consider that even they are distilled to a fault, that’s saying a lot.

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