Pioneer SPH-DA120 full review


This £349 double-DIN head unit has a 6.2in, 800x480 display and is the first after-market infotaiment system to run Apple CarPlay. This means you don't need to buy a brand new car: it can be installed in the vast majority of modern cars in place of the existing radio and CD player. See also: Parrot Asteroid Smart review

Without an iPhone connected, the SPH-DA120 is really just an AM/FM radio and music player rather than an infotainment system in its own right. It doesn't have a CD drive but does has a built-in GPS receiver. This is purely for when you connect an iPhone with a Lightning connector - there's no satnav software built in. It means you'll need an iPhone 5 or later to get the best out of it. And frankly, there are no good reasons to buy the SPH-DA120 unless you have a compatible iPhone.

Well, maybe just a few. You have options for Bluetooth for hands-free calling or playing music from compatible phones (handy if you forget your Lightning cable), listening to the radio, choosing music from a USB drive and selecting a video source. There's also a standard 3.5mm rear aux input for playing music from any device with a headphone jack. See also: iPhone 6 review

Pioneer SPH-DA120 CarPlay first-look review

You also get an HDMI input so you can connect a video source such as a DVD player or games console, and send that feed to screens mounted in the car's headrests. It also works with most reversing cameras thanks to a composite video input, displaying the image when you put the car into reverse gear.

On the rear are two USB ports, one dedicated to CarPlay and the other available for connecting a USB drive full of music, or perhaps an Android phone as the unit also supports for MirrorLink. MirrorLink works with certain Android and other smartphones, allowing you to use the big screen to more safely use apps on the move.

MirrorLink isn't the Android equivalent to CarPlay, though. That would be Android Auto, which the SPH-DA120 does not support. There aren't yet any aftermarket head units which run Android Auto.

The unit has a built-in microphone, so doesn't rely on those on your iPhone.

The screen resolution is decent enough for viewing from a couple of feet away in the driver or passenger seat. It's a capacitive touchscreen and is as responsive as you'd expect. However, it's also highly reflective making it hard to see in certain situations. It's bright enough, but not enough to overcome direct sunlight.

You can buy the SPH-DA120 from Halfords, where fitting will set you back an extra £30. You might also have to budget for converter cables if your car doesn't have standard ISO connectors (most don't) and also a special cable or adaptor if your car has an existing USB port, since it's unlikely to connect directly to the back of the head unit.

Pioneer SPH-DA120: What is CarPlay?

CarPlay is essentially a second screen for your iPhone, using the larger screen in the car to display information and making copious use of Siri to keep your attention focused on driving.

Pioneer SPH-DA120 CarPlay first-look review

CarPlay runs from your iPhone and so updates are included in iOS updates. When you next connect your updated iPhone, you'll see any changes or additions immediately - there's no need to update the firmware on the head unit.

Currently there are only a limited number of apps available in CarPlay: Phone, Messages, Maps, Music and Podcasts. As app developers can make their apps work with CarPlay, you'll have to keep an eye out for when your favourites are updated. Currently, there's Spotify, Rdio and Stitcher.

You'll have to install these apps on your iPhone and have an active subscription if one is needed in order to see and use them in CarPlay.

At the bottom-left corner of the interface is a virtual Home button, allowing you to return to the Home screen from an app. Thanks to the Siri update in iOS 8, you can also say "Hey Siri" to start the assistant hands-free: it works because your iPhone is plugged in and charging.

When you launch an app, there's a limited number of features you can use on the move. Each has a familiar interface, but it's optimised for driving and has the bare minimum of detail so you don't get distracted.

For example, in Messages you get the option to have Siri read out unread messages and incoming ones. Everything is done audibly and you won't see the messages on screen, nor the transcript of what Siri says or what you say to Siri (as you do on the iPhone's screen). All you get is a list of names or numbers of contacts who have sent messages (along with the time received). You can't check messages you've already read.

Pioneer SPH-DA120 CarPlay first-look review

You can use Siri to compose and send a message as normal, but this along with all Siri features relies on your phone's data connection.

In Maps, you can speak a destination when asked where you want to go such as, "Matt Preston's house" or you can ask Siri to "Find me an Italian restaurant". There's a list of recent destinations along with addresses from your contacts and even from recent emails. All you have to do is tap and go.

Pioneer SPH-DA120 CarPlay first-look review

As a satnav, Maps is obviously limited on features and uses Apple maps as you'd expect. It will show traffic information if you've enabled that in the settings on your phone, but it lacks speed camera warnings and certain other features you'd find in a standalone satnav.

What's nice is that you can minimise or hide information to reduce clutter and give the most amount of screen space to the map.

 Pioneer SPH-DA120 CarPlay first-look review

Pioneer SPH-DA120: Early verdict

We spent a limited amount of time with the SPH-DA120 and as it's also the first CarPlay system we've tested, it's hard to say whether it's the best one to buy. Aside from Pioneer's earlier (more expensive) models which are upgradeable to CarPlay via a firmware update, this is pretty much your only choice at the moment. It seems reasonable value at this price, too.

CarPlay requires certain minimum standards for the screen and processor, so any head unit which runs CarPlay should perform well. It will also have an identical interface since, as we've said, it runs from your iPhone and really uses the head unit as an external display. Knowing that, it's less of a risk to invest in the SPH-DA120 rather than waiting to see if anything better surfaces. We'd be tempted to wait and see if any retailers cut the price further in the run up to Christmas, though, as you may be able to get it cheaper.

Pioneer SPH-DA120 CarPlay first-look review


Pioneer SPH-DA120: Specs

  • Double-DIN head unit
  • supports Apple CarPlay
  • MirrorLink
  • 6.2in 800x480 capacitive touchscreen display
  • Bluetooth for streaming audio and hands-free calling
  • 4x50W MOSFET amplifier
  • Pre-outs for front, rear and subwoofer
  • 1x HDMI input
  • 2x USB input
  • 1x composite video input
  • AM/FM radio
  • Via USB supports: WMA, MP3, ACC, WAV, and FLAC audio files, MPEG4, WMV, H.264, DivX, DivX HomeTheatre 3.1, MKV, and FLV video files, JPEG image files

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