Alexa’s Auto Mode turns your phone into a ‘driver-friendly’ display

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Echo Auto: Competition

Source: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central)

My first experience with an Alexa device in the car was with the ROAV Viva by Anker, and it’s one that I still use on occasion. Unlike the Echo Auto, the ROAV Viva can be relatively out of sight and out of mind, plugging into the power port in your vehicle, so there are no annoying cords to tuck away. It also has two USB-A ports on it so that you can charge your phone or other devices while you drive. I’ve seen the price for the ROAV Viva fluctuate quite a bit, but you can find it for around the same regular retail price as the Echo Auto.

While the Echo Auto is a better product today than when it was launched, the best Alexa car device that I’ve used to date is still the iOttie Aivo Connect. Not only can it do all the same things the Echo Auto can, but it is also a phone mount that can automatically open and close to secure your smartphone in portrait or landscape orientation, and it’s capable of charging your compatible device at up to 10W. Not the fastest ever, but not bad. The biggest hangup with the Aivo Connect is its price — it retails for around $100.

The elephant(s) in the car here are Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and honestly, if your car comes equipped with one or both of these platforms, you should probably skip right over the Echo Auto. Both platforms have more functionality and overall better integration with your smartphone, and both can work for multiple users.

Finally, Amazon has created a special Auto Mode for its Alexa app, so you could just use that with a good phone mount and save yourself any added expense. The Auto Mode has a home screen, a navigation screen, a communication screen, and a “play” screen for skills and music, with a persistent menu bar to easily switch between modes. As mentioned earlier, Amazon even suggests you use Auto Mode in conjunction with the Echo Auto, but you don’t really need both. The main thing you get by adding the Echo Auto is much better microphone support and large and easy-to-use touch targets with a visual display of what Alexa is doing for you. And for what it’s worth, even the Amazon Music app has a Car Mode with a similar UI to the Alexa app’s Auto Mode.

Communication: Alexa Auto Mode Allows Drop-in

Android Auto
  • Dedicated communication screen.

  • Easy options for recent numbers, favorites, contacts, dialer, and voicemail.

  • Send and read text messages with voice commands.

Alexa Auto Mode Dedicated communication screen. Dedicated buttons for calling, dropping in on other Alexa devices, and sending announcements. Use voice commands to send and read text messages.

For the most part, the communication options provided by these services are on an even keel. Android Auto provides you with easy access to recent calls, favorite numbers, contacts, the dialer, and your voicemail. Alexa Auto Mode is a little more sparse, with just the option to access your dialer in terms of actual phone calls.

The difference here is the Alexa Auto Mode communication screen also provides easy access to drop in or make an announcement. The drop in button allows you to connect to any Alexa device you own or are authorized to drop in on, while the announcement button allows you to send an announcement to your other Alexa devices.

While basic calling options are a bit more robust in Android Auto, the drop in functionality is a nice touch for households that use a lot of Alexa devices and make heavy use of the drop-in feature.

Both services support voice activated calling, text message dictation, and the ability to have either Google Assistant or Alexa read incoming text messages so you don't have to take your eyes off the road.

Connect With Alexa

Make sure you have the latest version of the Alexa app on your iPhone(Opens in a new window) or Android phone(Opens in a new window). Open the app and tap the Devices icon. Tap the plus icon in the upper right and select Add Device.

At the Setup screen, choose Amazon Echo as the general type of device. At the next screen, select Echo Auto as the specific type of device. At the next screen, tap Continue.

Confirm that you have connected the Echo Auto to your car with the mount if you chose that option. Tap Continue. The next screen should display a name for your Echo Auto, specifically Echo Auto followed by an alphanumeric string. Tap the name.

Tap Continue at the next couple of screens. You may have to wait a few minutes for your Echo Auto to appear in the list of accessories. If your Echo Auto doesn’t appear after a few minutes, unplug the cable for 30 seconds, plug it back in, and return to the previous screen in the Alexa app to try again. Tap the entry after it appears.

Tap Yes to use Bluetooth to play music, or tap No and connect the audio cable instead. Go to your phone’s Bluetooth settings screen and select the Echo Auto entry. Tap the device to connect it, if it’s not already connected. Return to the setup in the Alexa app and tap Continue. Now set your car’s stereo input to Bluetooth and tap Continue. 

The app then allows you to adjust the volume for your car’s speakers. Tap Continue, then press the Play button to test your sound. Tap Continue and Alexa should tell you that your device is ready, then tap Continue again.

You can then choose the default navigation service that you wish to use with Echo Auto. At the Locations screen, you can add your home and work addresses, then Tap Continue. The next screen asks if you want to try Auto Mode to turn your smartphone into a smart display as you receive directions through the Echo Auto.

Echo Auto: Good things getting better

Source: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central)

When my colleague wrote our first Echo Auto review in August 2019, he was pretty tough on the new device. Admittedly, the Echo Auto deserved that criticism (and then some), but there were some positives in that initial assessment as well.

The microphone array is still as quick and responsive as ever, and I never had to repeat myself over the noise of the air conditioner, music, or highway. In fact, I was quite surprised at how fast Alexa could hear, understand, and execute my commands. Asking her for directions, the weather, or to skip a song, her responses were almost instantaneous. This was a pleasant surprise after having used other Alexa-in-the-car solutions that were a bit laggy. Placing phone calls was also a breeze, and they connected quickly and without a hitch.

Thanks to its excellent microphones, Alexa responds promptly via the Echo Auto.

The device is still as simple as ever to set up, and its size means that it’s not going to clutter your dash in an unsightly way. In our first review, my colleague said that the air conditioner vent clip/mount didn’t fit or work quite well in his car, but it fits perfectly well in mine and stayed firmly in place, even on bumpy roads. This is one of those “your mileage may vary” qualities, as it will totally depend on the shape and setup of your dashboard. However, you can also just tuck this away in a console compartment or cupholder, or even use two-sided tape to stick it to the top of the dash if the clip won’t work for your vehicle.

Because there is no display on the device, I was pleased to see that it came with an LED light strip to provide some visual feedback to my requests. The LEDs are there to indicate that Alexa is listening and/or taking action so that you don’t assume your command drifted away in the ether. And if you are already familiar with what all the different colors mean on other Echo devices, then you’ll be comforted by the consistency here.

Source: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jeramy Johnson / Android Central)

While the Echo Auto doesn’t have a screen to display information, the Alexa app has an Auto Mode (opens in new tab) that complements the device quite nicely. By putting your phone in Alexa Auto Mode and securing it in a phone mount of some sort, you get most of the benefits of an in-dash infotainment system, Amazon-style. Basically, this mode presents a simplified user interface with large text and large touch targets so that you can see relevant information like what music is playing, navigation suggestions, or the weather. In fact, there are four separate screens, including the home screen, navigation screen (which gives you quick button access for directions to saved or favorite locations), communication screen (for placing calls or making drop-in announcements on your other Echo devices), and a play screen (showing your playing audio).

I found that listening to music, audiobooks, or podcasts was about as easy as doing so on any of my other Alexa devices. Most of the main services you’d want (aside from YouTube Music) are here, and so long as you’ve set your preferences up in the Alexa app beforehand, you should have no trouble asking for specific artists, stations, or playlists. As with most things Alexa, the trick is to phrase your request in the right way to get what you want because you won’t be looking at your Spotify or Tidal app; you’ll be viewing your music through an Alexa lens.

It’s actually quite fun to play a game with Alexa through the Echo Auto. Perfect for family road trips or your daily commute.

There are also several Alexa Skills that work well for the Echo Auto and allow you to play road trip games with your family, listen to news bulletins, or assist you in finding parking in an unfamiliar city. Discoverability with Alexa Skills can be hit or miss, but you can always ask “Alexa what can you do” or “Alexa what games can you play” for ideas in a pinch.

Side note — if you ask Alexa what she can do, the Echo Auto gets tripped up on its own hot word when replying. It will say “just say ‘Alexa try’…” and that second Alexa will re-trigger the Echo’s listening behavior. That’s kind of ridiculous!

Another thing my colleague dinged the Echo Auto for previously was its use as a navigation aid. It’s still not quite as seamless an experience as using Google Maps or Waze in an in-dash system, but honestly, it’s not that far off either. Alexa quickly responded to my requests for directions, offering up nearby suggestions for categories like gas stations or restaurants. However, she could be tripped up by specific requests (more on this below). Whether you request a new location or saved destination, you will then have to physically tap on the screen to get directions, whereby Alexa will open the mapping service you’ve set as your default in the Alexa app. It’s one extra step that takes another second or two, but it wasn’t the headache I thought it would be.

Final Verdict: More People Will Get Better Results With Android Auto

Android Auto is the gold standard in-car phone interface for Android users. It allows you to use it by itself if your vehicle doesn't have any kind of smartphone integration, and it also integrates seamlessly with OE (original equipment) and aftermarket car stereos that have Android Auto built in. That makes Android Auto the superior option if you have an Android Auto car stereo, or if your car stereo has no integration and you don't want to buy any additional peripherals.

Alexa Auto Mode is a bit of a tougher sell, because it only works if you buy an Echo Auto. It does work on both Android and iPhone though, and Echo Auto works with both Bluetooth and auxiliary inputs. That means Alexa Auto Mode is a great option, regardless of the type of phone you use, if your vehicle has Bluetooth connectivity or an auxiliary input, but no built-in support for Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.

The bottom line is Android Auto is the more fully baked of the two options, and more people will get better results from it due to the fact it works both with Android Auto car stereos and on its own without any additional peripherals.

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