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by Bill Braun

Reviewer Extraordinaire

on January 3, 2014
The Pioneer AppRadio 3 (SPH-DA210) touts itself as a smartphone receiver, but with itā€™s evolution into CD and DVD compatibility, that description is patently inaccurate.

It is at the head of a rather large wave of upcoming products the industry is beginning to offer.

Utilizing your phone to perform the functions previously reserved for receivers that are twice as expensive is a very attractive prospect. Let’s face it – you're not going to lose your phone. I’m half shocked mine's not surgically attached to my head, Johnny Mnemonic style. The point is, why not use your phone’s potential? Provided you have the bandwidth and the Gigabits in your cell plan- you’re good to go. You're paying your cell company for it regardless.

In previous reviews I’ve nearly worn holes in the soapbox I’ve stood on, talking about the importance of connecting your phone to your receiver. There’s another hole right next to it where I’ve spoken about how much I don’t want to read a manual – any manual really. My quest to find a receiver so self-explanatory that I don’t need to read a manual is ongoing. It’s a goal the car audio industry as a whole has spent untold billions trying to perfect, year by year. Model by model.

The SPH-DA210 is not alone in this quest. Kenwood has a competing unit called the DDX-790, and Alpine has the IVE-W535HD. The differences in price vary wildly, but from a functionality standpoint, the similarities are far from stark. Let’s dive in.

Build Quality

Any receiver with movable parts can fail. That’s a reality every machine ever made has to contend with. The most prominent part is the display itself, a 7” LCD. Pressing the small eject button to the left of the screen allows you to fold it down or tilt the screen up in as many as five separate steps. I tested the screen for looseness at it’s standard horizontal position and in the tilted configuration. It was rock solid.

The plastic doesn’t seem to be overly thick, but the size of the screen so dominates the entire face of the radio, that it’s nearly all you can see when looking side to side.

One interesting choice (and a good one in my experience) is Pioneer’s decision to create a “shelf” where the six physical buttons exist. The shelf juts out from the bottom of the screen about a quarter inch, and has a silver aluminum-ish finish to it. Is it really aluminum? I can’t tell. Will you care? My magic 8 ball says “signs point to no.” Who am I to contradict such a profound source of wisdom?

The buttons provide good feedback, which is certainly something I appreciate, but could stand to be significantly bigger. When I was on the road with the deck I found myself “hunting” for the eject button to change out CD’s, and to a lesser extent the volume buttons were slightly inconvenient. The center-mounted Home button is the exception to the rule, with roughly twice the width of the other buttons.

From a build quality standpoint, I can say I’m satisfied with Pioneer’s effort to make the radio durable. From an ergonomics standpoint, the button size could do with some rethinking.

Design

The AppRadio 3 has an OS (Operation System) design that logically relies on the users familiarity with modern smartphones. Menus with multiple pages have a small series of circles on the bottom of the screen for example.

The graphics at the bottom of the screen make it readily apparent as to their function. A satisfying beep occurs upon touching the screen for any reason. Pioneer has made something as simple as shutting off the receiver a bit of a task. If using a source, you have to hit the Home button, then select the “Off” icon – which is on the second page of the main menu. Frankly, that’s two steps too many.

The buttons are too small for me, but may fit someone’s fingers that are a bit thinner. They light up nicely, and Pioneer obviously put some thought into the icons and their universal understandability. My biggest complaint lies in the “Back” and “Menu” buttons on the right. If you don’t have an Android phone attached, the buttons are not only inoperative, but remain unlit permanently. I find it odd that Pioneer finds it acceptable to potentially only light up a third of the buttons, let alone make buttons that are Android-specific.

Usability

Utilizing a touchscreen is something were all used to doing by now. Pioneer managed to get the pressure sensitivity as close to perfect as possible. Requiring very little effort on my part, I was able to easily select anything I wanted anywhere on the screen, without having to press too hard or too softly. More importantly, it wasn’t overly sensitive. It's way too easy to activate an unintended button while driving, and to my relief, with this receiver it wasn’t a problem.

The graphic quality itself is also superbly engineered. This is in part due to the WVGA screen, but the quality of the gloss on the capacitive front glass I believe has much to do with it. Like using a higher quality lens on a camera, the less that blocks your view, the more you can do with what you’ve got. The only down side is the reflection I experienced in direct sunlight. There were times that reading everything was a bit of a challenge.

The menu system is relatively simple, and surprisingly less graphic than I would have anticipated. Simply put, the basic functions appear when you touch the “Setup” icon. Only about 20 total options exist. The audio settings are pretty bare bones, with some rudimentary EQ presets and 2 customizable options, both with a total of five programmable bands to play with per preset. For the audiophiles out there – you’ll want a better EQ.

With the AppRadio 3, your phone’s functionality extends far beyond the standard Pandora and playlists you see on nearly every other receiver. Hey – they don’t call it an “AppRadio” for entertainment value. Well, maybe they do – but not strictly for the entertainment value.

Once connected and configured, your phone is automatically recognized by the receiver every time you turn the vehicle on. This happens when the Bluetooth signal is detected (up to three phones can be paired) or the phone is plugged in via a compatible cord. You’ll see a small phone icon in the upper right corner. Pressing the icon reveals the phone’s contact list (you have a 1,000 contact limit per phone – but as many as 5 phone numbers can be stored per contact). Pioneer’s method of using the phonebook and voice commands are the easiest I’ve seen to date - even when connected via Bluetooth.

 If you have an Android or an iPhone 4 (or newer), the AppRadio has a myriad of free and premium services (the aforementioned “apps”), all of which will sync

with the receiver. More than any other receiver on the market by a wide margin, this gives the AppRadio 3 one of the most flexible mobile solutions available.

Navigate to your destination, find a good parking spot, web browsing (yes, really), check your appointments, find where speed traps are, listen to music and a great deal more all exist for both iOS and Android platforms. Many of the apps are free or extremely inexpensive, and often you have your choice of more than one app to do the job.

One caveat to note here – to use any of the apps you must buy the appropriate Pioneer cable to interface with your specific phone. There are four possibilities, most of them enable video and audio: the CD-MU200 works with many Samsung and Nokia Models (the only cable that doesn’t work with video), the CD-IH202 works with iPhone 5 and above, the CD-AH200C works with most Android phones, and the CD-IU201N works with iPhone 4 and 4S. Using the standard USB cable will only charge the phone.

Though it doesn’t say it in the literature, I confirmed with the Pioneer tech department that the iOS 7 platform will work with the AppRadio 3. If you have the Galaxy S3, S4 or the Galaxy Note II, there is a $10 adaptor you’ll need to get. It's called the EPL-Fl10BEBSTD 5 to 11 pin converter. You heard it here first.

General Features

The SPH-DA210 is compatible with an external video input. The most common use is for a backup camera, but any composite video input can be used, though there is no auxiliary audio input to go with it. You can choose any brand (and there are several), Pioneer’s camera is called the ND-BC6. It’s a good choice for the price point, and it’s 1” square measurements make it rather easy to mount discreetly by the license plate.

This is the first AppRadio model Pioneer has equipped with a CD/DVD player, and I couldn’t be happier. The graphic quality of the screen on it’s own is quite simply stunning. Predictably that relays to the DVD as well. Changing chapters is easily done, as is using the DVD’s menu system.

There’s no option to adjust the color of the buttons. Given how small they are, it's far from what I’d personally call a “deal breaker,” but I’m still surprised the option wasn’t included.

What surprised me more was the lack of a third set of RCA preamp outputs. If you intend to use separate amplifiers, consider getting a four channel amp with an RCA pass-through so you retain fading capability. Then use the pass through to a subwoofer amp with a bass knob option. Problem solved.

There is an annoyingly apparent lack of a trim ring in the box (something I always expect to see included), so the borders around the head unit have to marry perfectly to the dash kit you get – or your installer has to make one.

There is a Parental Lock that can be used on the SPH-DA210’s DVD menu system. The lock can mandate a four digit PIN be entered before a movie of a certain rating be played. There are eight levels to choose from, ranging from adult titles to children’s-only titles. If you don’t think your teenager is ready to see an R-rated movie for example (but is ready to drive), use the code to lock them out of anything above PG-13.

In addition to AM/FM and audio from CD, DVD, USB or Bluetooth device. Pandora is supported via Bluetooth with most Android or iOS devices. With the optional cable(s) installed, the iPhone will play video through the receiver.

Supported Disc Types:

  • CD
  • CD-R/CD-RW
  • DVD
  • DVD-R/DVD-RW
  • DVD-DL

Supported Audio Formats:

  • MP3
  • AAC
  • WMA (Except Lossless & Audio 9 Professional)

Supported Video Formats:

  • DivX
  • DVD

The AppRadio 3 will support varying Bluetooth profiles, depending on the phones capabilities.

The thing to keep in mind about the AppRadio 3 are the usability of apps themselves. For Android, the MirrorLink app does provide a bit more on-screen flexibility. Keep in mind that the MirrorLink app is not compatible with every single Android app in existence. You will see additional on-screen functionality, but it is not universal.

The iPhone 4 and above are a bit less compatible in comparison. At last count there are exactly 28 possible apps you can use, and several of them serve very similar purposes (you have 8 map/navigation apps to choose from for example). The biggest question I ask myself is one of pragmatics: “what do I want to know while I’m driving?” My suggestion to you is to consider what you need from your phone while the motors running, and how important is it to have on the receiver’s screen.

Value

There’s an undeniable relationship between the compatibility of the 30+ apps Pioneer lists and their relevance to your needs as a driver. I’d highly recommend looking them over on Pioneer’s website and deciding what apps you like and if you would use them while driving.

The glaring issues are a lack alternate colors for the buttons, no dedicated subwoofer output and no auxiliary audio input. Other head scratchers for me were the lack of HD Radio and Satellite Radio compatibility. With the exception of a backup camera, there’s no possibility of expansion built into this receiver.

Anyone considering the purchase of an Appradio 3 should also take into account the nearly unavoidable purchase of an interface cable. It is the only way to use the Android MirrorLink app, stream video, get full Internet radio functionality or use any of the 30+ Pioneer approved/usable apps.

Is it worth it without getting the cables? In my opinion, no. While the video quality and usability of the receiver are both excellent, at that point it's like buying a Mercedes for a one-mile commute. You’ll get lots of features that you simply won’t use, and you're putting a dent in your checkbook in the process.

In a nutshell, if the extra $30-$60 is a deal breaker, consider a DVD receiver, which has a simplified set of features and can be a little more affordable.

Overall, if you understand the what the receiver does out of the gate as well as what it wasn’t designed to do - the AppRadio 3 is just a shade away from being superb.

The value is excellent considering the features. The video quality is outstanding, as is the ease of use. There was almost nothing I had to look up in the manual. It's refreshing to experience a near utter lack of instructions needed, and shows what advantages simplicity can offer – especially when you consider 99% of the receiver’s functionality will be used while driving.

It feels great, staying off that soapbox. If I could do a celebratory back flip without fracturing vertebrae, I would.

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