Car Multimedia and Navigation System
The top performers in our review are Pioneer 8100 NEX Pioneer 6100 NEX, the Silver Award winner; and Kenwood DNX772HD, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a unit to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of the top 10 in-dash navigation units.
In-dash navigation units are primarily designed to do two things: give you directions and serve as an entertainment system for your car. Maps are preloaded onto an in-dash navigation unit, but the entertainment aspect of the unit mostly comes from its ability to integrate with a smartphone.
Unlike stand-alone navigation GPS units that attach via a suction cup and derive their power from a cigarette lighter power adapter, in-dash GPS units are permanently attached to your vehicle. They look more sophisticated and have better smartphone integration than their removable counterparts. Additionally, the maps features built into in-dash navigation systems let you avoid using your smartphone's battery and data for navigation.
Installing one of these systems is tricky, because an in-dash navigation system requires both a power and an audio connection. If you're not accustomed to working on cars, you'll want to hire a mechanic to install it for you. You can also buy directly from an audio store that offers an installation package. To learn more, read our articles about in-dash navigation.
Picking the Right In-Dash Navigation
There is no best in-dash navigation system for everyone. You should base your decision on your needs in two main areas.
If you frequently use your smartphone, you'll want to get an in-dash navigation system with either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. These two protocols allow you to actually interact with select apps on your smartphone using the head unit's touchscreen.
Apple CarPlay allows you to use Apple apps, such as Messages, Music, Maps and Phone, and third-party apps such as Spotify, iHeartRadio and MLB At Bat. You connect the phone to the in-dash head unit using a Lightning cable, and then you can interact with the apps on the head unit's touchscreen as if it was your phone. Android Auto is quite similar, with a menu of supported apps and a micro-USB connection. Windows Phone users don't have a dedicated standard at this time.
You'll pay a bit more to get a unit with these systems, but they are a monumental improvement from a unit that just has Bluetooth and HDMI smartphone connectivity. Bluetooth connectivity allows more basic smartphone integration like hands-free phone operation and access to your phone's music library, and HDMI connectivity allows you to mirror your phone's display on the head unit's screen.
However, you can't interact with apps using the head unit via Bluetooth or HDMI. Ultimately, they are much more limited versions of what CarPlay and Android Auto are. Of course, they are much more affordable, making them a better choice for light smartphone users.
Navigation companies partner with different map databases to provide maps that are built into the in-dash GPS. You'll want to look for a unit that has at least 8 million points of interest. This ensures that you can find the restaurant, hotel, gas station or any other public place that you're looking for.
Some of the best in-dash navigation units come with a traffic receiver. These receivers can give you updates about the upcoming traffic on your route, and you won't have to use your smartphone data to get that information.
How We Evaluated In-Dash Navigation Systems and Our Picks
You can divide in-dash navigation features into two categories: essentials and luxuries. The essential category includes features such as built-in navigation, HDMI mirroring and Bluetooth connectivity. The luxury features are based around improved smartphone integration, like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
The Budget Pick
There are actually two different cheap in-dash navigation units that we would recommend, depending on your navigation and entertainment needs. If you are an iPhone user and you want the added functionality of CarPlay, then the Pioneer 5100 NEX is an excellent value. It has a 6.2-inch resistive touchscreen instead of the premium 7-inch capacitive touchscreen boasted by more expensive models, and it lacks a traffic receiver. However, it still gives you all the current and future functionality of CarPlay along with built-in navigation.
If you simply want bare-bones features with Bluetooth smartphone integration, then the Clarion NX405 is an excellent choice. Clarion uses TomTom guidance, so you get premium navigation, plus you can connect via Bluetooth to the NX405 to make hands-free calls. It also has HDMI connectivity, so you can mirror your phone's screen directly on the navigation unit (you'll still have to interact with the screen via your phone's touch interface).
The Best In-Dash Navigation Systems
Our budget picks notwithstanding, the three best in-dash navigation systems overall are, in descending order, the Pioneer 8100 NEX, the Pioneer 6100 NEX and the Kenwood DNX772HD.
The Pioneer 8100 NEX is head and shoulders above any other unit on the market right now, because it is the only one that supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and has built-in maps. It also features a premium design, with a nice 7-inch capacitive touchscreen.
The Pioneer 6100 NEX is significantly cheaper and quite similar to the 8100, but with a slightly smaller screen and no Android Auto. For dedicated Apple users, this is the best value in the premium category.
The Kenwood DNX772HD offers Garmin navigation, the best navigation experience of any of the brands. It also has a premium design with a 7-inch capacitive touchscreen. However, it's expensive and doesn't offer support for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.