The easiest and cheapest way to add Apple’s CarPlay to any vehicle is with a cheap Amazon Fire tablet and a USB CarPlay dongle.
You don’t need to buy an expensive new car stereo, nor spend the weekend ripping out your dash and fiddling with wiring. Adding a Fire tablet is very plug-and-play, and instantly makes a big difference. It cost me less than $100 and gave my old pre-Bluetooth stereo a new breath of life. Now I have a big, beautiful, 8-inch screen for maps and directions.
However, it took me a while to find the right combination of gear. Plus, you should consider a few things before taking the plunge with this DIY wireless CarPlay hack.
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How to add wireless CarPlay to any car with an Android tablet and adapter
CarPlay is an infotainment system powered by your iPhone. After connecting your iPhone to compatible vehicle head units, CarPlay displays maps, music and other apps on your car’s screen. And that makes it easy to do the kind of stuff you do on your iPhone while driving — in a safe way.
CarPlay is incredibly popular. In fact, the vast majority of new cars sold today are compatible with CarPlay and/or the competing Android Auto, according to multiple consumer surveys (like this one). This same survey found that for more than 80% of new car buyers, CarPlay is an essential feature.
Cheapest way to add CarPlay to older vehicles
Unfortunately, it can be tricky to add CarPlay to older vehicles. It usually requires updating the vehicle head unit, at a cost of at least $250 for a new stereo. Plus, you can expect to pay several hundred dollars for installation if you don’t do it yourself.
But for some cars — like my junky old Land Rover LR3 — getting a new stereo is not an option. The LR3’s stereo is an integral part of the electronics. My mechanic said it would be extremely unwise to rip it out and replace it with an aftermarket unit. (That’s especially true on vehicles with electronics by Lord Lucas, the Prince of Darkness.)
So I opted for the tablet route instead. Luckily, the LR3 has an aux jack, and it’s easy to run an audio cable from the Fire tablet to the aux input port. And lemme tell you, it sounds great through the vehicle’s Harman Kardon speakers.
- Choosing the right Android tablet
- Why Amazon’s Fire HD 8 Plus is the best tablet for CarPlay
- Other Android tablets for CarPlay
- Buy a wireless charger
- Choosing the right CarPlay adapter
- How it all works together
- Conclusion: Using a Fire tablet is an inexpensive DIY CarPlay hack
- Another option: Portable CarPlay units
Choosing the right Android tablet
The most important thing for me was that CarPlay had to be wireless. I could already plug my iPhone into the Rover’s aux jack using Apple’s Lightning to 3.5 mm Headphone Jack Adapter, but I didn’t want to just swap one cable for another.
The other big consideration was making sure the tablet could be easily charged while in use — and this is where things got tricky.
Amazon’s Fire tablets have only one USB-C port, which the CarPlay adapter plugs into. That means the port can’t be used for simultaneously charging the tablet.
At first, I tried a handful of USB-C hubs that supposedly offer passthrough charging, but I couldn’t get any to work. Oddly, a couple of the hubs did work for charging, but only if I plugged in the tablet before plugging in the CarPlay adapter. If the adapter was already plugged in when connecting the Fire tablet to power, it wouldn’t work.
This was too fiddly for me. There was no way I was going to plug one thing in after another just to make sure the tablet would charge up.
Why Amazon’s Fire HD 8 Plus is the best tablet for CarPlay
The solution was to get an Amazon Fire HD 8 Plus tablet, a budget-priced tablet with built-in wireless Qi charging.
It’s normally priced at $120 for a 32GB model, but I picked up a used one on Amazon for $45. The tablet is regularly discounted to as low as $65 for new units, according to sales data from camelcamelcamel, an Amazon price tracker. Used 8 Plus tablets are currently available on Amazon from $64 and up.
Other Android tablets for CarPlay
The first tablet I tried for this experiment was actually the 7-inch Fire tablet. It worked fine, but the 7-inch tablet doesn’t offer wireless charging, so I don’t use it. There’s also an older 8-inch Fire tablet that will work, but likewise, it doesn’t offer wireless Qi charging. (Note: Make sure to get the HD Plus model).
The larger Fire HD 10 Plus does offer wireless charging, and would seem like a good candidate for CarPlay, but on Reddit there are reports it won’t charge quickly enough to keep up. The tablet drains power faster than the Qi charger can replenish it.
There are also discussions on Reddit about using an old Google Nexus 7 (about $60 for a renewed unit that supports wireless charging) or the newer Lenovo M8 or M10 tablets, which come with charging docking stations.
Buy a wireless charger
If you go with the Amazon Fire HD 8 Plus that I recommend, you will need a wireless charger to keep it juiced up. Any Qi-compatible charger will work.
I bought the cheapest wireless charger I could find on Amazon, the Tozo W1. It’s no Jony Ive design masterpiece, but it works and does the job. I had to duct-tape it to the back of the tablet to keep it in place. It doesn’t look great, but it works.
Choosing the right CarPlay adapter
There are several CarPlay adapters available starting at about $40. I chose this wireless CarPlay adapter from ushilife because 1. it gets pretty good reviews and 2. it’s cheap (like me).
I also had to purchase a USB-C to USB-A adapter to plug the CarPlay adapter into the tablet’s USB-C port.
How it all works together
Because I live in San Francisco and my car will get broken into if I leave so much as a quarter inside, I stash the tablet in the LR3’s cargo holder between the front seats. (Don’t tell any car thieves!) Alternatively, I could easily hide the tablet in my car’s glove compartment.
When I use it, I prop the Fire tablet up in a handy cubby just below the dashboard. The cubby is recessed, making it very handy for storing the CarPlay adapter and tangle of wires.
Once in place, it looks pretty neat. There are only two wires emerging. I could definitely do a better job of wire management if I drilled a couple of holes and fished the wires through the back of the dash, but I can’t be bothered — the current setup is fine.
Conclusion: Using a Fire tablet is an inexpensive DIY CarPlay hack
This is the setup I use, and I can vouch that it all works. It’s great for streaming music to my old pre-Bluetooth car and navigating with a nice big screen. I love it.
One of the best things is watching Apple Maps in 3D as I drive; the system shows a clean, 3D version of the city unfolding as I drive through the real streetscape. It looks very futuristic, like the 3D head-up display of the Death Star in the first Star Wars movie.
I’m just hoping it doesn’t get stolen.
This inexpensive Qi charger is perfect fro charging a Fire tablet for use with CarPlay.
Another option: Portable CarPlay units
If my DIY CarPlay setup sounds like too much, you have other options. New on the market are several portable CarPlay units that don’t have to be hardwired into your vehicle, like this 7-inch touchscreen unit from Aphqua for $149 or this 9.3-inch receiver from Sixwin for $117.
These units look great. And, at just over $100, they’re comparably priced to my homegrown Fire tablet + adapter rig. They’re probably a lot less fiddly, too. However, my DIY solution cost about $90, which makes it a cheaper option — although I diligently waited for sales or refurbs to get the absolute lowest prices. You might need to wait for the next sale on Fire tablets to achieve similar rock-bottom pricing. Luckily, they come around frequently.