CarLinkit was one of the first companies to release a hardware product that allowed Apple CarPlay to operate on an Android-based stereo receiver (or Android tablet) via a simple plug-and-play USB dongle and an installed Android app. Fast track a year or so later and they were also the first to release the first-generation of wireless Apple CarPlay dongles for both Android receivers, and more importantly, existing wired Apple CarPlay systems and receivers. Since then, CarLinkit has spear-headed the dongle market with many competitors white-labelling its technology and selling it under different brand names.
We’ve already reviewed the first-generation of wireless dongle here on CarPlay Life, however, CarLinkit has now recently released its second generation of wireless Apple CarPlay dongle. Retailing for $115.90 with free shipping, This revised dongle boasts a number of physical improvements along with a different case design. So is the CarLinkit 2.0 Wireless dongle an evolutionary or a revolutionary product? Let’s see if this dongle is worth the upgrade, or if it’s worth being your very first wireless Apple CarPlay dongle in your existing Apple CarPlay enabled vehicle…
How do wireless Apple CarPlay dongles work?
First, let me cover how both generations of these wireless dongles work with your wired CarPlay system: These dongles are for existing wired CarPlay enabled vehicles or wired CarPlay enabled aftermarket receivers. If your car doesn’t already have CarPlay, this dongle won’t work in your vehicle. You have to already have wired Apple CarPlay along with a USB port that you previously used an Apple Lightning cable with.
The wireless dongles that sell today simply connect to the existing USB port that you use to plug your USB to Lightning cable into. Once the dongle powers-up, the dongle tricks your CarPlay system into thinking your iPhone is connected by wire to your system/receiver. Meanwhile, your iPhone thinks it’s connecting to a wireless CarPlay system (the dongle), so it then transmits CarPlay wirelessly over Bluetooth (for the initial hand-shake) and Wi-Fi (for audio and video data) to your car system/receiver via the dongle.
Okay, now back to the review…
In the small box comes the CarLinkit 2.0 dongle itself, with its sleek shiny black or white casing and a large LED status bar on the front cover. There is also a simple card manual in both Chinese and English, and a fairly short USB-C to USB-A cable. The cable component is the first striking difference with this second-generation dongle. The 19.5cm-long USB-C to USB-A cable is almost double the length of the previous generation, it also features USB-C as its connection type to the dongle, and best of all, it’s detachable.
Let’s first address the use of a USB-C cable in this generation. The dongle itself has a USB-C female port, but with most CarPlay enabled vehicles and aftermarket installs, that feature a female USB-A port, the CarLinkit dongle has to attach to this port via USB-A on the other end of the cable for this dongle can connect to your vehicle’s existing ‘Apple CarPlay’ USB socket.
With the cable being detachable in this second generation of the dongle, this means you can choose to replace this cable with a much longer one if you wish to locate the dongle in a place where you can more easily stow it away in an internal compartment of your vehicle. Also, if the cable gets accidentally kinked, cut, or it breaks, you don’t have to replace the entire dongle.
Compared to the first-generation of wireless dongles, this second-generation looks visually much sleeker. But at the end of the day, you’ll be tucking this dongle away into the dark confines of a centre console or glove box, so aesthetics shouldn’t really be that important here. It looks nicer than the previous generation, and it has a much clearer power LED strip that lights up green when a connection is successful, or red if you have a connection problem with the dongle and the system it is being plugged into (the light colour you don’t want to see).
There is very little difference in the size of the dongle itself. The CarLinkit 2.0 wireless dongle is slightly thinner, but its width is slightly fatter and its length is slightly shorter. So volume-wise, it is probably the same, but with its smooth chamfered edges, whilst in the hand, it does ‘feel’ smaller. On the other end of the dongle, there is a USB-A female port. This port can be used to plug an iPhone Lightning cable back into it. But why would you want to do that when you have just gone wireless? Well, to charge your iPhone of course. You might be travelling in your vehicle for a long period of time whilst also using your iPhone to navigate or stream music – either or both of these tasks will certainly drain your iPhone battery if it’s not being charged simultaneously. Connecting your iPhone via a cable that’s connected to the dongle, it will not only charge it, but your system will also revert back to wired CarPlay too. Having a USB wire attached to the dongle, whilst it is stowed away, can be handy, because it saves you reaching around your vehicle for a cable to replace the dongle with, as both cable and dongle are connected to the same USB-A port. Or you can just get a wireless charging mount.
Powering up the dongle
Once plugged into the USB-A port of my Volkswagen Golf, the CarLinkit 2.0 dongle sprang into life and displayed its connection menu. From this point onwards I was navigating in familiar territory. This is because the software used is exactly the same as the previous generation of software. This makes sense for compatibility – one firmware to rule them all. So if you are coming from a first-generation of the dongle, don’t think this dongle’s software or compatibility will be any different with this second-generation, the improvements can be found elsewhere, most likely with speed and stability, thanks to the internal hardware changes that’s been made.
With different circuitry inside the sleek shiny black casing, the overall CarPlay experience felt a little snappier. This could be a placebo effect of knowing this new dongle was the second-generation of product, but to me, on first experiences, it did seem a little snappier to navigate and I encountered fewer dropouts and crashes over long periods of use compared to the first-generation dongle.
You’ll find that the launch bootup times were pretty much the same as the first-generation of wireless dongles – around 35-38 seconds for my VW Golf Mk7 fitted with an Alpine receiver – from ignition to seeing the Apple CarPlay screen. However, once the dongle was connected to my iPhone, navigating tracks and playback of audio felt fractionally quicker. With its USB-C cable and the 5.8GHz certified module inside this second-generation dongle, data being passed to and from your iPhone can be up to 98% faster, and it also offers faster transfer rates of data and reduced latency in audio. Moreover, if you have a vehicle running the build-in 2.4GHz Wi-Fi standard, the 5.8GHz operating frequency of this dongle might cause fewer conflicts and improve compatibility and stability in these vehicles.
As I said earlier, comparisons of their software are identical between both first and second generation of dongles, so it’s likely that if the first generation of dongle didn’t work for you, this new generation will not either, unless a future firmware update addresses the new hardware that’s inside the second generation dongle. Firmware updates are carried out much the same as other dongles. The CarLinkit 2.0 dongle comes with a QR code on the manual that you can easily scan with your iPhone camera, or you can simply enter the IP address 192.168.50.2 into your iPhone’s Safari browser app. If there is an update available, a single tap on the update button connects your iPhone to their online server and the new firmware is downloaded and applied to the dongle. After a reboot of the dongle, you’re back up and running with (hopefully) compatibility and bugs improvements.
So if you have the first-generation of dongle, is this second-generation worth upgrading to? Thinking long and hard about it, I don’t think it is. Because software is shared between generations, there will not be any differences in compatibility other than with its hardware. If you think a detachable USB cable or 5.8GHz speeds will help improve the location of your dongle or the connection or the stability in your vehicle, then it might be worth the upgrade. Otherwise, I would wait for more drastic changes or feature improvements.
If you are looking for your first wireless Apple CarPlay dongle, then I would recommend buying a second-generation. The detachable cable means you can upgrade its cable when needed, its bigger LED status light makes it easier to see the connection status of the dongle if it is tucked away, and the USB-C and 5.8GHz may improve performance and stability in your vehicle. Overall, it’s a sleeker, better dongle for your money right now. Much cheaper than replacing your existing wired CarPlay receiver or stock system for a wireless one.
Compatibility and performance have been the two major key problems with both generations of these wireless dongles. But you have to realise the challenges that its software team is facing when programming these dongles to support thousands of varying vehicle system specifications and configurations. Compatibility can feel like a bit of a lottery; if your numbers come up and the dongle works in your vehicle or aftermarket system, then count yourself one of the lucky winners, because when it works these dongles work great! But there are many people in the losing camp too, who have found that these dongles simply will not function in their vehicle, so without having 100% assurance on compatibility it can feel like playing Russian roulette with your wallet.
When there is a risk of compatibility with your vehicle or receiver, it’s best to buy a wireless dongle (whichever generation) that is the cheapest, and the CarLinkit 2.0 dongle for existing wired CarPlay systems from CarPlaying is one of the best places you can source a second-generation dongle from. Although this CarLinkit 2.0 dongle is more of an evolutionary update than a revolutionary product, any experiences and niggles through its software will likely be the same, however, the CarLinkit 2.0 wireless Apple CarPlay dongle does bring with it a few physical advancements and features that have won me over as my dongle of choice to plug into my Apple CarPlay enabled vehicle.