Adventures with CarPlay - Part 1

The Problem Statement

My daily driver is a 2015 Volkswagen Jetta SEL TDI - I love the car - it gets great fuel mileage (TDI = Diesel) where I can get almost 700 miles on a tank of fuel (on a flat highway). The only downside (and I knew it at the time) was that CarPlay had just been announced around six months before and it would be at least a year before most car manufacturers would announce support for it.

CarPlay (like Android Auto) project a nice overlay over a cars touchscreen on the radio system allowing you to use the phone’s applications that support it like Maps, Messages/SMS, audio streaming apps, etc. It also allows updates to be managed at the phone device level, since car entertainment systems (based on embedded OS’) are never updated once they leave the factory.

But I thought at the time - “I can always just buy a replacement radio head unit when they start supporting CarPlay”

Fast forward to 2017 - by that point CarPlay had been rolled out across most models in the Volkswagen Group (VW, Audi, Seat, Skoda, Bentley, Lamborgini, etc.) So I went to the parts desk at my local dealership and asked how much it would cost to get a new head unit that supported CarPlay.

The price? $2100, not including install labor. Yikes - perhaps another time… (yeah, I know, dealership pricing)

I wanted to go OEM to preserve the looks (and feature set), since my car comes with CarNet (VW’s version of OnStar) and the Fender sound system upgrade (which uses a dedicated amplifier).

Possible middle way?

Fast forward another couple of years to 2019. I am still yearning for CarPlay and am not planning to buy another car anytime soon (I tend to average at least 10-15 years per car)

I looked again to see if there was a cheaper option… and there is one… @$1500 for a CarPlay retro kit . Still a little rich…

And then I came across the RCD330 PLUS head unit… I first heard about it via the Apple blog Six Colors where the author retrofitted his 2012 VW GTI with one of these units - and it looks just like a OEM system. And he paid around $200 for the setup. What gives?

The RCD330 series of head units are, in fact, OEM units for VW… for the Chinese market. But there is a thriving market of folks either buying them from parts suppliers or pulling them new from cars and selling them thru eBay/AliExpress/Amazon Marketplace and shipping them over from mainland China.

There are three RCD330 SKU’s that support CarPlay (Source ):

  • 6RD 035 187B (Desay) - runs Windows CE
  • 6RD 035 187B (NONAME) - runs Linux
  • 6RD 035 187E (NONAME) - runs Linux

BEWARE: There may be dragons…

I should point out that there are some caveats that you need to be aware of (and this post is to save you spending days if not weeks on VW forums like VW Vortex and the RCD330 Forums ).

  • Depending on the model you get, all will have CarPlay, but some may not have Android Auto (the NoName B model can get it via a firmware update; the 187E SKU does have AA support out of the box). As these are made for the Chinese market all SKU’s support Baidu CarLife which is similar to CarPlay and AA.
  • The Desay model is NOT upgradable via firmware; the NONAME’s are.
  • No CarNet support and GPS locator. (not surprising since CarNet is, I believe, available in China)
  • In the ROW (Rest of World), VW head units use a 26 PIN RGB connector to connect the rear (aka backup) camera. The RCD330’s all come with RCA jacks for the backup camera (which to most folks makes these units stick out as “aftermarket”, not OEM)
    • There are converters out there to convert the connection over which is the more expedient solution.
    • You could also rip out the OEM rear camera unit and install an aftermarket rear camera. But that would involve hours of pulling out the wires from the old system and wiring in the new one, which I would rather avoid for time and labor reasons. And the OEM camera was working just fine before - why replace it when you can spend less than $50 on an adapter?
  • As these are SKU’s for the Chinese market, the language options tend to be just Simplified Chinese or English. And the English can be rough in places (but if you are going to be in CarPlay all the time, not such a big deal)

So I tried one…

I went with the 187B Desay SKU (based on the Six Colors article), purchased via Amzparts on Amazon Marketplace , which shipped the unit from China. I declined the expedited express shipping so it took ~2 weeks from China Post via USPS to me on the US West Coast (and included getting thru US customs) Yes, as that original article stated, I could have gotten it slightly cheaper via AliExpress, but wanted the convenience of using Amazon.

187B (Desay) as arrived from Amzparts

187B (Desay) as arrived from Amzparts

System Information

System Information

I had service that needed to be done on the car so I had my friends over at Dubclinic do the install as part of the maintenance work - took less than 30 min to do the head swap.

A couple of issues:

  • No CarNet support (as mentioned before, not a surprise since it’s not an option available in China)
  • There seems to be no fader function and it’s not utilizing the amplifier. The only sound adjustment is balance between left and right not front/back. The rear speakers get very little output. The thought may be that the head unit needs to be programmed to use the amp (but there is some unconfirmed talk that the Desay 187B doesn’t support the amplifier)
Lack of a fader function

Lack of a fader function

  • The RGB/RCA adapter for the OEM rear camera, while working, was giving a faint, fuzzy signal. The tech thought it might just be a bad adapter.
Fuzzy Backup Camera

Fuzzy Backup Camera

But otherwise it works as expected.

CarPlay running Apple Maps

CarPlay running Apple Maps

I am currently running the public iOS 13 betas (on beta 3 at the time of writing) so there are some bugs - Apple Maps randomly forgetting that it’s giving directions or CarPlay crashing within the first minute (that’s less prevalent in beta 3), so that will hopefully go away as iOS 13 gets mor refined thru the betas.

So what’s next?

The lack of CarNet support is not a deal-breaker; the two times I have needed to use the service in the 4 years I have had the car it was because of a dead battery (left the headlights on), so I couldn’t use the integrated system anyway and had to call using my mobile phone. So replacing it with a traditional auto club roadside assistance program isn’t a big deal. I am keeping the old radio in storage in case I sell the vehicle and they want it intact.

The latter two issues are more of a problem:

  • While the sound quality of the front speakers is fine, I miss having sound coming from the rear so the lack of a fader is a issue. There was a idea that one could perhaps program that in via an VAG-COM CDS coding adjustment, but that hasn’t worked so far.
  • The rear camera issue needs to get fixed - it may just be a (cheap) adapter failure but the Amazon reviews for the Desay SKU have mention off and on issues with the rear camera.

So I am pondering my options - return the 187B Desay and see if I can manage a refund and then purchase in a 187E radio unit which may just resolve the outstanding issues. (I suspect returning this system will be a PITA). But then, that’s what part 2 will be for. ;)