A few months ago I added a wireless CarPlay adapter to my Ford Maverick pickup truck. Ford cheaped out on adding it to cut costs so instead of Ford spending another $2 to add it, I had to spend $70. Yay. More recently, I decided to check out a few of the “AI Box” adapters to see if they were any good. Here is my consolidated review of two of them.
There are two types of wireless adapters you can get (whether you want CarPlay or Android Auto): the first one provides you CP or AA only. Some of these adapters provide both options, like the Carlinkit 5.0 2air CarPlay Wireless Adapter I have been using. This adapter works great and is reliable. It takes about 35 seconds to get to the CarPlay interface after I’ve started my truck.
Then there are these other more advanced wireless adapters that not only provide CarPlay and Android Auto, but give you full Android tablet functionality as well. You may have seen them called a Magic Box or TBox Plus. No matter what the brand (there are dozens of the same thing from China), they all provide a basic Android tablet interface where you can install most apps from the Google Play Store, or launch CarPlay.
Yes, you can totally stream Netflix (or others) and play games while you are driving. But you shouldn’t. It’s like having an Android tablet in your vehicle, with the ability to install virtually any app in the Google Play Store. That’s the appeal. But in reality, how well do they work? I found out the reality after buying and trying two different models:
This box is currently $195, but I got it for $176 on Prime Day. The prices vary from day to day and from seller to seller, and you can get it cheaper if you skimp on specs. I got this one because I’ve had so much success with Carlinkit products in the past, including my current 5.0 adapter. After plugging it in, I noticed it took about twice as long to get too the CarPlay interface. The reason for this is that it first has to load its Android 12 operating system, and then it loads the Android app which runs CarPlay. There’s no option to boot it directly to CarPlay or Android separately.
Fine! For the benefit of having the option to get to a full Android tablet, I’m willing to wait the extra half a minute.
After ensuring that it worked with my Ford Maverick’s infotainment system I loaded it up with apps! I added a few games like Crossy Road and Subway Surfers. I added Minecraft for my daughter, and linked up an Xbox controller for playing the games. Netflix was already there, but I added streaming services for Max, Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+, Hulu, and a few others. I didn’t bother with Disney+ because you have to side load the APK file and didn’t need it that bad. I also added fuboTV which later stopped working: I got an error “Sorry, your streaming device isn’t compatible to play this video”… which is weird, because it worked fine initially. I needed to call Fubo TV to figure it out but didn’t.
I even went so far as to getting a T-Mobile SIM card (tip: if you have an existing account with them, adding an unlimited data “tablet” SIM card is only $20/mo and it’s fast and awesome). This way I could use both CarPlay and Android interfaces at the same time without having to deal with my phone hotspot which disconnects CarPlay in the interim (major hassle). They tell you that the box’s Android interface can use your phone’s hotspot which is true, but then if you switch back to the CarPlay app it needs to reconnect to your phone with the hotspot off. The end result is that you need to get a SIM card or you will lose your freaking mind with the two battling each other for that hotspot connection.
On the CarPlay side of things, it worked great for a little while. Then it started not working at all. The Android OS would load, then it would auto-start the CarPlay interface but it would just get stuck. Or sometimes it wouldn’t even load Android (step 1) and all I would see is a black screen. I tried resetting my Maverick’s infotainment screen (press power button and skip buttons at the same time for 10 seconds) and it would work again. But then a few days later it got worse. CarPlay stopped connecting to my iPhone. The CarPlay app would load, but it would never connect. Sometimes hitting the home icon to go back to Android and tapping the CarPlay icon would work, but it started taking a few minutes to connect. I contacted their support and with their help, I upgraded to Android 13 (it had 12). That didn’t change anything.
After dozens of messages back and forth with their support, sending photos and trying various things, I gave up. I felt like I was beta testing their box. Maybe it had something to do with my Ford? I didn’t think so because their other non-AI box (my previous 5.0 adapter, and even their previous 3.0 adapter) worked flawlessly with the same vehicle. Anytime I was having an issue with their AI Box, I plugged the 5.0 adapter in and it always worked fine.
It was the box, and just before the 30 day return window closed I returned it.
After doing more research and determining there was enough differences between the CarlinKit and the ZHNN AI Box, I decided to give it a try. With the Amazon $100 coupon, it was (and still is as of this writing), $160. Cheaper than the CarlinKit box I just reviewed. And it even has a video review from a customer and he’s using it in his Ford Maverick–but I get the feeling he just plugged it in for the first time, so not a very good review.
Both the CalinKit and ZHNN boxes have the same specs: the latest Snapdragon octa-core processor, 8GB of RAM, SIM card slot, SD card slot, Android 12, etc. Other than the case being a little different, they are essentially the same device. They both take about a minute to completely load the CarPlay interface.
The CarPlay apps are different, but both provide the same end result. Once you get to the CarPlay interface, there’s no way you could tell which is the ZHNN vs. CarlinKit vs. the wired interface from Ford.
Once again, I loaded it up with all the apps I added to the CarlinKit AI Box. Everything worked great. Both have snappy interfaces and great performance overall.
Then the problems arose. But different ones.
Problem 1: Crappy Audio
This happened once or twice with the CarlinKit box as well but so few it wasn’t worth mentioning. With the ZHNN it happened frequently. You load CarPlay, go into the Music app, and start streaming audio. Except it sounds like something’s wrong with your speakers. Or really bad AM radio. The only way to fix it is to unplug the box and plug it back in. This happened too many times for me to live with. At this point I was already considering sending it back. But then this happened:
Problem 2: No Audio
That’s right kids, this AI box kicked it up a notch to a new low. Apple CarPlay and the Music app acted as if everything was just great… the interface showed that it was playing audio, but nothing was playing. Even with the FM radio playing music in the background from the Maverick (usually starting audio from the box overrode it and stopped the FM radio from playing). Skipping songs didn’t do it, nor did trying a different app such as YouTube Music or Spotify.
This was the final nail in the coffin for the ZHNN AI Box. And now it too is going back.
Maybe it’s my 2023 Ford Maverick, but I find it hard to believe it is the source of the problems with these AI boxes. When every single time I can unplug the AI box and plug in my non-AI box and have it work just fine, I have to fault the AI boxes. Maybe you will have better success than I did, but after trying two different AI boxes from two different manufacturers and having horrible experiences, I’m sticking with my original CarlinKit 5.0 adapter and do without the fancy schmancy Android tablet feature.
But I still am looking for the ultimate (working) Android tablet & CarPlay box that works as expected. Maybe it’s just that the hardware that’s running Android doesn’t play well with the Ford Maverick truck? If I had to guess, the non-AI box version (5.0 adapter) also boots up a lightweight Android operating system in order to load the CarPlay app. If that’s how they work then I don’t know what to say because that version works great.
If you have a Ford Maverick truck (or really any other vehicle that doesn’t offer wireless CarPlay), my best advice is to just stick to the adapter that doesn’t provide the Android tablet experience. Get the Carlinkit 5.0 2air CarPlay Wireless Adapter or the older 3.0 version works great too. The benefit of getting the latest 5.0 version is that it’s faster and supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto should you ever change devices or someone other than you is driving your vehicle and needs the other one.