Last updated on July 4th, 2021 at 10:07 am

I remember when the first touchscreen cell phones came out and thinking how cool the tech was. Despite the “cool” factor though, the early touchscreen phones were often difficult and clunky to use. Times change though, and there is no doubt that today, a touchscreen cell phone is superior to those old-school physical button devices.

The same leap in technology has happened in automotive tech. Go to a dealership and look at new cars today, and virtually all of them, even the bargain base models, have a touchscreen head unit. The decision to include this advanced tech certainly is driven by buyers, but the touchscreen is also a great way for car manufacturers to incorporate lots of different functions within a single unit while offering a safer driving experience.

Aftermarket Touchscreen Problems

Only a decade ago, adding a touchscreen to your non-touchscreen car was difficult at best and impossible for a majority of vehicles on the road. For starters, in order to be functional, a touchscreen needs a larger opening than a typical factory stereo. This is particularly true when trying to upgrade a car with limited dash space that uses a single-din head unit from the factory. Simply getting enough room for an oversized screen can mean cutting the dash, deleting important controls, and other challenges like getting enough room behind the unit.

As tech improved, even more problems with upgrading have arisen. Most recent new car models that include a touchscreen also incorporate functions like climate control within the unit, making it almost impossible to upgrade to an aftermarket head unit. Fear not! The aftermarket touchscreen head unit has advanced leaps and bounds in recent years, and there are solutions for almost any imaginable project.

Project Car “Dirty Diana” Touchscreen Upgrade

A little over a year ago, I began an ambitious project to upgrade the audio tech in a car I am building as a daily driver. The vehicle happens to be a 1962 Ford Thunderbird that came originally equipped with state-of-the-art audio tech (in 1962). That tech included a two post AM transistorized radio and a single dash-mounted 5 ¼” oblong speaker. Yeah, that’s it. To its credit, even after decades of neglect, the AM radio still works as long as you want to listen to baseball games, religious talk radio, or Spanish dance music.

This would be the very first vehicle equipped with a touchscreen head unit I have owned, and I wasn’t entirely sold that the touchscreen would be very important to me. After many months of driving all over Central California in my ‘Bird with a gorgeous touchscreen head unit, I can assure you I would never go back to a factory-type radio, even one of the new-fangled designs that replicates the look of a factory unit with advanced features. A touchscreen stereo in your car is simply a great upgrade that opens up a world of functionality and enhances every drive.

Living With a Touchscreen in Your Car

For me, going from a world of AM radios, or no radio at all, upgrading to a touchscreen was like hitting warp speed. In the three or four years I owned ‘Dirty Diana’ prior to the stereo upgrade, I might have turned on the radio twice. I carried a touchscreen cell phone, a Bluetooth speaker, and a battery pack to get tunes. It worked okay, but the lack of a decent place to mount my phone and the difficulty of keeping it charged all the time was a serious drawback. Plus, the Bluetooth speaker was underpowered and inaudible at freeway speeds.

I upgraded the system by adding a Sony XAV-AX7000 head unit and a pair of 3.5” Kicker speakers in the factory dash spot. You can read a complete write-up of the install process on our website, along with a bunch of photos showing the entire job. At the end of the day, I have a fully functional and modern touchscreen stereo, decent speakers, and important upgrades, like a backup camera and a hidden USB port for connecting and charging my phone. Gone are the days of lugging a bag of cables, speaker, and a battery pack. Now, it’s as simple as turning the key, and away we go.

Distraction-Free Driving

man on phone with coffee distracted driving

One of the best things about a touchscreen stereo in your car is the ease of use they offer. Distracted driving has become a serious issue in the United States, particularly as touchscreen cell phones have become popular. Sadly, 2,841 people were killed in 2018 because of distracted driving.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) cites three types of distracted driving: visual, manual, and cognitive. Operating a car stereo or cell phone while driving impacts all three types of distraction. Drivers are looking at the stereo instead of the road, with a hand pushing buttons instead of on the wheel, and thinking about what song or station they want, not what’s happening on the road right in front of them.

As if the car stereo wasn’t enough, our highly connected lifestyles mean we tend to want to respond to emails and text message notifications as soon as possible, often while driving. NHTSA states that it takes an average of five seconds to look at a text message. At 60 mph, that translates into more than 100 yards of travel, over the length of a football field. Would most drivers be willing to close their eyes for five seconds while driving? Probably not, but a 2019 study conducted by NHTSA found that around 60% of drivers over the age of 18 report texting while driving.

The Ways a Touchscreen Reduces Distractions

There are a few key features of touchscreen stereos that help to reduce distractions. Most drivers find that the larger screen makes selecting stations, media types, and other functions faster and easier than using a phone or a physical-button design. Today’s touchscreen head units make a concerted effort to simplify the process of selecting one type of playback from another, moving from page to page, and even accessing important apps. This helps to reduce the time drivers spend looking at the stereo instead of the road. Large icons and simple user interfaces are simply faster and easier to navigate on a touchscreen.

Key Features You Need to Know About

When you set out to buy a touchscreen head unit for your car, there are a number of features you should look for specifically and a few that tend to be a bit redundant. Of course, the first consideration must be “will it fit?” Check and double check your cars factory location and make sure you can actually get that big screen in there. Use our dash size search tool to find out!

Size Matters – Picking the Right Stereo

Some options make fitting a touchscreen easier. Designs such as the Sony XAV-AX8000 I installed use a standard single-din chassis mated to a double-din screen. This means you can install this stereo in single-din locations, albeit with the edges of the screen exposed. It’s not bad, just not as tidy looking as you may want, but it does work. We installed this unit on a Honda Accord a little while back and loved it.

Another consideration is limited space behind the stereo. Units like the Alpine iLX-W650 feature a minimal depth for easy mounting in almost any vehicle. The downside to these designs is that you will need a full double-din opening, so they aren’t practical for cars and trucks with single-din openings unless you are ready to make major, permanent changes to your dash.

Important Built-In Features

Before geeking out on watts-per-channel, EQ Bands, and all the other fun features that distinguish one brand from another, you should consider options that give you features you really use. Many of the best features are becoming universal, and you no longer have to buy the most expensive head unit on the market to get the best options.

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay

Probably the most key built-in feature to look for is the ability to connect the head unit to your phone using either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The crux of these functions is to allow you to use your phone directly on the touchscreen. This not only makes it super simple to play music files from Pandora and Spotify, but also allows you to access music saved to your phone or tablet. You can read more about why Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are great and see a list of our best pick Apple CarPlay Android Auto head units.

Bluetooth Connectivity

If you use your phone in the car, a Bluetooth connection is essential for hands-free calls and on-the-go connectivity. Most of the top competitors offer numerous models with Bluetooth built in.

Accessing Navigation

Built-in connectivity also means you have access on your touchscreen to your favorite navigation apps. Google Maps and Waze are among the most popular navigation apps on the market, and units with Android Auto or Apple CarPlay simplify getting around while helping to keep you focused on driving.

Some units include built-in GPS, often at a significant price increase. In some cases, functionality of a built-in nav program is simpler and easier, but the vast majority of users will tell you that once you are comfortable with Google Maps or Waze, built-in systems will always lack something. It’s often better to find a unit with excellent reviews for connecting to apps than spending more on units with navigation included. But in the case you do want a head unit with GPS built in, check out our best recommended GPS head units.

Voice Control is Everything

Remember a bit ago when we discussed the three types of distraction? Well, here is the best way to eliminate nearly all of that: voice control. This tech is still blooming, but it continues to improve every year, and there are simply no other features so perfectly equipped to keep you paying attention to driving.

Voice control is most often accomplished through Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Both systems are uniquely perfect for the task. A good system will allow you to change tracks, search for stations, get weather and traffic updates, and respond to text messages and emails using nothing more than your voice. Voice control makes on-the-road phone calls a breeze, while keeping your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.

Now You See Me – Camera Support

Rear view cameras are one of the greatest safety advances in the last 20 years. They are so important that the Federal government mandates all new cars are required to have them. Adding a backup camera to your car is really simple. But, if you don’t have a screen that provides connectivity, you are stuck adding a separate monitor or staying old-school. When you shop for a head unit with a touchscreen, find one that features at least a single camera input. Backup cams are cheap and easy to install, and they are proven to save lives.

Many units are sold with dual camera inputs, like the Kenwood DNX893S. A dual camera allows you to hook up a front-facing cam in addition to the rear camera input.

Staying in Control – Options for Retaining Factory Features

Many upgrades from a factory stereo to an aftermarket touchscreen involve severing the tie to steering wheel controls. This can be particularly frustrating when those controls are the primary way you access your vehicles features. Buyers should look for head units that are iDataLink Maestro-compatible to keep factory functions, well, functioning.

Looking Good – the Perfect Display

Even though the display is the first thing you see when it comes to a touchscreen, it shouldn’t be the first consideration you make. Most displays today are pushing the limits of digital perfection, with many screens displaying in full HD. Keep in mind that it is not a good idea to set up a stereo that plays video, and most systems are not capable of providing video playback.

When comparing displays, you’ll want to consider your application. Some vehicles provide very little dash overhang, so bright light will cause poor quality screens to be difficult to view. At the same time, screens that are protected by the dash but feature anti-glare coatings may look less sharp than other screens.

In our experience, the anti-glare screens by Kenwood and Pioneer are consistently excellent. If you purchase a head unit that doesn’t have decent anti-glare protection, you can always add a screen protector to enhance anti-glare.

Shopping by the Numbers

Let's be honest here, price is one of the biggest features we look at when buying a head unit. A few years ago, buyers were limited to top-of-the-line products to get the best features. Competition has changed the game, and today you’ll find reasonably-priced head units from big name brands with a full slate of important features.

Looking to save even more coin? Check out our list of Android OS-based head units made by a few brands you’ve probably never heard of. These units often have all the best features, excellent screens, and good connectivity options at a price that is a little hard to believe. By going with a generic design, you may even find that you can configure your head unit to do things big brands won’t, like playing video.

Conclusion

If you are considering upgrading to a touchscreen, you’re making a great choice. Not only do touchscreen head units give drivers a safer way to enjoy tunes on the road, they enhance your overall experience.

One of the features I use constantly on my touchscreen is voice-activated navigation. Having used a cell phone for years for this purpose, the ability to speak to my classic car and get almost instant directions without lifting a finger is absolutely futuristic.