What’s the Difference Between a Head Unit and a Tablet?


The difference between a head unit and a tablet is that a head unit is specifically made to be used in a vehicle. In contrast, a tablet is created for mobile computing for web browsing, which would not be needed in a head unit. The most modern head units have similar features to a tablet but are specially designed for automotive use. 

So many new devices and technological advancements have created an overwhelming amount of different gadgets and doodahs.

Each comes with its terminology, mode of operation, and method of function. Some of which seem more like operating an alien spaceship complete with a strange foreign language.

Two newer tech developments are head units and tablets. What are they? What do they do?

What’s the difference between a head unit and a tablet? For a basic understanding, a head unit is an accessory used in the car that connects to a mobile device, like a tablet.

What’s a Head Unit?

A head unit is a car accessory providing a unified hardware interface that includes system controls, screens, and buttons for many different entertainment and information functions.

They’re often used in the car with receivers and dashboard stereos. Head units provide interfacing with:

  • CD or DVDs
  • Cassette Tapes
  • Navigation/GPS
  • Bluetooth
  • Wi-Fi
  • Dashcams
  • MP3 Players
  • AM/FM or Satellite Radio

Some head units allow for volume control and other audio settings like equalization, speaker balanced bass, and treble.

Other models offer voice and gesture recognition integration or even a system status monitor.

Double DIN
Pioneer Head Unit

What’s a Tablet?

Tablets are a mobile computational device with a touchscreen and rechargeable batteries that are similar to a smartphone.

Gestures by a stylus or finger to operate the touchscreen display rather than a mouse, touchpad, or keyboard compared to a PC.

Tablets don’t have all the bells and whistles that come with laptop and desktop computers but still have more features than a head unit.

Examples of a tablet would be an iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab.

Yet, it’s often smaller than a standard laptop or traditional computer, but manufacturers have developed several sizes in a vast range in recent years. There are even some newer 2-in-1 models that double as a laptop and a tablet.

Many of the tablet’s features and apps require internet access and have the capacity to support USB plugs, stick drives, and Bluetooth.

Keyboard access is onscreen rather than a physical piece of hardware.


Tablets vs Head Units

Up until recently, these two were completely different mechanisms with separate functions that worked together in a car for listening to music.

But even more developments in tech have made it possible to turn your tablet into a head unit, thereby creating a 2-in1 scenario.

We wrote an article about using an iPad as a head unit for more information on this. 

This is all still quite new, though, with many kinks to iron out.

Until then, you can use a tablet in your car with a head unit to enjoy hand-free listening, texting, and calls while driving.

It allows for ease of use and convenience, especially for those who love road trips or travel long distances for work. 

Put simply, a head unit is designed to be used in a car for the operations of a car, and a tablet is not primarily intended for use while operating a vehicle. 

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are operating systems made explicitly for head units for vehicles. Apple CarPlay, for instance, has all the necessary applications you would need for your car.

These include Maps, Music, Radio, Podcasts, calendar, Mobile, and SMS connectivity.

The whole point of this operating system is that it connects your phone to your car in a seamless experience, so you can use Siri and Google Assistant like you would with your mobile.

This is incredibly important while operating a vehicle so as to not get distracted while driving.

In many countries, it is also illegal to use your phone or touch screen while driving.  

The most prominent car makers from 2016/2017 have Apple CarPlay installed in them as standard.

You can see the full list on Apple’s website. From 2021 BMW models also have Apple mobile keys that are compatible with the vehicle. 

AndroidAuto is equally complete and is standard in over 500 car models. You can see the full list on Andriod’s website.   

Apple CarPlay Home Screen
Apple CarPlay home interface

Final Thoughts

So, the difference between a tablet and the head unit is simple, one is a mobile device connected to the internet and the other allows for hands-free use of your mobile device with your stereo while you drive in your car. 

When you know what these two are, your next step is deciding which ones to use to best suit your needs.

Picture of Alex
I loved my car but was frustrated with my media system. So I upgraded my stereo, making silly wires and precarious phone mounts a thing of the past. The Apple Car Play stereo was so good I wanted to show more people how this could be done and truly upgrade their cars multimedia system! Founder StereoUpgrade.com
Recent Posts