New Gadget Makes Your Dumb Car Smart for $99

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay offer the latest in automotive infotainment, but there’s a lot of things they can’t do, such as monitor your engine or unlock your door. On top of that, you have to buy a whole new car (or at the very least, a $700 head unit) to get the software up and running. Thankfully, using the palm-sized Vinli accessory and the mobile devices you already own, you can turn any car made after 1996 into a modern people mover with the tech you expect in 2015.

Currently up for pre-order on its Indiegogo page, the Vinli can be had for just $99, $50 less than its retail price when its starts shipping this fall. The Vinli is a tiny black block that plugs into the government standard OBD II port underneath your dash, which adds three new layers of features to your car: multi-level connectivity, apps and Vinli services.

MORE: Connected Cars: A Guide to New Vehicle Technology

The first is the most straightforward. Vinli brings an 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi hotspot with Bluetooth 4.0 for connecting all your mobile device, and a 3G/4G LTE modem on T-Mobile’s network for pulling down data to distribute to said devices. While you’ll still have to pay for the data, which starts at $6 a month for 500MB (about 3 movies on Netflix), you can now access all the wonders of the internet in your car.

Vinli’s app ecosystem lets you better utilize the new found features of your car. The Beagle app allows you set to a geofence around a certain area, so you know exactly when your child pulled into the high school parking lot, or decided to stray across county lines during a milk run gone renegade. That’s something even Google Maps can’t do. There’s also the Otto app that lets you tap into the diagnostics hidden in your car’s computer, so you know how much air is seeping out of your tires, and even find engine problems long before the light pops up on your dash.

Finally, if things do go wrong, Vinli can put you in touch with a reputable garage or dealership, or help you call a tow truck from the roadside using the app. In the event of accident, ECall can sense you’ve been in a crash and automatically alert friends or family by phone or text. It will also call 911, although using the 911 database costs an extra $30 per year (you can thank Uncle Sam for that fee).

I had a chance to check out Vinli for myself and was impressed to see that a device that small could do so much. Movies from Netflix streamed smoothly, and when we set a geofence around the Tom’s Guide office in the Flatiron district, I received texts within a few seconds anytime I left the approved area. Vinli’s app store works on both Android and iOS devices, and is curated by the company to put the best apps front and center. For those who already use their phone as the heart of their car services, Vinli is a fully featured and relatively inexpensive way to make that experience even better.

Sam Rutherford is a staff writer at Tom’s Guide. Follow him @SamRutherford on Twitter, and Tom’s Guide on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

Sam is a Senior Writer at Engadget and previously worked at Gizmodo as a Senior Reporter. Before that, he worked at Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag as a Staff Writer and Senior Product Review Analyst, overseeing benchmarks and testing for countless product reviews. He was also an archery instructor and a penguin trainer too (really).