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Tuesday, 21 May 2019 09:01

iDrive vs. CarPlay vs. Android Auto: Which Is Best for Your BMW?

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A decent infotainment system is a must for any modern car intended for everyday driving. The major auto manufacturers have all cottoned on, each developing their own systems in-house and making them available in most of their latest models. Hot on their heels is a proliferation of third-party hardware and software designed to add new features to your vehicle.

Short of installing a tablet in your dashboard or building your own carputer from a single-board computer, there are three main options for BMW owners to choose from: the native iDrive interface developed by BMW; Apple's CarPlay system; and Android Auto from Google.

But which is the best option? We take a look at each in turn to see exactly what they have to offer.

iDrive from BMW

The iDrive interface has been a mainstay in BMWs since it was launched in 2001. Although this initial version was pretty cumbersome to use and wasn't exactly attractive, the system has since come on leaps and bounds.

Pros

The current generation iDrive definitely offers a much smoother experience than it did in the past. What's more, as it was developed specifically for use in BMWs, it's perfectly integrated with your vehicle and all its factory features. This makes iDrive the best option if you're looking for an all-in-one solution. It lets you adjust your car settings and check vehicle status, access navigation information and—thanks to mobile phone integration through BMW Apps—enjoy services like Pandora and Spotify, all through the same interface.

With all these features available, why would you even consider another system?

Cons

Firstly, perhaps the most obvious use for an in-car computer is for help finding the way from A to B. Most of us, though, are now used to carrying Google Maps with us wherever we go, and ditching that for iDrive's far more limited navigation offering seems pretty counter-intuitive.

Secondly, although iDrive can offer mobile office functions, in-car telephony and more, these connected features are generally reliant on your smartphone. And unfortunately, compatibility isn't exactly a given. Your smartphone, the version of iOS or Android it's running and the iDrive software installed in your car can all influence what features will and won't work. Buying a new phone can be more stress than it's worth, when there's no guarantee that the in-car features you rely on will continue to function with your new handset.

Finally, not everybody is convinced by the quality of the user experience. BMW has worked hard to improve the iDrive since it was first introduced, but there is still a long way to go to match the expertise of the likes of Apple and Google. These companies are able to draw on their vast experience creating the user interfaces that we interact with every day on our cellphones. The ubiquitousness of iOS and Android also means that CarPlay and Android Auto have the third-party support (be that hardware compatibility or app availablility) that we as smartphone users now take for granted.

These factors taken together explain in part why auto manufacturers have been so quick to offer CarPlay and/or Android Auto integration in many of their newer vehicles.

BMW Apple CarPlay

Apple's CarPlay system has been rising in popularity since its launch in 2014. It's now being offered as a factory option in an increasing number of cars, including most of the latest BMWs (although you'll have to pay an annual subscription fee). CarPlay-compatible head units are also available as a retrofit option in older vehicles and those lacking the appropriate hardware, and aftermarket CarPlay units like BimmerTech's offer another way to get CarPlay into your BMW. More information about Apple CarPlay can be found in our other blog post, and we've also taken a look at retrofitting CarPlay into older BMWs.

BMW Apple Carplay

Using CarPlay in your BMW

Operation requires a compatible iPhone (all models since the iPhone 5 running iOS 7.1 or higher) running the CarPlay app, which is plugged into a CarPlay-compatible head unit. This allows using apps installed on your iPhone on the dashboard display, all through the custom CarPlay interface.

This doesn't mean that all your apps can be used in your car, though. Only CarPlay-enabled apps can be used, and Apple has the final say on which apps can and can't be made available for use on CarPlay. While major apps like iMessage, Apple Maps and Audible are compatible, some of your favorite iPhone apps are likely to be missing.

Even the apps that do work might not work quite as you'd expect. A lot had been made of the CarPlay version of Apple Maps, for example, which lacks the pinch-to-zoom functionality you'd find on your iPhone.

Perfect for iPhone users

The CarPlay interface will, however, prove intuitive to iPhone users, featuring an app menu that, at first glance, is all but identical to that found on iOS. This, however, has meant that CarPlay has come in for its fair share of criticism; although many CarPlay features can be controlled using Siri voice commands, some have still questioned whether an interface designed with cellphones in mind is the best choice for use in a car.

BMW Android Auto

The same certainly cannot be said of Google's Android Auto, launched in 2015. While the Material Design found in Android Auto will be familiar to owners of Android smartphones, the Android Auto interface has been built from the ground up with driving-friendliness in mind.

Instead of CarPlay's cellphone-style app menu, Android Auto features an on-screen bar allowing quick switching between four different views. A navigation screen offers Google Maps, including up-to-date traffic information and spoken navigation instructions. A second screen features call and text services. An entertainment screen lets you access music from a range of apps, including Spotify and PocketCasts. Finally, a Google Now-esque home screen features a mix of notifications and behavior- and location-specific cards. Like on your Android smartphone, the content of these cards depends on the information in your Google Account.

Integration with Google Assistant

Android Auto also has a strong focus on the use of voice commands, for increased safety when driving. Android Auto is fully integrated with Google Assistant, letting you get directions, place calls or ask questions by speaking. Like comparing Google Assistant on an Android smartphone to Siri on an iPhone, Android Auto generally has better voice recognition and greater voice control capabilities. Siri and CarPlay have been coming on leaps and bounds with each update, though, so Android Auto's lead in that area is shrinking.

An easy Android Auto hack: use it on your phone

Like Apple CarPlay, Android Auto is operated by connecting your smartphone (running Android 5.0 or higher) to the vehicle's Android Auto-compatible head unit, and uses (some of) the apps installed on your phone.

One major difference between the two, though, is that Android Auto is also available as a standalone app for cellphones and tablets. This means that even those without a compatible factory or aftermarket head unit can use Android Auto on a mobile device mounted on the dashboard. For owners of Android smartphones, there's no doubt that Android Auto is the easiest third-party system to try before you buy; it only requires downloading the Android Auto app from the Google Play Store.

How to get Android Auto in BMW

If you've given Android Auto a try and like what you find, you'll probably be frustrated to learn that, when it comes to Android Auto integration, BMW isn't particularly interested. The company is one of the few remaining automakers not to have any Android Auto compatible cars, and there have been regular statements from Bavaria that there are no plans to change that.

That doesn't have to mean going without Android Auto in your BMW, though. Third-party Android Auto head units have proliferated in recent years, giving car owners an effective way to add Android Auto to their vehicles.

At that point, the choice is between a one-size-fits-all head unit from a brand like Kenwood or Pioneer, or a specialised Android Auto BMW retrofit that has been designed with BMWs in mind, such as BimmerTech's fully featured Android Auto module. The latter has the advantage of improved integration with your car, letting you use Android Auto on your factory dashboard screen, instead of having to add a new screen as part of the retrofit.

Android Auto BMW retrofit

As a BMW-specific retrofit, BimmerTech's Android Auto MMI PLUS is the easiest and best integrated way to add Android Auto to your BMW. A plug-and-play module connects to your iDrive, letting you use Android Auto on the factory dashboard display. What's more, you can navigate Android Auto easily using your iDrive controller, dashboard buttons and voice commands through Google Assistant.

Every element of the kit is designed to fit perfectly with your BMW, for a perfectly smooth user experience. Unless BMW does a U-turn and starts offering Android Auto in its vehicles from the factory, a third-party unit like BimmerTech's is the closest you'll get to the feeling of a native Android Auto installation.

Connecting your smartphone to your BMW

Each system has its advantages and drawbacks. iDrive's thorough integration makes it a great choice if ease of use is a priority; owners of the BMW models with CarPlay-compatible head units still need to exit CarPlay and return to iDrive to modify vehicle settings. iDrive also doesn't require connecting your cellphone, perhaps making it a little more usable in some situations.

What CarPlay and Android Auto may lack in convenience, though, they make up for in versatility. For many, being able to use the same apps across your smartphone and car makes all the difference. CarPlay and Android Auto both offer far better app support than iDrive.

Getting more apps in your vehicle

Despite this, there are still a lot of apps for iOS and Android that can't be used with CarPlay and Android Auto. Furthermore, although BMW has now begun to offer CarPlay-compatible head units (and these can be retrofitted in some older models), it maintains that Android Auto will not be made available in BMWs. With that in mind, going aftermarket is your only choice, unless you're willing to make do with the native iDrive system.

Don't know which head unit you have? Click here

For Android users underwhelmed by what iDrive has to offer, or iOS users looking to enjoy a wider range of apps, a custom solution could be the best option. Smartphone mirroring or casting lets you use all your mobile apps without sacrificing the functionality of the iDrive system. As Android Auto is available as a standalone smartphone app and can be largely controlled with voice commands, this is even an effective way to add Android Auto to BMWs lacking a touchscreen display.

On the other hand, if you're happy with the more limited range of apps available through CarPlay and Android Auto—though this range still covers most of the mainstream apps you're likely to use in your car—an aftermarket CarPlay or Android Auto head unit is likely to offer better integration with your BMW. In the case of BimmerTech's CarPlay MMI PLUS, you don't even have to choose between CarPlay and Android Auto; both come preinstalled and ready to use.

But of course, which option is best all comes down to just what you want to do in your BMW...

Still not sure which is the right solution for you? Contact us and we can help you add the features your BMW is missing.

Read 37943 times Last modified on Wednesday, 10 July 2019 12:50
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