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.
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.
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.
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?
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 availability) 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.
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. 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.
CarPlay is Apple's entry into the infotainment space, and makes it easy to use iOS apps on your BMW's iDrive screen. If you're an iPhone user and want to replace BMW's native maps with Waze, make and receive WhatsApp messages while driving or stream music from Spotify or Apple Music, CarPlay is an obvious solution. Using Siri you can ask for directions, skip to the next track, send voice messages or makes calls, without taking your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road.
The obvious consequence is increased safety; compared to the BMW native voice command, Siri is generally more capable, and with the iOS app ecosystem backing it up, you're unlikely to miss out on features you need. There's also the matter of familiarity — you'll be able to use the same Siri commands you do on your iPhone.
CarPlay is only available for iPhone users; if you've got an Android phone, you'll need Android Auto, which offers a lot of the same features. We'll take a closer look at it in a moment.
Since July 2019, BMW has offered wireless CarPlay as a subscription service, available in many 2017 and later vehicles with the necessary hardware. Yet, after being exposed to customers’ criticism BMW has rethought its strategy on CarPlay availability. In December 2019 BMW announced that, starting from 2019/2020 cars with the latest iDrive 7.0, BMW owners won’t have to pay any kind of fees. Of course, that only covers the newest cars, and compatible 2018 and older BMWs with iDrive 6.0 will be charged a $300 one-time fee (like an earlier lifetime subscription).
Operation requires a compatible iPhone (all models since the iPhone 5 running iOS 9.3 or higher) running the CarPlay app, which is connected to 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.
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 voice through Siri, some have still questioned whether an interface designed with cellphones in mind is the best choice for use in a car.
The same certainly couldn't be said of Google's Android Auto, launched in 2015. While the Material Design found in Android Auto was familiar to owners of Android smartphones, the Android Auto interface had been built from the ground up with driving-friendliness in mind. We've got a complete introduction to Android Auto if you want to learn more about it.
Instead of CarPlay's cellphone-style app menu, Android Auto featured an on-screen bar allowing quick switching between four different views. A navigation screen offered Google Maps, including up-to-date traffic information and spoken navigation instructions. A second screen featured call and text services. An entertainment screen let you access music from a range of apps, including Spotify and PocketCasts. Finally, a Google Now-esque home screen featured a mix of notifications and behavior- and location-specific cards. Like on your Android smartphone, the content of these cards depended on the information in your Google Account.
In 2019, though, Google launched a totally new version of Android Auto, which dropped this approach for an interface far more reminiscent of CarPlay. The new home screen features an app grid, and a sidebar that lets you toggle between your two most recently-used apps. In keeping with the Android approach, a widget section alongside the map lets you control music without switching apps.
The new interface may not make much difference to how you use your car's infotainment system, because 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. Nevertheless, for anybody who already an avid user of Google Assistant, Android Auto offers a great way to bring the Google ecosystem into your car.
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, was that Android Auto was also available as a standalone app for cellphones and tablets. This meant that even those without a compatible factory or aftermarket head unit could use Android Auto on a mobile device mounted on the dashboard. For owners of Android smartphones, there's no doubt that Android Auto was the easiest third-party system to try before you buy; it only required downloading the Android Auto app from the Google Play Store.
Google has, however, announced plans to remove this functionality with the latest Android Auto app update. Instead, Google Assistant is due to introduce a special driving mode, offering some of the same ease-of-use and safety features of Android Auto. That puts Android users in the same position as iPhone owners, needing an Android Auto-compatible head unit to take full advantage of their phones infotainment capabilities.
If you've given Android Auto a try and like what you find, you’re going to be thrilled by this news — in July of 2020, BMW is going to introduce Android Auto to all vehicles with iDrive 7.0.
And for those whose BMWs come with older iDrive versions — you also have a chance to add Android Auto to your car. 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.
As a BMW-specific retrofit, BimmerTech's Android Auto MMI Prime 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 Google Assistant.
Android Auto also includes a Screen Mirroring option, which lets you cast the screen of your mobile device onto the BMW’s display, and stream audio through the car speakers with the help of the Android Autolink app. It's an easy way to use mobile apps not yet available through Android Auto.
The audio output circuit in the Android Auto MMI Prime has been specifically selected to squeeze all the quality we can out of the iDrive AUX input, providing great audio quality for music, streaming and calls.
The MMI also has a built-in 8-band equalizer, great for adjusting the sound in your BMW, especially if you don't have a multi-band equalizer in your iDrive system.
Every element of the kit is designed to fit perfectly with your BMW, for a perfectly smooth user experience. What’s more, a third-party unit like BimmerTech's is the closest you'll get to the feeling of a native Android Auto installation.
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 cell phone, 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.
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 be available only for BMWs with iDrive 7.0 and newer. With that in mind, if you have an older head unit going aftermarket is your only choice, unless you're willing to make do with the native iDrive system.
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 Google Assistant, 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 range of apps available through CarPlay and Android Auto — covering 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 Prime, you don't even have to choose between CarPlay and Android Auto; both come preinstalled and ready to use. With both major third-party systems, no subscription fees and complete integration with the iDrive system, CarPlay/Android Auto MMI Prime is a flexible option packed with features.
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.
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