When I first got my new car almost a year ago, one feature that excited me the most was that it came with Apple CarPlay. Being deeply entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, the idea of having iOS integrated with my car was extremely appealing. I’ve now used it almost daily for about a year and here’s what I have to say about it.
What is Apple CarPlay
A little introduction for those who aren’t too familiar with Apple CarPlay. Apple CarPlay is basically Apple’s version of a car infotainment and navigation system. Originally previewed at WWDC in 2013 as what was then called “iOS in the Car”, it was re-named a year later as Apple CarPlay along with a major redesign that is very similar to what we have today. It is run entirely from your iPhone through compatible head units, either through a lightning cable or wirelessly. The system is designed to be as hands free and distraction free as possible while still giving you easy access to your music, phone calls and navigation apps through methods like Siri integration, steering wheel button controls and a touch screen interface.
While it has had a relatively slow roll-out following its initial launch, it is now fast becoming a standard feature on many new cars along with it’s rival Android Auto. If a new car isn’t on the cards for you though, you can still get it on aftermarket head units for much less than the cost of a new car.
Now there’s really not much to go through in terms of interface because it’s really just a simplified version of iOS. You have the familiar app filled home screens and an additional combined view screen. Messaging apps are all strictly dictation only with no text content being shown on the screen. Not even content previews are shown when a message notification appears. The remaining apps are as minimalist as they get, optimised (or dumbed down) to take as little focus away from the road as possible.
So while there’s much to like about it given its simplicity, convenience and functionality, there are some issues that do annoy me quite a bit at times. Let’s talk about what I like about it first though.
It runs directly from your iPhone
I don’t know about you but for me, having my car’s head unit run directly from my iPhone is a Godsend. The conventional infotainment systems that car manufacturers have traditionally provided always required you to sync your contacts the first time you connect your phone to the car. From then if anyone else needs to connect their phone to it, it will usually attempt to sync their contacts as well and it tends to end up quite a mess. I’ve even experienced some cheaper aftermarket head units that simply refused to save anything once the engine has been switched off and I am always being prompted to re-sync and redo my settings. None of this exists with Apple CarPlay as everything is stored and read directly off your phone.
What you get when you connect your iPhone to the system for the first time is a prompt asking for your permission to allow the head unit to access your phone, and that’s pretty much it. From then on it just runs seamlessly off your iPhone, meaning all your contacts, call history, music, favourite locations, settings and etc. are accessed completely from your iPhone without any need to perform a sync with the head unit. This saves so much time and hassle compared to what we used to have to do with traditional OEM systems. I’m having flashbacks to those boot-loaded CD changers right now (if you even remember what they are).
Despite its early issues, Siri has improved to the point where it works about 8 out of the 10 times I try to use it. Apple CarPlay has deeply integrated Siri into the controls of the system where you can either activate it by saying “Hi Siri” or in some cases there is a dedicated Siri/voice activation button on the steering wheel. This should be a pretty welcoming feature to those of you who frequently make use of Siri. I am admittedly not one of those people which brings me to my next point.
Interface optimised for driving
I’ve said it before, I am not a fan of touch controls in a car because they tend to make you take your eyes off the road. The very idea of iOS however is based on a touchscreen. So why do I still say it’s been optimised for driving? No it’s not because I’m an Apple apologist. I just think they’ve done a really good job at optimising their interface to require as little finger precision as possible. Especially for those of us who don’t use Siri, Apple has gone beyond and introduced a driver friendly interface that features big and unambiguous action buttons throughout its interface. This design language greatly reduces the precision needed to tap the right buttons which has been my main issue with touch controls in a car. Also since it is Apple’s own design language, it provides a great degree of familiarity for iOS users thus further minimising the amount of focus it takes away from the road.
In spite of this driver friendly touch interface though, it must be said that those of us who happen to have music controls on our steering wheel will hardly ever need to take our hands off the steering wheel anyway. The only times I ever do are if I want to switch over to another app such as Google Maps or if I wish to change to a different playlist. But even in these cases, the touch screen controls are nicely sized and highly visible so there’s minimal brain power needed to hit the right buttons accurately. That’s not to say that the interface is perfect though as there are definitely some areas that I wish could be further improved, which I will now talk about.
Does not allow video playback
The first one is that it does not allow video playback in any form. Now I know some of you (including myself) would scoff at the inability to play videos off the screen, but it’s admittedly the right decision and I really shouldn’t have to explain why.
Major Software Bugs
I don’t know if it’s just me though I highly doubt so, but I do encounter some relatively major software bugs a bit more often than I would expect from a finished product. For example there are times after receiving a phone call, it would refuse to continue playing any music tracks. Now I don’t mean I have to manually resume playing, I mean I simply can’t get anything to play. Restarting the head unit doesn’t work either and only a full engine shut off and restart fixes the issue. Not very ideal mid journey. I have found a way to prevent this however, and that is by making sure I end the call before the other party hangs up. It’s still a mystery to me why this works.
Another less serious but equally annoying one I’ve encountered is that certain songs randomly become unplayable and it skips to the next track. All attempts to play said track, whether it be from the phone itself or through the head unit are futile. It miraculously solves itself once the phone has been disconnected from the head unit but this also has a high tendency to cause the phone to be undetectable by the head unit until after the engine has been switched off and restarted. I’ve only encountered this issue a handful of times though so it might have already been quietly fixed, but we’ll see.
Just to be clear, I’ve already checked my own hardware and found them all to be working properly so I do hope Apple is aware of these bugs and are working on fixing them. While they don’t occur very often, it has been often enough for me to actually experiment and discover how to remedy them.
App selection still limited
This is one area that has been a particular letdown so far. The iOS ecosystem prides itself on being the most app rich platform around, however, the selection of apps compatible with Apple CarPlay is very limited. While I suppose you don’t really need more than your usual maps, phone, music and messages apps while driving (preferably not even the last one), which are admittedly already well represented in Apple CarPlay, I can’t help but feel limited by the less than stellar selection of compatible apps. If I were to make a suggestion, I would say that certain car specific app developers should really consider enabling their apps to run on Apple CarPlay especially those that provide in-depth vehicle telemetry and data logging features.
Still lacks much customisation
For sure, iOS is not particularly known for their customisation. But even so, CarPlay’s level of customisation makes your iPhone feel like Android. Practically the only customisation apart from the basic audio settings came in a not so recent update that allows you to pick a background from a default selection of colours. I have also found no way to customise the position of the apps on the Home Screen like you would on iOS. If any of you have found a level of customisation beyond this, please tell me.
Now as you can probably already tell, Apple CarPlay is far from perfect and would benefit from a bit more development. But even so, it still achieves what it was intended to do and it does it very well. Apart from the annoying bugs I experience every now and then, the negatives I’ve pointed out are really not that big a deal when you consider this is supposed to be a distraction free system. Perhaps Apple realised this and felt that there’s no need to rush to add more features just for the sake of it. In any case, the usability and convenience that it affords me far outweighs the things that annoy me and I’d even go so far to say that I’d probably find it hard to consider a new car if it didn’t come with Apple CarPlay compatibility. I’d love to hear if you feel the same about Apple CarPlay so please leave your comments down below.