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Apple CarPlay Review

Apple CarPlay is a custom iOS interface designed specifically for the automotive environment. It is akin to being the iPhone for your car. Many auto manufacturers have committed to support the system and will be available starting in model year 2015 for select manufacturers. If you’re not in the market for a new vehicle, you can get CarPlay by installing an aftermarket stereo from companies like Pioneer Electronics. Although CarPlay was announced last year, it’s just starting to make its way into vehicles. We spent the weekend getting to know CarPlay, here is our in-depth review that lets you know what to expect, and see if CarPlay lives up to the hype.

Pros

  • Simple, intuitive interface. If you’ve used an iPhone, you’ll feel right at home
  • Deep integration with Siri, and Siri Hands Free, lets you navigate the system with your voice
  • Quick access to your music, including iTunes Radio and playlists
  • Maps integration is clean, and leverages your calendar to make timely route suggestions
  • Available content can be expanded via the App Store

Cons

  • Tedious startup process: plug in your phone, unlock the device and then accept the terms and conditions of using CarPlay
  • Music doesn’t auto resume, which adds another step before you hit the road
  • Siri voice recognition is hit or miss
  • There are no settings to customize your preferences
  • When your iPhone is plugged in, an “app mirroring” effect happens between your phone and the dash display. This creates some very strange experiences if someone else is trying to use your phone while driving

Interface Details

Apple CarPlay

Siri

Siri is at the core of Apple CarPlay. With her assistance, you can access every feature using only your voice. And with Siri hands-free in iOS 8, you can simply say “Hey Siri” to get her attention. It is the ultimate way to control your stereo and navigation system. In theory this works great. In our experience, it was very good, but there are a few challenges and kinks to work out.

First is the accuracy of Siri voice recognition. If Siri has problems understanding you on your iPhone, you can expect the same (or worse) experience using an in-car microphone. We achieved an 80-90% accuracy rate, but that still resulted in a few text messages being sent out with bad grammar.

The second caveat is, No Internet = No Siri. Campers and off roaders should be forewarned: if you are out of cell reception, the only feature you’ll be able to use is the Music app. If you’re traveling to rural areas or the back country, be prepared to lose your navigation through Apple Maps. This could be partially solved with a caching system, or by allowing 3rd party Map Apps to integrate with CarPlay. More on that, later.

CarPlay Phone App

Phone App

The Phone app is designed to let you quickly make calls. As soon as you tap “Phone”, Siri will ask you who to call. If you’d prefer to tap your way to a contact, you can exit Siri’s prompt and navigate through the phone menus, just like they are on your phone. You’ve got complete access to your Contacts, Favorites, Recent Calls, Voicemail and a Keypad. In our tests, the Phone app worked well, so long as Siri could understand your voice.

CarPlay Music App

Music App

The Music app interface is nearly identical to the layout of the iPhone. By default, the Music app will show you the last song you were listening to. If you didn’t have any music queued up, then it will allow you to select from a wide range of options, including iTunes Radio, Playlists, Artists, Songs, Albums, Genres, Compilations and Composers. Having iTunes radio available was a nice touch, it’s a fantastic way to listen to music and discover new artists.

CarPlay Maps App

Maps App

Apple Maps had some big issues early on, but it’s come a long way since its debut. The accuracy problems have been fixed and the information has only gotten richer. And I must say, it really shines in automotive environment. The additional screen real estate makes it easy to see the directions, and the color schemes are highly visible in both day and night driving. The night time color scheme is particularly nice, which makes it much safer to drive and reduces eye fatigue.

Apple Maps is also integrated with the Calendar app, and can make timely suggestions about where you’re going. In our tests, this worked very well and provided us with all the information we needed.

CarPlay Messages App

Messages App

The Messages app allows you to access all your text messages, but the key difference here is the deep integration with Siri. For safety reasons, your text messages will never be displayed on your vehicles screen. You’ll have to rely on Siri to read your messages aloud, and then reply using her dictation abilities. Texting while driving is a serious danger, so it’s nice to have an option that keeps your eyes on the road. That being said, it’s difficult to have complete confidence in Siri. On more than one occasion, she failed to correctly transcribe our messages, resulting in bad grammar issues. Siri will read back your messages before sending them. This is ok for short texts, but it can present challenges if the message is more than a sentence or two.

We also experienced a strange bug where our incoming text messages wouldn’t be read aloud. Instead, the last message we sent out was dictated by Siri.

Now Playing App

Now Playing App

When CarPlay is in stock form, it’s hard to understand the need for a "Now Playing" icon. It seems to function just like the Music app. But this was designed with CarPlay-enabled Apps in mind, like Beats Music, CBS Radio and Spotify. The Now Playing app lets you immediately identify which app is controlling the speakers, and lets you easily explore the options to change it up. It’s a thoughtful inclusion, and indicates that more Apps are likely on the way.

App Store Integrations

App Store Integrations

Just like iOS, allowing the developer community to build apps could be CarPlay’s secret weapon. There are already a handful of apps that are supported. At the time of writing this review, CarPlay works with Podcasts, Beats Music, iHeartRadio, MLB At Bat, Spotify, Stitcher and CBS Radio.

In the future, this could be opened up to 3rd party mapping systems, where the data is stored on your iPhone.

Final Impressions

Although the initial release is a bit buggy, CarPlay is one of the best in-car interfaces we've seen. It's tightly integrated with your iPhone and has the ability to access all your personal data to deliver the best possible driving experience. The system encourages accessibility, but always puts safety first. It does have serious room for improvement, particularly with Siri voice recognition. We were able to successfully use all of CarPlay’s features, but your mileage will vary, it can take several attempts to get accurate voice recognition. And there are several caveats that campers and off-roaders should consider.

Given all this, Apple CarPlay is a promising system. It is better than most in-car interfaces on the road today, and will only get better as iOS progresses. We look forward to more updates from Apple. Does CarPlay interest you? Leave a comment below, we'd love to hear your thoughts.