Hands on with Chevrolet’s next-generation MyLink system

Chevrolet MyLink home screen

When Chevrolet unveiled the 2014 Impala at the New York Auto Show earlier this year, it marked both the rebirth of the classic nameplate and a far less storied name: MyLink. Chevy’s in-car infotainment system already appears in a number of 2012 models, but the 2014 Impala will be the first to get a next-gen system that strives for a massive improvement in usability. Chevrolet has taken design cues from the consumer electronics industry in building the new system, and it shows.

In many ways, you’ve already played with Chevy’s next-generation MyLink – on your smartphone or your tablet. Maybe that’s why we experienced a strange sense of déjà vu after our hands-on time with the system. It may not be the groundbreaking system the carmakers hopes it will be, but the sense of familiarity is sure to make it a hit with drivers who don’t need one more interface to learn.

That old-timey tablet feel

Chevrolet has built the next-gen MyLink to interact and behave much like the smartphones that more than half of Americans now own. The main menu is filled with icons or “apps” that correspond to specific functions, giving it a very smartphone-like appearance.

But it’s more than just looks. Each icon populating the homescreen can be moved around and adjusted. All we had to do was hold down on an icon and it began to shake in the same way an app would on an iPad. From there, we could move it around, rearranging it as we saw fit, or move it to a secondary screen.

The homescreen is populated by eight icons in two rows of four: Audio, Phone, Nav, Settings, Weather, Hybrid, Onstar, and Pandora. Pandora requires users to cable a smartphone to the Impala and run the Pandora app on a smartphone, but you can interact with it from the touchscreen – changing tracks, adding thumbs up and down to tracks, and so on.

Other than Pandora, there aren’t any apps that function with the next-gen MyLink at this time. Chevy reps declined to hint at any apps that might appear down the line, but we suspect we’ll see plenty more.

Chevrolet MyLink icons touch screenAnother tablet-like design element that has crept into the upcoming MyLink interface is a scrolling tray of in-app controls. For instance, inside the Contacts menu, users can simply swipe a finger along the bottom of the screen to see additional icons, rather than cluttering the screen by showing all of them at once. In the phone menu, we could hover over the bottom of the screen and a rolling row of icons would display. Each category uses the effect differently. When listening to music loaded on a connected iPhone, we were able to customize the tray with a favorite song or genre, allowing quicker access to the options you use the most.

Rather than jumping out of an app and back to the home screen, users can access a few of the homescreen’s icons from the top of the screen, too. Not only does this give the entire interface added functionality, it makes it much more intuitive to use. While driving, that’s critical.

The infotainment system gets personal

The great thing about tablets, smartphones, and even computers is how easily users can customize them with things background themes and screen savers. That personalization is exactly what Chevrolet is looking to capture – only inside your car, where other automakers have made customization extremely limited, if not altogether absent.

MyLink offers four different themes: Contemporary, Edge, Velocity, and Main Street. We liked Edge, which goes for a youthful look with colorful icons, and Velocity, which plays to racing enthusiasts with carbon-fiber backgrounds and glowing neon icons that recall The Fast and the Furious. You won’t find the same level of freedom as on a smart device, but themes present a welcome option for drivers wanting to inject some style and personality of their own.

Chevrolet MyLink touch screenInfotainment systems have been pegged time and again for their abysmal accessibility and user friendliness. While they can perform plenty of tasks, it’s seldom easy to figure out how to do it. With the next-gen MyLink, Chevy is looking to remedy that. We still didn’t find it as intuitive as a smartphone or tablet, but Chevy is getting closer. One interesting perk is the ability to transplant functions and controls from the Impala’s 8-inch screen in the center console (4.2-inch in the base model) to an LCD screen wedged in the instrument cluster. We arranged it to our liking, adding phone, navigation, and music controls, which also work with the physical controls laid out on the steering wheel.

Besides the tablet-like interface and increased user customization, the next-gen MyLink marks the debut of Chevrolet’s natural-language voice recognition technology, which allows customers to place calls, enter destinations, browse media, play music and control other functions by simply speaking out commands. Instead of having to remember key phrases, users can interact with their vehicle in a more natural way. For example, instead of having to say “directions,” then the state, then the city, and finally the address, you can simply just say “find the nearest Starbucks” or “go to 111 SW 5th Ave.”

In theory, anyway. This voice recognition disappointed us the most during our hands-on time. While we were in a loud, confined industrial space, it wasn’t much worse than road noise or fussy children in the backseat.

Conclusion

Chevrolet not only has sleek new sheet metal to praise in the upcoming Impala – the next-gen MyLink system inside is shaping up to be quite the treat as well. Automakers have been attempted to mimic smartphone and tablet interfaces before, but so far it seems the next-gen MyLink is one of the very few that has pulled it off.  Truthfully, it’s long overdue.

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