Apple CarPlay (2020) Review: The last word in infotainment

Six years after release, Apple CarPlay is the last word in infotainment

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Apple CarPlay (2020) Review: The last word in infotainment

“Continual improvements have transformed Apple CarPlay into an indispensable feature for new cars.”
  • Responsive
  • Clean, intuitive interface
  • Expanded third party app support
  • Apple Maps still tightly integrated into interface

As with a lot of tech in the automotive realm, the quality of OEM infotainment systems can vary widely from one manufacturer to another, or from one model to another. Even when a manufacturer gets infotainment tech right, there’s little incentive for companies to develop and support a specific system once the car rolls out of the showroom. That can lead to outdated information, persistent bugs in the software, and features that flat-out stop working.

When Apple took the wraps off of CarPlay at the Geneva Motor Show in March of 2014, it sought to bring an end to that nonsense by creating a unified interface of their own design, letting you eschew the woes that often come with OEM systems in favor of Cupertino’s home-grown, home-supported solution. By tailoring the interface specifically to motorists, Apple hoped to make roads safer by cutting down on potential distractions that would take the driver’s eyes (and attention) off the road.

In some ways, CarPlay delivered right out of the gate. The interface was intuitive and responsive, allowing drivers to access what they wanted with minimal fuss so they could stay focused on the task at hand. But there were a few wrinkles that needed to be ironed out after its debut.

Apple has continued to refine and improve CarPlay over the years, and with some of the most significant changes making landfall in recent updates, we thought it was time to take a look at the state of Apple CarPlay in 2020.

Compatibility

You’ll need a few thing to use CarPlay. On the mobile side you’ll need an iPhone 5 (or newer) running iOS 7.1 (or later), and most vehicles will require a wired USB connection. A few companies, like Audi and BMW, now support wireless CarPlay. We love the convenience of the feature — but be advised, it tends to take a toll on battery life.

Apple CarPlay Icons
Apple CarPlay Icons

By now, CarPlay compatibility on the vehicle side is nearly ubiquitous – at least as part of an options package on new vehicles. While it enjoys even stronger support than Android Auto, it’s worth noting adoption of Google’s platform isn’t as widespread at this point.

A few automakers are straggling when it comes to CarPlay support, but most are boutique brands. If you own a 2020 Aston Martin Vantage or a 2019 Rolls-Royce Cullian, for instance, we’re afraid you’re out of luck with the OEM hardware. Something tells us you’ll manage, though.

Interface

Distracted driving was linked to nearly 3,200 fatal accidents in 2017 alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with cell phone use and texting being cited as major factors in significant portion of those incidents. Apple has designed CarPlay to minimize those distractions, and Siri is the star of the show.

Incoming text messages are indicated by a pop-up banner at the top of the CarPlay display, and when accessed, they’re read aloud by the system. Once finished, you’re asked whether you’d like to reply via voice, and responses are read back for accuracy and confirmation before they’re sent. It’s a feature that’s worked great in years past and continues to do so today.

Siri’s implementation (and overall usefulness) left something to be desired when CarPlay originally launched. Fortunately, Apple gave Siri an overhaul with iOS 13, which yields noticeable improvements within CarPlay.

From a visual standpoint it’s now less intrusive, appearing as a translucent waveform overlaid on whatever screen is active at the time the feature is called upon, rather than Siri simply taking over the screen entirely.

Apple has also expanded the tools available to app developers to integrate Siri functions into their own software, which lets you do things like call up a Spotify playlist or bring up directions with one voice command.

Apple CarPlay dashboard
Apple CarPlay dashboard

Along with an improved Dashboard layout that splits the real estate between navigation and commonly used apps, CarPlay for iOS 13 lets a device tied to CarPlay be used for other tasks without affecting what’s on the CarPlay display. If a passenger goes to queue up a song on that iPhone, for example, the vehicle’s infotainment screen won’t suddenly shift away from the navigation screen to the music app. That might seem trivial, but it makes a big difference in day-to-day use.

iOS 13 also introduced a redesigned Music interface within CarPlay. There’s a greater emphasis on album art now, both in Now Playing and elsewhere, and the interface has been tweaked to make it more intuitive to navigate through your album collection.

Navigation

Apple completely overhauled its native Maps app for iOS 13, and those changes translate to greater detail and an expanded functionality within CarPlay. The biggest game-changer in the relatively short history of CarPlay debuted a year prior, when iOS 12 introduced support for third party navigation apps. That immediately brought two heavyweights into the fold: Waze and Google Maps.

Apple CarPlay Google Maps
Apple CarPlay Google Maps

Although Apple Maps has improved since its rocky debut in 2012, it’s still playing catch-up. Google Maps, in particular, leaves little to complain about in 2020. With real-time traffic rerouting, offline maps (useful where cell coverage is spotty or nonexistent), and Siri integration now all part of the mix, it’s the full-featured, CarPlay-compatible navigation program that iOS users have been waiting for.

For many users who were accustomed to the look, feel, and feature set of Google Maps, iOS 12’s support transformed CarPlay’s overall usefulness from a passing curiosity into the go-to method of in-car navigation.

App Support

As previously mentioned, iOS 12 introduced significant improvements to CarPlay’s third-party app support, but Google Maps and Waze aren’t the only apps to benefit from the change.

CarPlay’s list of supported apps now includes WhatsApp, Spotify, BBC Sounds, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, iPlayer Radio, CBS Radio, Pandora, Slacker Radio, Tidal, Audible, NPR One, VOX, Clammr, Downcast, and Here, among others, and that’s in addition to the native iPhone apps that are compatible with CarPlay.

Our Take

CarPlay has come a long way since its original iteration, and it shows. Apple has cut the fat while improving upon the strengths of the interface, allowing more meaningful third-party app integration, and those changes have resolved many of the frustrations we experienced previously. In short, it’s now the infotainment-replacing solution it was supposed to be.

Should You Get It?

If you have a compatible iOS device and infotainment system, you owe it to yourself to give CarPlay a try. It’s (usually) free, so what do you have to lose?

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