Years ago, no one minded if their car’s dashboard only offered the most basic of digital information. There was a clock, for example, and if you were lucky you might have even be told what temperature it was outside.
But as smartphone technology improved, drivers quickly demanded more from their vehicles. After all, why should the phone in your pocket have a better screen and more responsive user interface than the one in your car, which cost considerably more?
To their credit, car manufacturers are faced with five, or even 10-year product cycles, so no matter how advanced their infotainment system looks at launch, it is bound to look dated well before the car gets its first facelift.
That’s where Apple CarPlay comes in. Powered by your iPhone, CarPlay gives your car an interface which looks like iOS, but is simplified so it can be safely and legally used while driving.
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What is CarPlay?
In simple terms, CarPlay takes the user interface of your iPhone and puts it onto the infotainment screen of your car dashboard.
This means when your iPhone is plugged in, the car’s own system is replaced by the iOS home screen, complete with app icons and a virtual home button.
CarPlay can be interacted with via whatever controls your car already has, whether that be a touch screen, buttons, knobs, voice or a combination of all of these.
CarPlay doesn’t include every app on your smartphone, because playing PUBG on your car dashboard is clearly a disaster waiting to happen, and some elements of apps are replaced by voice and dictation.
For example, incoming iMessages and WhatsApp messages are read out to you by Siri instead of shown on the display.
Most cars require you to plug your iPhone into the USB port with a Lightning cable, but some newer models (like the latest BMW 5-Series) now support wireless CarPlay, which works via the car’s Bluetooth connection.
This is more convenient, but you’ll want to make sure your iPhone is sat on a wireless charger if using wireless CarPlay, as it can drain the battery quickly if you’re streaming music over 4G and using the Maps app for navigation.
CarPlay is designed to remove the urge to take a quick look at your iPhone behind the wheel. It’s safer, easier and more convenient - or that’s the idea, anyway.
Which cars support Apple CarPlay?
As of March 2018, there are over 300 models of car with CarPlay available either standard or as a paid-for optional extra.
Some cars bundle CarPlay when you opt for the enhanced sound system, for example, or pick a higher level of cabin trim level.
Other manufacturers charge a premium for adding CarPlay on its own, and the price can vary significantly.
For example, Honda includes CarPlay as standard on some models, and Ford includes CarPlay with its £750 (around $1,000) Sync 3 system in the new Fiesta (along with a larger touch screen and six speakers).
At the other end of the scale, Ferrari charges a huge £2,400 (around $3,000) for adding the software necessary to make it work.
We have included a list of manufacturers currently offering CarPlay at the end of this article. Although it doesn’t include everyone just yet, you’ll be doing well to name a car maker off the top of your head that doesn’t offer CarPlay
Apple CarPlay aftermarket solutions?
If you’re not in the market for a new car, you can still get some CarPlay in your life by installing an aftermarket stereo.
Manufacturers like Alpine, Clarion, JBL, JVC, Kenwood, Pioneer and Sony all sell car stereo systems with CarPlay, as well as other goodies like Android Auto, Bluetooth and DAB digital radio.
Prices start at around £200 ($280, AU$360) for an entry-level unit from a company like Power Acoustik, and go beyond £500 ($700, AU$900) for a fold-out system from Pioneer.
What you need to know about these systems is that car stereos come in two sizes; single DIN and double DIN. Single DIN units are usually two inches tall, while double DIN means a system which is four inches tall.
The former, like the Pioneer AVH-Z7000DAB we referred to above, is a single DIN unit with a motorised screen which folds out of your dashboard. Modern cars with their curved dashboards tend to not cater for aftermarket stereos like these without modification to the dashboard - something which is generally not advisable.
Is my iPhone compatible with CarPlay?
If you’re still rocking an old iPhone with a 30-pin connector, then you’re out of luck; any model before the iPhone 5 does not work with CarPlay. No model of iPad or iPod Touch work with CarPlay.
But it also means a lot of iPhones do - and here they are:
What does CarPlay look like?
CarPlay is designed to look a lot like iOS. Sure, the home screen background is made black and most of your apps are hidden from view, but CarPlay is still the bare bones of your iPhone.
The main screen shows a selection of apps like Phone, Music, Maps and Messages, along with the time, your phone’s signal strength, and a virtual home button.
As you open and close apps, the most recent three appear at the side of the user interface nearest the steering wheel, making it easy to return to the map, for example, without taking your eyes off the road for more than a quick glance.
That really is the point of CarPlay; it offers access to your iPhone’s core features without distracting you from driving.
That’s why most apps are hidden, and why many employ Siri to read things out rather than letting you read them off the screen.
For example, open the Messages app and you’ll see a list of the most recent people to chat with you, but when you tap on a name Siri reads out any unread messages, or asks if you’d like to dictate a reply.
Notifications appear at the top of the screen as they do on your iPhone, but these are limited to apps which can be used by CarPlay. If your phone receives a breaking news alert from the BBC, for example, it won’t show up.
CarPlay also employs several tricks to make you spend less time looking at it. If you scroll through the artists list in your Music app, the interface will start showing large letters instead of every artist. Scroll until you get to the right letter, then pick the artist you want.
The home screen also shows an app to tap on if you want to return to the car’s own infotainment system.
To adjust the layout of apps on CarPlay you have to head into the Settings app on your iPhone itself (when it isn’t connected to the car).
Tap General, then CarPlay, then the car you want to change the home page of, and move the apps around as you would on the home screen of the phone itself.
Third-party apps compatible with CarPlay:
- Amazon Music
- Google Play Music
- iPlayer Radio
- CBS Radio
- Slacker Radio
- NPR One
While this should cater for most people’s music and messaging needs, mapping is an area where CarPlay could be vastly improved. Only Apple Maps works, so you won’t be able to access Google Maps or Waze while on the move.
Default iPhone apps on CarPlay:
- Now Playing