After a long time in development, Apple's connected-car application, CarPlay, has finally started appearing in cars. The in-dash software is designed to not only make calling simpler but also to work with specific car-oriented iPhone apps via a consistent, easy-to-follow interface with larger graphics and buttons. The promise is that it will allow iPhone owners to use the features they want in the car without creating dangerous distractions.
Here's what you need to know about CarPlay.
Which iPhones are compatible with CarPlay?
CarPlay will work with every iPhone from the iPhone 5 on. That includes older models such as 5c, to the recent iPhone SE to the latest gen of Apple handsets such as the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.
What cars will offer CarPlay integration?
A wide variety of luxury and budget vehicles have the CarPlay app (or are planned to). Ferrari, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo were some of the first car makers to feature CarPlay in 2015, with others such as Ford adding CarPlay to certain models such as the Mustang later. Starting with 2016 models, Buick's Regal and LaCrosse will ship with CarPlay, eventually rolling out to the rest of Buick's fleet over the following 36 months. GM also announced that the 2016 Canyon, Sierra and Yukon will feature CarPlay via its 8-inch IntelliLink infotainment system. Nissan's 2017 Maxima will be its first car to to support CarPlay on its 8-inch screen, and leaked price listings from BMW have revealed that the 2017, M3, M4, X4 M and X6 models will each support CarPlay for an extra $300.
Virtually every automaker has said they'll work with Apple, but precisely when specific models from other manufacturers will appear remains to be seen.
While the CarPlay app will look the same on the screens of all vehicles, how you use it will depend on what controls -- buttons, knobs and touch screens -- the automaker favors in its designs. Some will rely mostly on touch-screen controls, others mainly on physical buttons.
How do you connect your iPhone to CarPlay?
There's no wireless Bluetooth option. To pair an iPhone with a vehicle you have to plug it into the dashboard with a Lightning cable. When your car detects that your iPhone has been connected, it will automatically pop up the CarPlay icon and update compatible apps. One important note: Once your phone is connected, its screen will be locked to eliminate any temptation to use it while driving.
What apps work with CarPlay?
Third-party apps available for CarPlay will be chosen by Apple. Consequently, the platform will support only a dozen or so apps initially. Those include Apple's Beats Music, iHeartRadio, Rdio, Spotify and Stitcher. CarPlay apps must support Siri for hands-free operation. Apple says it will follow the model of Apple TV, adding support for only a few select apps, primarily those it deems appropriate and safe for in-car use.
How is Siri integrated?
Siri is a significant feature of CarPlay. You can ask Apple's digital assistant to find a nearby coffee shop, get directions to an address, and play music from anyone from Hüsker Dü to David Bowie. Siri will also understand that you're behind the wheel and offer answers that are related to driving (like finding the closest restroom) while refraining from delivering anything that might take your eyes off the road (like a lengthy review on Yelp). You will be able to use the car's existing buttons to launch Siri, turn down the volume or switch between apps. It's this level of integration that is CarPlay's primary benefit.
However, initial tests revealed that Siri can be slow to respond because she relies on a connection to the cloud. Having to wait 4 or 5 seconds for Siri to answer a question while you're driving at 65 mph can feel like an eternity. On the other hand, Siri's ability to (mostly) understand natural language questions will be an improvement over many current in-car voice recognition systems.
At its 2016 WWDC keynote, the company revealed that CarPlay will have access to the newest Siri updates from iOS 10, including more natural language comprehension, as well as updates to Apple Maps.
Will CarPlay-enabled vehicles also support Android phones?
CarPlay is essentially just another app in a car's dashboard display. Consequently, virtually every automaker that has said it plans to support CarPlay has also promised to support Google's Android Auto, which works in a similar fashion. As engineers at Ford have said repeatedly, they're not in the business of selling smartphones and want to work with the phones their customers already use -- all the phones their customers use. Most carmakers plan to support both CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as their own apps (supporting both phone platforms) and infotainment features like navigation.
So you won't be limited by CarPlay. If you prefer to play Pandora in the car, for example, you can switch out of CarPlay, and use the Pandora app the automaker supports separately. The number and variety of such independent apps will depend on how extensive the individual automaker's connected options are.
In addition, most of CarPlay's functions will only work if you have a cell signal, because the platform relies on a connected iPhone to do most of the work. For this reason, buyers won't see many -- if any -- vehicles that include CarPlay without also including the automaker's own built-in navigation system (which will work even when no cellular service is available).
Will CarPlay take control of the dashboard?
No. You will not be able to use the CarPlay app to select radio stations, turn on cruise control or adjust the A/C in the car, for example. So you can't ask Siri to "Make the driver's temperature 72 degrees." Those voice commands will still be managed, where available, by the car's own speech recognition system.
Nevertheless, like other apps, CarPlay works in concert with the car's other systems to reduce distractions and hopefully improve safety. For example, it will automatically mute for audible warnings like a cross-traffic bell or blind-spot alert chime.
Can I get CarPlay in the car I already own?
Automakers are not certain whether any of their current connected-car systems will be upgradable to use CarPlay in the future but most say no. The one exception is Hyundai, which has promised that its current Sonata will be upgradable.
You can replace your existing car stereo/navigation system and purchase a new in-dash infotainment system that works with CarPlay. Several models from Pioneer now support the software, such as the $1,400 AVIC-8100NEX, which is also compatible with Android Auto. Alpine and Parrot have also announced aftermarket units that support CarPlay. We recommend these systems be installed by a professional.
When will CarPlay be available?
Ferrari says it is already offering CarPlay to customers who request it. As new car models are introduced, several additional vehicles from Ford, Hyundai, Mercedes and Volvo will support CarPlay. One notable exception is Toyota, which is taking a wait-and-see approach.
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John R. Quain has been reviewing and testing video and audio equipment for more than 20 years. He is currently a contributor to The New York Times and the CBS News television program. Follow him @jqontech. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.