What to Look For in an Infotainment System
Not so long ago, it was a luxury for a car to have a nice high-quality head unit with the quality of satellite radio. But in modern cars, the radio that used to be a rare commodity is often just one small part of an infotainment system that connects drivers to their vehicles and to the outside world with unprecedented sophistication.
Some infotainment systems are more sophisticated than others. They range from a basic touch screen that is little more than a high-tech radio to all-out systems like something out of a science fiction movie: screens popping up out of the dashboard, dynamic displays offering endless information, instant access to emergency services, even voice control.
Modern automobiles are laden with more technology than we could have imagined even a couple of decades ago.
What Is a Car Infotainment System?
A car infotainment system is an information-plus-entertainment system with an interface that allows the driver to communicate with the car and the car to communicate with the driver. The driver uses the system to control just about every major aspect of the vehicle, from radio to climate controls, and to see important information about the car and the road.
The system usually has one or more touchscreens that provide an aesthetically pleasing, easy-to-use interface and an abundance of capabilities.
What Do You Need?
We know about the radio. What else can an infotainment system do for you?
Infotainment systems typically need a Bluetooth connection to your smartphone to enable all of their capabilities. Once the system has been connected, it can do things like play your music, access a navigation app on your phone, and make and answer phone calls.
Because reliable Bluetooth connectivity is so important, make sure that the infotainment system of any vehicle you’re thinking of purchasing can indeed easily connect to your smartphone. Car manufacturers cannot test every single smartphone on the market, so you need to check for any problems with connectivity yourself.
Ideally, your vehicle will automatically connect to your smartphone as soon as you turn it on. (Just make sure that the Bluetooth on your phone is also on!) Not having to manually establish a connection every time you go for a spin will make the infotainment system much easier to use.
Screen and User Interface
Also critical are the screen and the user interface (UI) of the car’s infotainment system. These are what you will be touching and interacting with. Look for an interface that is intuitive to use, something you can easily get the hang of.
Some systems have only a static screen that displays basic information about the vehicle. Others have several touch screens that rise out of the dashboard and offer seemingly endless ways to see and do what you want. The screens should give you what you need with an informative display—be useful without being distracting.
The user interface conveys information to the vehicle based on your inputs, and it conveys information to you about the vehicle. If the car and its technology look like a million bucks but the UI is unreliable or hard to use, the system might as well be junk. That’s how important it is and why automakers spend so much time and money developing and perfecting these systems.
Voice control has become popular in smart homes around the world, and it’s popular in car infotainment systems too. What could be easier and more convenient than just talking to your car and having it do what you need it to do? The ability to use voice commands like “turn on the air conditioning” or “listen to my favorite radio station” is changing the automotive industry.
To optimize the voice-control components of their systems, car makers are integrating the highly developed technology of Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Android Auto, or Apple CarPlay. Amazon has been leading the way with its popular Alexa technology, and it seems that more and more automakers are inclined to favor it. Over the last five years, manufacturers that have started using Alexa in their cars include Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, GMC, Land Rover, Lexus, and Toyota.
Gone are the days of losing your Wi-Fi signal once you leave your house. Many modern cars are equipped with a Wi-Fi hotspot that provides a reliable signal throughout the trip.
This means that during long road trips, passengers can watch TV shows, surf the internet, or catch up on work. The feature is also a godsend for the driver. Having a reliable Wi-Fi signal means never losing your navigational guidance and always having your favorite music playing.
Using the Wi-Fi hotspot created by your car’s infotainment system is not free, just as your internet service at home is not free. The cost depends on the car and the internet provider, but you can expect to pay between $25 and $50 per month for the service.
Technology is always evolving. But when car technology evolves, it is hard to replace. Put it this way: It’s a lot easier to buy a new TV than to buy a whole new car.
But infotainment systems are now being updated over the air. Led by Tesla, which began implementing over-the-air updates in 2012, some car makers are now wirelessly sending updates straight to your car, making it easier than ever for your vehicle to keep up when more effective software becomes available.
This capacity is not yet universal; many manufacturers are not quite there yet. In the case of some infotainment systems, you need to take your car to the dealership so that the system can be updated manually.
Navigation was one of the first capacities added to the infotainment system. In the early days, the navigation was pretty basic, providing a crude map and pointing drivers in a general direction. But these days, cars can provide the same pinpoint accuracy and easy-to-follow directions provided by a high-tech global positioning system (GPS).
Since most infotainment systems connect to your smartphone through Bluetooth, they will sometimes display the exact same directions that your smartphone would display if you were using only the phone. Other cars have their own built-in GPS systems using Garmin, Google Maps, or other high-end GPS technology.
When you plan to buy a modern car, be sure to look for one that has a reliable and built-in navigation system. It’s no fun being on the road and having no idea how to get where you’re going. With the capabilities of today’s cars, that’s a problem you don’t have to worry about ever again.
Ease of Use
It is crucial that an infotainment system be user-friendly. Whether the means of interaction is dials, touch screens, or voice control, the system should be easy to figure out and easy to use.
After all, these systems are primarily designed for the driver, the one person in the car who needs as few distractions as possible. Seconds often count on the road; the driver shouldn’t be spending any time struggling with the controls to get the system to do what he wants it do. The easier the interface, the better. That’s why manufacturers are making such a big push to implement voice control.
To be sure, voice control is not the only option for a high-quality system. A well-designed touch screen may require very little input to function efficiently. Whatever the form of the interface may be, though, we recommend that you try it out before you buy an automobile you’re looking at. Make sure it’s easy to use.
Perhaps the most important feature of a car infotainment system is its ability to automatically contact emergency services if your vehicle crashes. In Europe, new vehicles are legally required to have this capacity. Although such legislation has yet to be passed here in Canada, modern infotainment systems can still get the job done.
Many of the newer systems can transfer data wirelessly through the use of a SIM card. By connecting to the sensors of the vehicle, the system can detect an accident and alert the nearest emergency services. The system can even send your exact location to first responders if the accident is severe and occupants of the vehicle are unable to respond.
Even if the infotainment system of your vehicle doesn’t connect to emergency services automatically, it probably includes a button that when pressed will trigger a call. For example, General Motors vehicles typically come with OnStar. If you have a GM car, pressing the red OnStar button will instantly connect you to a specialist who can notify local first responders. These systems save lives.
What Are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto?
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are interfaces that connect your smartphone to the infotainment system so that the latter can control your smartphone and display what’s on the phone. You don’t have to use your hands to make this happen or even pick up the phone.
The two systems have been developed for the two most prominent smartphones. Apple CarPlay is owned by Apple and works with iPhones. Android Auto is owned by Google and works with any smartphone that uses the Android operating system, such as Samsung and Google phones.
Both systems allow you to connect the phone to your infotainment system to play music, listen to podcasts, get directions, place phone calls, and even send text messages. Using voice control, you never have to take your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you upgrade your infotainment system?
To an extent. Most infotainment systems have proprietary parts and technology that only the vehicle manufacturer can provide. In some cases, aftermarket technology can nevertheless be added to the system. But doing so usually isn’t easy. Or cheap.
Some systems can receive over-the-air software to upgrade your vehicle’s infotainment system wirelessly. Other cars must be taken to the dealership for manual installation of updates. Both methods enable systems to remain somewhat up-to-date instead of becoming obsolete after just a few years.
Does each car brand have its own unique infotainment system?
In most cases, yes. Different manufacturers have their own versions of similar aspects of a vehicle. As in the case of seats and steering wheels—never exactly the same from brand to brand—so with infotainment systems.
Acura calls their system an On-Demand Multi-Information Display. BMW uses BMW iDrive. Mercedes-Benz touts the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX). And so on. Despite their distinctive touches, these systems tend to operate in much the same way. The important thing is to buy a vehicle with the best infotainment system for you and that you make sure you know exactly how it use it.