Society’s desire to remain connected at all times borders on addiction. We can hardly put down our smartphones, and we want that same level of connectivity in our cars. Automakers, forced to chase the constantly changing technology, have scrambled to deliver devices that integrate everything — communication, navigation, entertainment, climate control and vehicle settings – into a single interface that has come to be known as an infotainment system.
The interpretation of a good infotainment system varies from automaker to automaker, and each has delivered what it considers the best in the industry.
To come up with a list of today’s Top Five Automotive Infotainment Systems, we chose to pool AutoWeb’s own editorial team of industry experts, who live with the systems on a day-to-day basis, with scientist Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst and manager, infotainment and human machine interface at IHS Automotive. Boyadjis studies these systems every day and evaluates them based on a scientific test script with more than 300 criteria, among them ease of use, responsiveness, audio system performance, and how easy it is to learn the control interface.
How it Works: Uconnect is controlled either by voice commands or via icons on its touchscreen, which can be as big as 8.4 inches. A row of icons on the bottom of the screen takes you to various command trees. The volume and tuner knobs are separate, and so are some buttons for the climate control system.
SiriusXM provides services such as real-time traffic, weather forecasts, sports scores, movie times, and local fuel prices. An embedded cell phone modem enables telematics services such as 911 and roadside assistance calls and Yelp local search. Users with the Uconnect Access app can remotely start the engine, lock and unlock the doors, and locate the vehicle. After the first six or 12 months, these features require a subscription, but owners can also access the Aha, Pandora, Slacker, and iHeartRadio internet radio apps for free provided they are downloaded to their smartphones.
Positives: Uconnect earned the most praise from our staff. It gets high marks for ease of use. The available 8.4-inch touchscreen has large icons that are easy to punch with a finger. The controls are laid out logically, and most users can figure them out without delving into the owner’s manual. “It performs the primary functions of infotainment very, very well,” said Boyadjis. Contributing writer Bob Gritzinger agreed: “UConnect has always been a top unit in my mind. Easy to use and understand, backed by a decent sound system. Best of the non-luxury brands.”
We appreciate two features in particular. First, Uconnect Access offers text-to-speech and speech-to-text capability. It will read an incoming text sent to a connected smartphone and then allow occupants to respond vocally, converting the response into a text. Second, we like the Performance Pages information that comes with high-performance models. Performance Pages can track and display information such as 0-to-60-mph and quarter-mile times, g forces, current torque and horsepower use, and additional gauges of interest to enthusiasts.
How it Works: The unbranded system in the Hyundai Genesis sedan is unique to this car. It features a central control dial surrounded by seven buttons that take you directly to various command trees. Additional menus are found on the dashboard’s 9.2-inch center screen, and they can be chosen through the dial, by voice commands, or by touch. The dial can be bumped up/down/left/right, and it acts as an “enter” button when pressed down.
The rearview mirror has a Blue Link button that provides telematics, including Google local search, the results of which can be sent to the navigation system. A Blue Link smartphone app also lets you send destinations to the car, control the temperature, start the car and lock/unlock the doors.
Positives: The Genesis’ infotainment system expands upon the other Hyundai systems by adding the central dial. We find its basic functions to be very easy to learn and control through any of the command options (dial, voice, touch). “It has a rather simplistic menu system that someone can get in and learn quickly,” said Boyadjis.
Rather than make drivers guess how to phrase voice commands, hitting the voice control button brings up a menu that tells them how to phrase commands. It learns driver preferences, configuring the screen to match the way the driver uses it. We also like that the system includes SiriusXM Data services, and access to the Pandora and Aha internet radio apps through owners’ smartphones.
Negatives: It’s not quite as easy to understand how to use some of the auxiliary functions, such as the Blue Link Google local search, as the core functions of phone, navigation, and entertainment. Boyadjis is mildly annoyed that, when connected, iPods always start at the beginning of the playlist. It’s hard to find a complaint pickier than that.
How it Works: iDrive is controlled through voice commands or a rotary knob of the center console, and the information is displayed on a dashboard screen that is as large as 10.2 inches. iDrive eliminates the need for many buttons, though it has several programmable buttons that can be used for radio presets as well as navigation addresses and phone numbers. In the newest version of the system, the driver can use the top of the rotary knob as a touchpad to input characters with a finger. An available built-in hard drive can also store thousands of songs.
iDrive is offered with BMW‘s ConnectedDrive, which uses an embedded cell phone modem to provide access to several functions, including BMW Assist telematics, streaming web radio, Wiki Local information on local attractions, and news through BMW’s RSS feeds. It also provides access to Facebook and Twitter updates. All of this information can read aloud through speech dictation, and you can post basic information to the social media accounts based on information the system has, such as current location, navigation destination, weather, and phone records.
Positives: BMW’s iDrive system started the infotainment evolution in the early 2000s. That first system complicated such mundane tasks as programming a radio station, and it soon developed a poor reputation among auto reviewers. It has been updated several times since and is now one of the better and more intuitive systems on the market. That’s because BMW has simplified menus and used larger displays. While it still requires a bit of a learning curve, it is much easier to understand, and many buyers soon become loyalists.
Negatives: No matter how familiar you are with it, iDrive still complicates some functions. While it offers speech dictation like Uconnect, Boyadjis calls it a letdown, because it only works with a few Android phones and requires a setup-intensive registration process. Boyadjis also notes that the lack of a touchscreen limits satisfaction for some users. However, at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, BMW showed a future system for the 7 Series with a touchscreen.
How it Works: Like BMW’s iDrive, MMI employs voice commands and a rotary knob that drivers spin and click to control the various systems. In most Audis, this knob is on the center console, but in some lower-end models it is on the dashboard’s center stack. We prefer the version on the center console where the driver’s hand is much more stable, allowing more precise control. Audi also incorporates a small touchpad, either separately or on top of the rotary knob itself, that drivers can use to draw in letters and numbers. The central knob is surrounded by several buttons that provide shortcuts to various menus, as well as four directional buttons that can be used to execute commands of corresponding points on the dashboard screen.
Positives: “MMI with that wicked Bang & Olufsen system is the best for ease and intuitiveness of use, along with extreme sound,” said contributing writer Bob Gritzinger. Others point out the lightning-fast responses of the system, the sharp graphics display, and the cool Google Earth map view. Audi connect, powered by an on-board cell phone modem, keeps drivers connected with such information as weather, fuel prices, local parking options, news feeds, plus access to Facebook and Twitter.
Negatives: “I always spin that damn dial the wrong way,” noted contributing writer Christian Wardlaw, a sentiment shared by several AutoWeb contributors. The lack of a touchscreen is a negative for some buyers, though Editor-in-Chief Michael Harley finds it a positive, saying there is “no need to touch the screen and mar it with fingerprints.” Boyadjis feels the system requires a rather steep learning curve. “You need to understand where all menus are, you need to understand what all the quadrants are,” he said. He also noted that MMI lacks voice command of the media library, a feature offered by many competitors.
How it Works: Introduced in the 2014 Mazda3, Mazda Connect is like a lower-end version of BMW’s iDrive. It uses a rotating dial on the center console that drivers can also bump side to side to choose different menus and push down to enter commands. Audio, Home, and Nav buttons along the top, plus back and star buttons on the left and right, allow users to choose shortcuts to various command trees. The star button saves not only audio but also navigation and communications favorites.
Mazda Connect can also be controlled by voice commands and through a touchscreen that can only be used when the vehicle is stopped. The touchscreen allows for easy pan and zoom capability, but these commands can also be achieved through the dial.
Positives: Mazda Connect is stripped down, making it easy to understand and use. “It’s very intuitive and simplistic right off the bat,” said Boyadjis. We like the position of the central controller, and we’re impressed that it doesn’t take up much space on the center console. If you get lost in a submenu, the top center button always takes you to the Home screen. Mazda Connect also offers access to the Pandora, Aha, and Stitcher apps on owners’ smartphones. Thankfully, the climate controls are separate.
Negatives: The touchscreen locks out while driving, so users will have to learn how to use the dial to move around the screen. The volume knob is on the center console, so many drivers will miss it as they reach for the dashboard’s center stack. We would also prefer a separate dial to tune in radio stations. As it is, you have to use the main control dial, make sure the screen is on the Entertainment tree, then scroll to and click on the Channel List before you can search stations. At this point, only internet radio apps are available. We’d like to see more apps like Google local search, as well as the addition of satellite services.