Until Project Titan develops into an actual Apple Car and hits the road, Apple will award “the best iPhone experience on four wheels” title to its CarPlay infotainment feature which it says offers “a smarter, safer way to use your iPhone in the car.” Available on a growing number of vehicles from select manufacturers, CarPlay lets you connect your iPhone to your car for using Siri and an on-screen interface optimized to let you safely access apps while driving.
CarPlay relies on intelligence from your iPhone, using car hardware like microphones and built-in displays for input, so annual iOS updates mean the feature can learn some new tricks just like your iPhone and iPad. So what’s new with CarPlay in iOS 9 and how has the feature changed since my initial review a year ago? Let’s take a look:
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Because CarPlay is really a projection of your iPhone in a more limited capacity, an app that changed in some way on your iPhone in iOS 9 has likely changed in CarPlay. There are exceptions to the rule, however, as well as some foundation level changes that improve CarPlay but don’t change your iPhone. You’ll notice use of Apple’s new San Francisco font as well as a redesigned Siri that matches iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, and soon Apple TVs running the latest software.
Looking at the home screen launcher, there are a couple new icons in CarPlay on iOS 9 compared to CarPlay a year ago. Since we last looked at CarPlay closely, iBooks added Audio Books playback for those purchased through iTunes.
The Apple Music subscription service launched in June with iOS 8.4 and replaced the pinkish-orange and white icon with a mostly white and multicolor version. CarPlay did pick up the new icon then but hasn’t gained much of the music service’s features. That’s still mostly the case with iOS 9, although there are a few notable differences.
You won’t find the For You or New sections from Apple Music on CarPlay yet, but Apple’s free Beats 1 live radio station is featured up top in Radio and you can favorite and unfavorite songs with the redesigned Now Playing screen to let Apple Music know more about your taste.
You can also playback both streaming and local songs from My Music including Apple Music playlists, although Music in CarPlay is still organized like the old Music app on iPhone which means yes, Bono’s singing silhouette still graces the Artists button for now. What has changed is the Now Playing screen. Album art appears behind a transparent mask rather than a dark gradient that fades to black. Text buttons for repeat and shuffle have also been replaced with wire icons keeping with iOS 9 design.
The built-in Podcasts app also sports a new icon, improved interface, and redesigned Now Playing screen. Apple has changed how it handles podcasts over the years. Playback was first included in the iPod app on iOS, then moved to its own Podcasts app on the App Store, only to be built-in again with iOS 8. Just like with the Music app on iOS 8.4, Apple delivered a major overhaul of its Podcasts app on iOS 9 and CarPlay benefits.
Navigating the app is now easier with unplayed episodes easier to access with fewer taps. You can also access what you’re playing much easier in the hierarchy with a new pause and resume option. Podcast playback pauses for audio interruptions like navigation guidance so you don’t have to rewind to hear what Siri interrupted. And even if you use a third-party podcast app, the top charts spot makes it easy to quickly find something to play when you run out of episodes of your regular podcast client.
The first of only three things mentioned in the release notes, CarPlay in iOS 9 now supports playing back voice recordings sent over iMessage:
Plays back audio messages, letting you hear from people in their own voices
You still can’t send audio messages, however, which would take out all the guess-work with Siri-powered speech-to-text. Apple Watch, on the other hand, by default allows you to dictate iMessages as either speech-to-text or an audio message. I’ve previously made the case for Apple Watch being a better driving companion than CarPlay, and I’ll be revisiting that thought soon with watchOS 2 in mind.
As I mentioned in my initial review last year, I would prefer to send audio messages to my iMessage contacts by default when using CarPlay. While that’s not even an option yet, playing back audio messages is a start. The only catch is that you only get one play; tapping Read Again tells you there is an attachment but can’t replay it.
CarPlay benefits from iOS 9’s new features in Reminders too. iOS 9 adds “Getting in the car” and “Getting out of the car” as triggers for location-based reminders. These alert you when connecting to or disconnecting from “any paired car” which means supported Bluetooth systems or CarPlay. I’m a frequent CarPlay user and rely on Reminders to keep my head straight, so I really appreciate this new feature.
In addition to adding a new trigger option to existing reminders, this opens up the door for useful driving-specific reminders. Tell Siri “remind me to fill up with gas when I get in the car” or “check my tire pressure when I get out of the car” for example. These also work with iOS 9 and compatible Bluetooth systems, but CarPlay presents the alert and additional options like marking it completed or snoozing it on-screen.
With the introduction of Apple Music and Photos, we’ve seen a new heart icon that indicates a “like” or a bookmark. This favoriting icon has made its way to Apple Maps in iOS 9 so CarPlay presents it for bookmarked locations. This heart icon means play more songs like this in Music, save these images to a special album in Photos, and remember this location for quick access in Maps.
Intelligence as Apple puts it is a flagship feature behind-the-scenes with iOS 9, and proactive assistance is one of its tent pole points. Maps benefits by using traffic conditions to notify you when you should leave for an appointment with an address on your calendar, and using Maps in CarPlay also includes a couple new behaviors.
During navigation Apple Maps now alerts you to congested traffic ahead during your trip. Maps also presents faster alternative routes now during travel when traffic develops and slows down your trip.
Proactive features stop at traffic alerts and alternative routes with CarPlay in iOS 9 however. Where iPhone and iPad benefit from a new Siri-focused page to the left of the main Home screen, CarPlay still doesn’t go beyond the basic app launcher. A concept by Casey Feldman featured on Dribbble illustrates what a smarter CarPlay could look like in the future.
This imagines well placed buttons for common Siri tasks like creating a note or reminder, viewing a countdown to your next calendar entry, or even using HomeKit to close your garage door as you drive away. You’ll also notice current temperature, which many car dashboards present, placed cleanly in the CarPlay status bar.
Something else missing from CarPlay in iOS 9 is points-of-interest categories made available on the iPhone and iPad. These would fit in naturally on CarPlay, which focuses on limiting distractions in the car, so I would love to see any of these implemented.
The state of apps on CarPlay, on the other hand, has rather rapidly progressed. While there’s no specialized CarPlay App Store yet as there is for Apple Watch and developers can’t openly create and submit apps without Apple’s approval, the number of CarPlay apps available has grown from a few to a small handful of audio apps over the last year. I discovered many more less known CarPlay apps during my research for this piece. Many of these playback audiobooks and podcasts or Internet radio stations.
Apple has also opened the door to “Support for CarPlay apps from auto manufacturers” as mentioned in iOS 9’s release notes. These will allow users to stay in the CarPlay experience while controlling car-specific functions from the automaker.
Optimized for night time driving, CarPlay now features dark notification banners for alerts. These replace the standard white banners in the evening, although in my testing typically aren’t enabled without first opening Maps which uses location to determine when to use dark mode.
By default my display toggles between brightness settings based on whether or not my headlights are on, although I’ve changed this to be based on time of day instead. Perhaps others may experience this with dark banners already (I haven’t), but I would like to see these kick in consistently around 7 pm automatically.
In addition to adding support for car apps from the automakers, CarPlay in iOS 9 adds support for new display types as well. Additional screen types including ones with wider aspect ratios and high DPI can now support CarPlay. This means we should see support spread to a wider and interesting range of displays going forward.
While I haven’t had the opportunity to test it, iOS 9 actually delivers wireless support for using CarPlay as we first reported was in development. The feature isn’t available on current aftermarket displays just yet and we haven’t seen it enabled in current cars shipping with CarPlay either, but once readily available wireless CarPlay should greatly improve the whole experience. The convenience of auto-connecting between iPhones and audio systems over Bluetooth cannot be overstated. You never have to even take your iPhone out of your pocket and audio can autoplay if desired.
I’m happy to see Apple ship wireless CarPlay so soon with iOS 9 and hope we’ll see it implemented in products you can buy soon. And while I haven’t tried it out yet and can’t speak to its performance and stability, I stumbled on this iPhone battery indicator in CarPlay with iOS 9. You don’t always see it as it’s likely only meant for wireless CarPlay, but I think it would be a useful addition for wired connections too.
Lastly, iOS 9’s release notes mention tilting and spinning knob controls for navigating the CarPlay interface.
Full support for car knob controls, so you can tilt and spin to scroll through lists or pan around in Maps
We’ve seen automakers like Mercedes-Benz take this approach, relying on hardware controls rather than touch displays.
As more display types join the existing variety of screen types including both resistive and capacitive touch displays, this helps CarPlay adapt to whichever type of hardware is provided.
Redesigned Siri and Now Playing screens, a new Podcasts app, audio message playback, wireless, and visual tweaks throughout the interface really summarizes what’s new with CarPlay this year. Some of it requires new hardware and others features are steps in the right direction but don’t move CarPlay way ahead just yet.
Still, I’m happy to see CarPlay not just sit parked and actually move forward if even a small amount as new features come with each iOS update. Next up I’d really like to see the ability to send audio messages, a better Apple Music experience, and maybe even more customization options like being able to rearrange app icons (it’s currently alphabetized for third-party apps).
After using CarPlay for a full year now I’m pleased at its progress and recommend considering it as a feature to look out for when buying a new car or picking out an aftermarket display. It’s still not perfect, but CarPlay is getting better with time.