Tips and advice

What is Apple CarPlay? How it works and compatible cars

Apple CarPlay offers drivers a safe way to use their smartphone while driving. Here’s how it works

apple carplay bmw

Modern smartphones are loaded with useful apps and features, and Apple CarPlay is a system that allows you to use them safely while driving. Once you’ve connected an iPhone to your car, CarPlay can provide navigation, music streaming and messaging all through your car’s built-in infotainment display.

First released in 2014, CarPlay is Apple’s rival to Android Auto, a similar in-car connectivity package that is exclusive to Android smartphone users. It displays a simplified selection of your iPhone’s apps in an easy-to-read layout, allowing them to be used while on the move. This is safer than fiddling with your phone while driving and keeps you on the right side of the law.

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Apple CarPlay is compatible with most iPhone models; as long as you have an iPhone 5 or newer (including the iPhone SE), it’ll sync with a car equipped with the technology. You won’t find Apple CarPlay on every new car on sale but it’s becoming more and more common. You can also buy replacement radio units that are CarPlay-compatible for older cars.

What is Apple CarPlay?

Apple CarPlay is a system that mirrors your iPhone onto your car’s infotainment screen in a simplified layout that is easy to read and use while driving. This allows drivers to access a variety of apps on the move, chiefly navigation and music services. But why would drivers prefer to use CarPlay over their car’s in-built infotainment system?

It comes down to personal preference. Those who are familiar with using an iPhone may find CarPlay a more intuitive interface than the car’s built-in information system. With its recognisable icons and clear layout, it can often be easier to learn than starting from scratch with the car’s user interface.

The other major advantage is apps. Drivers can choose from a range of navigation apps, including Apple Maps, Google Maps and Waze, instead of the car’s native sat-nav. These can provide a slicker user experience and allow you to continue using navigation on foot once you reach your destination. Apple Maps is the default navigation app for iPhones and brings lots of other clever features, including the ability to send an estimated time of arrival to one of your contacts.

A recent update to CarPlay also made it easier for electric car drivers to find EV charging stations. Apple Maps can now provide real-time availability of chargers and charging networks that are suitable for your vehicle, making it easier to see which charging stations along your route would be suitable for a charging stop.

Your iPhone’s music apps, such as Spotify and Apple Music, are available through CarPlay, too. You can play any music downloaded to your iPhone, or stream any playlist as long as you have a data connection.

Of course, you can use your iPhone’s call functionality through CarPlay, and it can read incoming iMessage and WhatsApp messages to you. You can reply using Apple’s voice-activated assistant, Siri, by simply asking it to compose a new message.

Understandably, not all apps are compatible, so you won’t be able to play games on the move (nor should you – it’d be very dangerous), but Apple’s app templates are encouraging more developers to create their own Apple CarPlay compatible apps.

A further benefit over in-built infotainment systems is that Apple makes sure to frequently update CarPlay with new improvements and bug fixes. This is done over-the-air through your iPhone. Previous updates include the ability to unlock and start some car models with just your iPhone, as well as a ‘Drive focus’ mode that will only allow important notifications to come through while you’re driving.

How do I connect to Apple CarPlay?

Start by connecting your iPhone to your car using its USB charging cable, or via Bluetooth if your car has wireless CarPlay functionality. Regardless of which connection option you pick, connecting to CarPlay will make your car’s infotainment screen look like a zoomed-in version of your iPhone screen. It’s important to note that you need version 7.1 or later of Apple’s iOS operating system on your phone for a connection to be recognised.

Volvo Apple CarPlay

Wireless CarPlay adapters are available for cars where you’d have to plug your phone in. These range in price, with many coming in at under £50. You plug the adapter into your car’s USB slot, rather than the phone cable.

How do I use Apple CarPlay?

You can use CarPlay in a few different ways. The primary method for operating CarPlay is through your car’s touchscreen. You select apps by pressing on the icon, much like you would on your iPhone. If your car doesn’t have a touchscreen, then you can use the rotary selector, trackpad or steering wheel buttons instead.

Alternatively, you can make use of the Siri voice control function to operate most of the apps without having to take your hands off the wheel. It can open apps, play music and set navigation destinations.

Which cars have Apple CarPlay?

You’re likely to find CarPlay in most new cars, albeit as an optional extra in some models. Although Apple claims there are over 600 different car models with CarPlay compatibility, it doesn’t appear in every new car, so we recommend checking with your dealer before making a purchase. Our in-depth reviews will usually mention whether a new car comes with Apple CarPlay (or Android Auto), so head to the review of the model you’re interested in to find out.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that some of Apple CarPlay’s more complex functionality depends on the hardware your car comes with – if your car doesn’t have the tech to unlock with an iPhone, for example, even a software update won’t change this.

Frequently asked questions about Apple CarPlay

Is there a monthly fee for Apple CarPlay?

Currently, there are no extra costs for using Apple CarPlay. Aside from what you pay for installation as a bolt-on to your vehicle – assuming that you need to, and it isn’t already included.

Does Apple CarPlay work over Bluetooth?

Yes. By accessing your car’s built-in Bluetooth system, and ensuring that your iPhone’s Bluetooth is switched on, you can pair them together with ease. 

How is Apple CarPlay different from Android Auto?

Android Auto is the Android smartphone equivalent of CarPlay. They both offer much the same in terms of functionality, but with visual differences. App icons, menus and certain apps will appear differently, each resembling their particular smartphone interface. The other notable difference is the voice command system, which for Apple is called ‘Siri’, and ‘Google Assistant’ for Android users.

What is the difference between Apple CarPlay and a car’s built-in navigation?

A car’s built-in navigation system will make use of its own GPS system to provide routes, and is often accompanied by a manufacturer’s own voice command technology. While some built-in sat-navs don’t offer the same range of features as CarPlay, they can also prove more reliable in areas of poor mobile service, since they don't rely on a data connection to work.

Can you use Google Maps and Waze with Apple CarPlay?

Yes, you can use Google Maps and Waze with CarPlay. There are a range of navigation apps to choose from alongside Apple’s default, Apple Maps.

What are the best maps for Apple CarPlay?

Aside from the aforementioned Apple Maps, Google Maps and Waze, there are several alternatives that can be used which are still considered to be useful. Those include TomTom GO, Roadtrippers – Trip Planner, and Sygic. Before downloading these apps, it’s best to check that they are available in your country.

Does Apple CarPlay drain your phone’s battery?

In much the same way that your phone battery will drain if it’s constantly left on while driving, CarPlay will also reduce your phone’s battery life by a noticeable amount. By combining a navigation app with a music app, and any others you may have active while driving, your phone is taking on a much higher workload than if it were inactive. If you plan to rely on CarPlay for a long trip, it’s best to keep your smartphone plugged in or placed on your car’s wireless charger.

Advantages of Apple CarPlay

CarPlay isn’t short on benefits, and many have already been discussed in this guide. As a short overview, here are some of our biggest advantages:

  • Apple CarPlay is easy to use, especially if you’re already familiar with an iPhone
  • Apple CarPlay has no additional costs if it’s fitted as standard, but it’s an optional extra in some models
  • Apple CarPlay lets you use the map or music app that you prefer
  • Apple CarPlay combines most of your driving-related applications in one easy-to-use interface

Disadvantages of Apple CarPlay

Though there are many advantages to Apple CarPlay, there are a few disadvantages that drivers should be aware of:

  • Apple CarPlay is not yet available on all cars
  • Apple CarPlay could be an expensive optional extra
  • Apple CarPlay has not yet been offered in every country
  • Apple CarPlay may still be missing accessibility to certain apps that you, specifically, may find integral on a day-to-day basis
  • Apple CarPlay could be a big distraction to some drivers

Should I get Apple CarPlay?

The key details point strongly in favour of Apple CarPlay, and with time, we’ll likely see it implemented as either a standard feature or an optional extra to most new cars. Once the screen comes up, you’re able to use the various apps just like you would on your iPhone, but as the display is bigger and clearer, it’s much safer than fumbling about with your phone while on the move.

In many cases, you can also use the car’s touchscreen or steering wheel-mounted controls to work everything you need to, allowing you to use your phone just as you would normally. As a result, we’d recommend getting and using CarPlay if you think it would improve your driving experience.

Check out our guide to the best free driving apps and the best paid and free sat-nav apps for your phone.

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