You get in your car, connect your phone to the Bluetooth head unit, and toss it in the dock. For the next umpteen amount of minutes/hours, this is your source of music, navigation, and everything else. Apple’s CarPlay looks to re-invent the way you use your phone in the car with a sort of “second screen” setup.

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What Is CarPlay?

Basically, CarPlay is iOS for your car. It’s not necessarily a blown up version of your phone (which really wouldn’t make sense), but rather a simplified interface for easy use in a vehicle. It does all the basic stuff: phone calls, maps, music, and text messages using your voice. The idea is to keep your eyes on the road and not on your phone.

When it comes to getting CarPlay in your ride, there are two ways that can happen: buy a car with a CarPlay-ready system already installed, or buy an aftermarket head unit. While buying a new vehicle is clearly going to be the easiest way to get CarPlay, it’s also the most expensive—not to mention that if you’re not in the market to buy a new car, well, it’s highly impractical. In that case, just roll with an aftermarket head unit—I’m using a Kenwood DDX9903S and can’t say enough good things about it. Pioneer and JBL are also leading the charge with aftermarket CarPlay units.

Regardless of the direction you go, however, the core experience will pretty much be the same. The interface is very Apple-esque (naturally), so moving from phone to car is a pretty seamless experience. CarPlay is basically comprised of a main screen with shortcuts to all your currently-installed applications. The sidebar on the left-hand side always houses the “home” button, as well as apps that are running in the background that require attention, like Maps.

The biggest thing CarPlay has going for it is, surprisingly, Siri. If you have “Hey Siri” enabled, CarPlay gets infinitely more useful—you no longer have to actually touch the head unit itself for most actions. Instead, just say “hey Siri, do the thing” and she’ll do the thing…most of the time. Sometimes she has a hard time figuring out what it is you want, but I’l get to that more in a moment.

Now, don’t get it twisted: CarPlay is not a standalone product. The head unit will have a USB input where you’ll use your own Lightning cable to connect your phone to the head unit. On the upside, this also charges your phone. That’s pretty awesome. And since CarPlay is built into all modern iOS devices, you don’t have to install anything to get started—just plug in and you’re pretty much good to go.

So what’s your phone doing while CarPlay is running? The same thing CarPlay is doing. For example, if you’re using Maps on CarPlay, it will also show up on your iPhone’s screen. Same thing for Pandora or Spotify. This isn’t true for apps that aren’t CarPlay compatible, though—for example, if you’re using Maps on CarPlay, then open Pokemon Go on your phone, CarPlay will go back to the home screen and do nothing while the phone opens the game. You can’t do one thing on CarPlay, and another on the phone.

Where CarPlay Falls Short

All of that sounds pretty useful, and it is–but there are a few places where CarPlay is still a little janky. “Hey Siri”, for example, is a very nice feature to have, but the interpretation just isn’t very good half the time. For example, I told Maps to navigate to CVS pharmacy on a specific street, and it returned results for a slew of different CVS Pharmacies—none of which were the one I wanted. It had no idea where I wanted to go until I gave the exact address. That’s not very useful.

This brings me to my second point: the third-party apps are pretty limited. For example, you are essentially stuck with Apple Maps—Google Maps on CarPlay is simply not an option. While Apple Maps is much better than it used to be, it’s still nowhere near Google Maps’ level. The scenario above basically proves that—try telling Apple Maps a location with very little info, then try the same thing with Google Maps. You’ll see what I mean.

To add insult to injury, there’s also the subject of cost: CarPlay-compatible head units are pretty darn expensive. The one I’m using, for example, pushed well over the $1000 mark if you include the cost of installation. That’s a pretty pricey upgrade just to simplify your life a little bit. If you’ve got the extra income, however, it’s so nice to have, shortcomings be damned.

Of course, that leads us to a bigger question.

How Is It Different than Using Your Phone with a Dock?

If a CarPlay unit costs $1000, why not just buy a $7 mount for your phone and call it a day? CarPlay definitely has its benefits: its bigger screen and simpler interface are just a more car-friendly experience. You can call people more easily, and control your tunes without really taking your eyes off the road. Basically, it’s safer, which is nice.

But your phone still does more, and while CarPlay is great when you have “Hey Siri” enabled, so is the iPhone! Basically, if you’ve got a Bluetooth head unit already in your car and a decent docking setup, you’re probably in a good enough situation that you don’t necessarily need CarPlay. That said, when it comes time to get a new car, it wouldn’t hurt to make that one of the things on your wishlist.

If you use navigation a lot, though, that could be a different story. Navigation uses a lot of horsepower: both battery and processor. In a situation where your phone is in a dock on the dash, it can overheat pretty easily (depending on the outside temperature, of course) when pushing music and navigation. CarPlay easily remedies that.

So, Is CarPlay Worth It?

Ultimately, CarPlay better than just using a phone, but it’s also quite expensive if you’re not looking to buy a new car. It’s almost certainly not $1000+ better than using your phone in a dock, but if you have the money to burn, go for it.

If, however, you’re in the market for a new car, do yourself a favor and get a CarPlay-compatible one. There’s really no reason not to get one, after all, since even base model vehicles are shipping with stuff for 2017. You’ll be happy you did.

Profile Photo for Cameron Summerson Cameron Summerson
Cameron Summerson is ex-Editor-in-Chief of Review Geek and served as an Editorial Advisor for How-To Geek and LifeSavvy. He covered technology for a decade and wrote over 4,000 articles and hundreds of product reviews in that time. He’s been published in print magazines and quoted as a smartphone expert in the New York Times.
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