Showing all posts tagged carplay:

Updating the Car

As I mentioned in my one-year review of my car, the one aftermarket upgrade I made was to swap the rather dated factory ICE for a CarPlay head unit. That modification is itself now about a year into its service, so it is also about due a review.

The reason for the upgrade is that the factory PCM 2.1 unit was really showing its age, with no USB, Bluetooth, or even Aux-in. In other words, Porsche were way ahead of Apple in removing the headphone jack… Courage!

This meant it was not possible to connect my phone to the car. Instead, I had a second SIM card which lived in the dash itself, and a curly-cord handset in the armrest between the front seats. Very retro, but not the most practical solution.

The worst part, though, was the near decade-old maps. While we do have some roads around here that are a couple of thousand years old, lots of them are quite a bit newer, and even on the Roman roads, it’s important to know about one-way systems and traffic restrictions.


My solution for these problems was to swap the PCM 2.1 system for a head unit that is basically just a dumb screen driven by an iPhone, with no functionality of its own beyond a FM tuner. The reason is that I change phones much more frequently than I change cars, and upgrade the software on my phone more frequently than that.

The specific device is an Alpine ILX-007, and I am quite satisfied with it. It has a decent screen, which seems to be one of the key complaints people have about other CarPlay systems. There is occasionally a little lag, but I assume that’s software rather than hardware, since it’s not reproducible. It did crash on me once, losing my radio presets, but that’s it.


Adding this system to my car has been a substantial upgrade. I have all my music, podcasts and so on immediately available, I can make phone calls, and there is even a dedicated button to talk to Siri. I use this a lot to add reminders to myself while driving, as well as obvious stuff like calling people.

Siri also reads messages that come in while the phone is in CarPlay mode, which is occasionally hilarious when she tries to read something written in a language other than English. On the other hand Siri handles emoji pretty well, reading their name (e.g. "face blowing kisses"), which is very effective at getting the meaning across - although it’s a bit disconcerting the first time it happens!

Contrary to my early fears about CarPlay, it works perfectly with my steering-wheel controls too, so ergonomics are great.

The main win though is that my in-car entertainment now benefits from iOS upgrades in a big way. In particular, iOS 10 brings a redesigned Music screen and a major update to Maps.

Show me around

The Music screen used to have five tabs, which is way too many to navigate while driving. The new version has three tabs, and is generally much clearer to use. I don’t use Apple Music, and one of the things that I hated about the old version was that it would default to the Apple Music tab. The biggest reason why I don’t use streaming services like Apple Music is that the only time I really get to listen to music is while I’m out and about. That means either in aeroplanes, where connectivity is generally entirely absent, or in the car, where it is unreliable and expensive. Therefore, I only listen to music stored locally on my phone, but I had to switch away each and every time I launched the Music app. iOS 10 fixes that.

The biggest change iOS 10 brings to the CarPlay experience is to Maps. Many people have pointed out that Maps will now add a waypoint when the iPhone is disconnected from the car, so that drivers can easily retrace their steps to their parked car. I have to admit that I have never lost my car, but it’s good to know that it’s, say, ten minutes’ walk away when it’s raining.


There are also updated graphics, which are much clearer to read in a hurry. These are not just limited to pretty icons, though; there is actual improved functionality. Previously, users had to switch manually between separate Overview and Detail modes. Annoyingly, there was a significant gap between the greatest zoom on Overview and the widest area on Detail. Also, Detail did not include traffic alerts, while Overview by default showed the entire route, not just currently relevant parts, so a typical journey required a fair amount of switching back and forth between modes.

The new Maps zooms gradually over the course of the journey, always showing current position near one edge of the screen and destination near another edge. This is much more useful, allowing the driver to focus on alerts that are coming up rather than being distracted by ones that are already passed. There is also more intelligence about proposing alternate routes around congestion.


And yes, Maps works perfectly well for me, thank you. I would probably use it anyway given that, as the system-level mapping service, it plugs into everything, so I can quickly get directions to my next appointment from the calendar or go to a contact’s home or office address. The search could still be better, requiring very precise phrasing, but contrary to Maps’ reputation out there, landmarks generally exist and are in the correct place.

I am on record as an Apple Maps fan even in the early days, and it’s improved enormously since then. Don’t believe the hype, give it a go.

The integration is a big deal, as I saw last Wednesday. I was supposed to meet a colleague out and about, so I used Messages to send him my current location. To be extra sure, I chose the actual restaurant I was in, rather than just my GPS location. All my colleague needed to do was to tap on the location in the chat to be routed to my location. Unfortunately, he is one of those who prefer Google Maps, so he eyeballed the pin location and entered that in Google Maps. Unfortunately for him, the location he eyeballed turned out to correspond to a chain, and Google in its eagerness to give a result (any result) gave him the location of the nearest branch of that chain, rather than the specific location I was near.

It all worked out in the end, after a half-hour detour and a second taxi trip…

Trust the system, it works.

The System Works

This is exactly why I got a CarPlay unit in the first place: so I would get updates in the car more frequently than every few years when I get a whole new car. So far, that’s working out just perfectly. The iOS 10 upgrade cleaned up some annoyances and added convenient new features without requiring me to rip out all my dashboard wiring. I won’t consider another car without CarPlay support.

Stupid Car Review, One Year In

Since I just renewed the insurance on the ridiculous thing, I thought it an appropriate time to look back on a year with a very silly car.

A year ago I had just quit my job. The old job was one of the few that still came with a company car, so I had to get myself a new car quickly to be able to drive to the airport for the new gig. Luckily I’m a fool car nut, so I had a short list ready to deploy. (As it happens, I have a short list for every occasion…)

I ran the short list past my wife, AKA the sensible person in my house, and she immediately nixed all but one of the options. So that was easy.

So what did you get?

I got myself a Porsche Cayenne (955) Turbo S. No, the new job was not as a bank robber! I found a lightly used one that was eight years old by the time I got it, and despite the low mileage and generally excellent condition, it cost about the same as my wife’s new mid-spec Golf. Still an extremely silly car, but not entirely idiotic.

Let's review some of the relevant stats (emphasis mine):

It was powered by a twin-turbocharged 4.5-L V8 that produced 521 PS (383 kW) and 720 N·m (530 lb·ft) of torque. Acceleration from 0–60 mph (96 km/h) was 5.0 seconds and the top speed was 171 miles per hour.

Beyond a certain point, I think car manufacturers should just do like Rolls-Royce and simply declare horsepower to be "adequate".

Since I bought it I’ve put 30k on it with zero maintenance issues so far, apart from a single burned-out light bulb (touch wood). Sure, it drinks like a drunken sailor with a drinking problem who’s really thirsty and also isn’t paying for his own drinks, and likes to wash its drink down with the occasional drop of oil too - but every time I put my foot down I forgive it. Basically it’s the cheapest way I could find to drive something fun that could haul the kids and all their clobber. It also very definitely has presence - looming suddenly into someone’s rear view mirror generally causes them to jump out of the way pretty promptly, and if they don’t move over, the xenons are probably bright enough to give them sunburn.

What’s it like to drive?

It’s surprisingly capable in the twisty stuff, unless the going gets really tight. It’s definitely better than it has any right to be, especially with the air suspension dropped a notch and set to Sport mode. I have had the tyres chirping a few times on late night drives - the rear tyres, note. Even though it can feel like it’s reluctant to get its nose into the corner, you can drive around that and find a surprising level of agility. Okay, it’s no Caterham, but compared to other big SUVs I’ve driven, it’s night and day. "Worst Porsche, best SUV", as the saying goes.

Straight-line speed is, predictably, ridiculous, being apparently unrestrained by mere laws of physics, but only by the driver's desire to hang onto their license. Amazingly, I have so far managed to avoid speeding tickets too. Probably jinxed myself on both counts (that and maintenance) now!

I will say that having this much power under my right foot has paradoxically made me a more relaxed driver. Knowing that I can at any moment summon the thunder and disappear into the distance in a cloud of dust means I don't feel the urge to floor it at every possible opportunity, and am more likely to view aggressive drivers' antics with amused condescension than as any sort of challenge.

The Tiptronic S transmission is… fine. In automatic mode it shuffles ratios fairly competently, although it has the usual failing of automatics, where it is always either trying to hang onto a gear too long, or dropping two cogs at once. The former isn’t that big a problem with this much torque, just giving you a moment to enjoy the feeling of the building boooOOOOST, but the latter can leave you with a double-handful of unwanted revs and sudden acceleration. Fortunately there are steering-wheel-mounted buttons to control matters. Even one year in, I still find it odd that there is a + and a - control on each side of the wheel, rather than one side being + and the other being -. To avoid confusing myself, I tend to use each side for only one purpose. I don’t think I’ve ever shifted with the gear lever - not least because you can still use the Tiptronic controls while remaining in automatic mode. This will let you drop a gear or two for an overtake or a tight corner, and then revert to slushmatic mode a few seconds later - very convenient.

Being a Turbo S, the thing comes with front and rear locking diffs and a low-range gear box, so it’s probably more capable off road than I am. The worst terrain I need to deal with is the occasional dirt road, though, so I haven’t actually used those features yet beyond checking that they worked. I did overtake the snow plough driving up an Alpine pass one night, but that was enabled more by good winter tyres than any special drivetrain mode.

Surely it can’t be all good, right?

If you want a real-world picture of the downsides, I’ll just say that I’m now on first-name terms with the staff at my usual petrol station… The Beast (as it is nicknamed for obvious reasons) is picky about its fuel, too, preferring to drink the 98-octane-plus top-shelf stuff, which is only available at two locations that are convenient to me.

Also, even though I bought the thing on the right side of the depreciation curve (seriously, I paid something like one-sixth of the original list price), parts are still Porsche parts, with a price tag to suit. I had to fit new front brake disks, and each one ran over €900! I was actually braced to replace all four, since you don’t want to skimp on brakes, especially on something that big, fast, and heavy. However my local Porsche dealer was scrupulously honest, and after I had already approved replacing both fronts and rears, they called me up and told me the rears were good for another year or so. After that one, they’ve got themselves a customer for life.

Tyre prices are equally terrifying, but when you see the sheer acreage of rubber (245/40/20) next to more normal tyres, you begin to understand why - plus of course you need compounds rated for the speeds and loads the Beast puts on them. Once they’re on, they seem to last well enough; the new winter set that just came off looked nicely healthy and evenly worn, and still had plenty of tread left.

On the plus side of that equation, Porsche ownership gets you invited to Porsche events - so last weekend found me haring around the Circuito Tazio Nuvolari in the new 718 Boxster S, before hitting the handling track in the new 911 C4S (the one with the rear-wheel steering - very nice).

What would you change

I already changed the one thing that really bugged me, which was the in-car entertainment system. The Beast came with PCM 2.1, and that is really quite dated, with no Bluetooth, USB, or even aux-in - basically no way whatsoever of talking to the outside world. The novelty factor of the curly-cord handset in the armrest was cute, and I was able to get a second SIM card for my mobile number to put in the car, so I ran it like that for a while. However, after a few months I had had enough of having to swap out CDs in the six-disc changer in the back, not being able to listen to podcasts, and having nearly decade-old maps in the satnav.

I replaced the original ICE system with an Alpine head unit with CarPlay1, so now I just plug my iPhone into the armrest where that phone handset used to go, and I have all my music, podcasts, and maps on the screen in the dashboard. There’s even a dedicated Siri button, so the Son&Heir can tell her to "play some Ramones" as soon as he gets in the car. I had to get an additional amp to feed the (very nice) Bose system that the car came with, but I am very happy with the results.

The only other thing I am tempted to change is the exhaust. There’s a lovely burble when starting the engine from cold, but unless you’re really hoofing it, it’s pretty subtle on the move. (Tunnels are great fun, though!) I would quite like to hear more of the engine’s voice, but I can’t really justify the four-figure cost, especially for something that would probably make my wife’s eyes roll right back into her head.

There is absolutely no call for chipping it, what with the amount of power it’s throwing about already. I love the looks just as they are, and the 20" Porsche OEM wheels are perfect too, so I think it will stay stock apart from the PCM swap.

Now tell us what you really think

Bottom line, I love the thing to bits, even though it has probably spoiled me for any other car that does not have heated electric everything and all the POWERRRR in the world. Buy with care, and you can have a lot of fun with one of these things.

  1. Yes, the steering wheel buttons work with the new head unit thanks to a little adapter, so between that and Siri, my fears over CarPlay were not justified. 

The Problem with CarPlay

Today at the Geneva International Motor Show, Apple announced CarPlay, with is the new name for "iOS in the car". It looks great!


They are pitching it as "a Smarter, Safer & More Fun Way to Use iPhone in the Car", and I love the concept. We upgrade our phones every year or two, but our cars much less frequently than that. In-car entertainment systems are limited by the automotive industry’s product cycles, so they are basically already obsolete (in consumer terms) by the time the car hits the showroom. Enabling cars to piggy-back on the smart, GPS-navigating, voice-recognising, music-playing computers that we already carry in our pockets can only be a good thing.

If you take a look at a video of CarPlay in action, though, I see one huge issue.

Touchscreens in cars are a terrible idea. Old-school controls gave drivers haptic feedback: if you turn the dial one notch, you feel the click, and you get the next radio station, or one increment of temperature, or whatever it is. This is something drivers can do completely blind, without taking their eyes off the road.

It’s been at least a decade since cars could accommodate physical controls for all of their functions, so multi-function control systems like iDrive, Comand

or MMI were introduced to help with the plethora of systems and settings that modern cars require. All of these systems allow users to navigate hierarchical menu trees to control in-car entertainment, navigation, and vehicle settings.

These systems are still better than touchscreens, though, because at least the driver’s hand rests on the one control, and that control still has tactile increments to it. The haptic feedback from those clicks is enough for seasoned users to be able to navigate the menu tree with only occasional glances at the screen - very important at highway speeds.

Touchscreens are terrible for non-visual feedback. Users have no idea, short of looking at the screen, whether their action achieved the result they wanted or not.

Apple’s suggestion of using Siri is not much of a fix. I like Siri and use the feature a lot in my car to dictate e-mails or messages, but it depends entirely on network access. Out of major cities - you know, where I take my car - network access is often insufficient to use Siri with any reliability, so drivers will almost certainly need to use the touchscreen as well.

I really hope that CarPlay also works with steering-wheel mounted controls, as those allow control with an absolute minimum of interruption. If we could have audio feedback that did not require network access, using the existing Accessibility text-to-speech functionality in iOS, that would be perfect.