Car manufacturers are increasingly looking to offer connected services to drivers. Those used to having everything at their fingertips on their smartphone can now find that the car is just as connected a place.
Cars have long been offering online services - like traffic information or Google search for POIs - but in many cases this relies on the driver's phone. Not only is the phone often tasked with being the connection, but it's the brains of the outfit too, pushing or syncing services to the car via a Bluetooth or cable connection, especially when it comes to entertainment.
With Online Entertainment, however, BMW is cutting the smartphone cord, meaning you can, for the first time, have music streaming direct to the car, rather than via your phone. In fact, you don't even need a phone to use it.
That music comes from Rara.com. Rara is a British music streaming service that came to life at the end of 2011 and has a catalogue of 22 million tracks from all the major labels and independents.
With the incorporation of Rara into Online Entertainment, as part of BMW's ConnectedDrive service, BMW is the first in Europe to offer in-car music streaming without the need for a smartphone. Online Entertainment is an option on BMW 1-7 Series, X5 and M models in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and The Netherlands, with Spain joining the list in 2014.
We slipped into the Venetian Beige Dakota leather interior of the new BMW 4 Series Coupé to put Rara through its paces.
The reason you won't need a smartphone for Online Entertainment is because the car uses its own embedded SIM for the data connection. You'll have to have the right packages in place to be able to get Online Entertainment, so you'll have to have taken the Media Package BMW Professional, which is a £1,990 extra for the 4 Series we tested.
With that, you get the professional navigation package, Bluetooth, the apps interface, DVD player, internal hard drive and so on, so your car will be packed with tech but you'll have all the hardware in place for the new service.
You'll be able to use the 10.1-inch central display in the cockpit for all those services, with a split-screen option on some car models, so you'll be able to view your navigation, as well as the album art of the currently playing track, for example.
The connection comes from Vodafone, so you'll be using the big red's 3G network, with the agreement giving you unlimited music streaming, also covering a number of European countries, so you'll still get your music if you're on the Continent for business or pleasure.
...But not subscription free
You might be able to ditch your smartphone, but you'll have to pay a subscription fee for Online Entertainment. It sounds like a hefty fee too, as you'll have to part with £325 for the first year, then £225 for subsequent years. That's the equivalent of £27 a month for that first year and whichever way you look at it, that's expensive for a music streaming service.
You don't just get the car connected for that price, as that gets you a subscription that works across platforms. You can access Rara through a browser, as well as via apps for Android and iOS with syncing between the two: you'll be able to create playlists on your phone that then appear in your BMW, for example.
But even with that, we suspect that some will look at the price, compare it to Spotify's £9.99 premium subscription (£119.88 a year) and think that it's priced too high. It's worth considering that you're getting the data costs covered too, but as data rates are falling and roaming costs being abolished in some cases, it's going to be increasingly difficult to sell Online Entertainment over and above existing BMW apps offerings.
Technology at your fingertips
As part of BMW ConnectedDrive, Rara is fully integrated into the media offering of the car, working seamlessly with iDrive. There's no jarring change in interface, no different method of navigation, so if you can find your way around BMW's system, Online Entertainment will be easy enough to use.
You'll be able to use the iDrive controller and that means that when it comes to things like searching for music, you can rotate and click to enter artist names or album details, or you can draw the letters on the touch surface on the top.
The latter is really easy, especially as it can be done blind: there's no need to take your eyes off the road as you can draw in the letters, the car confirming the letter it has recognised.
Otherwise, navigation is a case of rotating the control dial to skip through the left-hand menu options, clicking on the option you want. You'll also be able to use the left and right action of the controller to move forward and backwards as you can elsewhere in BMW's system.
Rara is also integrated into the steering wheel controls, as you would expect. That means you can change the volume, and if you have the heads-up display (a £825 option), you'll be able to scroll through the tracks of an album or playlist without taking your eyes off the road, which we really like.
As we've mentioned, you can create playlists through the Rara app on your phone or in a browser at home if you want your own custom playlists in the car. These will then be synced, so long as you're using the same account in the car.
There are also a number of channels that Rara curates for you. These group together music in categories so it's easy to find the sort of thing you're after, be that rock or pop, party music, something to relax to or the best hits of the 80s, 90s, 00s. You simply navigate to the channel and it starts streaming to the car.
You can search, as we've mentioned, for anything you like, with a global search option, or more detailed searches by artist or album. Inputting the details to search for isn't always practical when driving, so from a search result there are plenty of options - like accessing all the albums of an artist, for example, as well as the ability to access "connected music", such as similar music to the track you're listening to.
Within the channels, there's also Rara Radar, which is where Rara highlights up-and-coming tracks, which is always a good place to head to find out what's hot. You can mark things as favourite so they're always readily available and easy to find, and this is a great place to start, favouriting your top albums.
Overall, it's easy to find music and there's plenty on offer from those 22 million tracks.
As a streaming service, there's always the concern that you'll be dependent on your connection. What happens if you're in a tunnel or there's no phone reception? Rara is prepared for such circumstances and uses a background caching system.
That means that when you select a new album, for example, it will start playing the first track as soon as it is ready, while the next three tracks are downloading in the background. It all heads on to the 20GB hard drive in the head unit, so it's then stored offline.
The aim is to provide a seamless music listening experience. If you're playing one track and search for another and want it to play, the current track will keep playing until the next can start - there's no break in music playback.
Because the BWM is caching your music in the head unit, you'll get instant playback for much of the music that you listen to regularly, as all the tracks you play are stored. There will be no playback delay, your connection doesn't matter and if you're offline while darting in and out of tunnels around Lake Como, you'll still have your music playing.
If you're constantly searching for music then there will be occasions when you'll have no network connection. Just as would be the case on a streaming service on your phone, if there's no reception, you can't run the search, so you'll have to stick to what you've already got.
Music to your ears
On the road, Rara through Online Entertainment in ConnectedDrive is really impressive. Navigation of the music service will feel intuitive to anyone who is familiar with BMW's control and the results are that there's very little messing around. You don't need to fiddle with your phone, you don't need to scan through radio stations, you can just play the music you want all the time.
It sounds great too. Our test BMW was equipped with the BMW Advanced speakers (£430), which offer great performance, with plenty of bass for those who like a bit of meat, but also offer distortion-free music even at high volumes.
The great sound is true of all inputs, including CDs and radio and the BMW 4 Series Coupé is nicely soundproofed, so there isn't excessive road noise, but you can hear the purr of the engine when you flip over to Sports mode and put your foot down.
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Rara currently streams to the car at 48kbps, but will be moving over to 64kbps Dolby Pulse in 2014. The bitrate may sound low, but Rara says this has been chosen to hit the sweet spot between quality and speed of download.
Dolby Pulse promises greater fidelity with a lower bitrate than some other digital formats (like MP3 or AAC), but remember you're listening in a car, rather than through well-isolated headphones, so having the highest quality is perhaps less important than it is in your home.
So it all sounds good?
We like the concept and the implementation of Rara through Online Entertainment in ConnectedDrive is really good. It's a great way to get your music and the results are also good. We've enjoyed listening without having to battle with adverts and without messing around with a phone. Having a collection of music that's stored on the hard drive for instant playback is also really handy.
But the price is something of a barrier, especially when connecting a phone to play music isn't that difficult. Rara's service, outside of the BMW offering (ie, on mobile and desktop), will cost you about £90 for the first year. So that integration in the car, and the data you get, will be costing you more than £230 extra in the first year.
Rara is the first Online Entertainment partner to be announced and implemented by BMW and we're yet to see if there will be any alternative music services, like Spotify, in the future. But there are already other music options that you access via USB connection to your smartphone on your BMW, so for many, the Online Entertainment offering might be a hard sell.
But this set-up does feel like the future and we're sure that we'll see wider connected offerings at a range of prices across a variety of vehicles over the next year. BMW, in this case, seems to be ahead of the pack.
If cash isn't a problem, then the Rara experience is great. It puts a world of music at your fingertips and it doesn't matter who's driving or whether they have a smartphone, but the costs involved will be a turn-off for some.