Apple CarPlay has been around for a few years now but things have moved on significantly in those years, with more and more manufacturers offering compatibility and not just in premium models either.

We used it in the 2017 Kia Sportage for the sake of this feature in order to give you a run down of everything Apple CarPlay can do and how it works if you're someone who already has a CarPlay-compatible car, or if you don't, why it's a technology you'll want your next car to have if you're an Apple user. 

What is Apple CarPlay?

Apple CarPlay is the tech giant's foray into in-car technology. It puts certain features of your iPhone onto a CarPlay-equipped car's built-in display, allowing drivers to do what they want on their phone while driving.

You can get turn-by-turn directions, make calls, send and receive messages and listen to music without having to touch your iPhone at all. Each app, which includes Phone, Messages, Music, Maps, Podcasts and Audiobooks, as well as a few third party ones, have all been redesigned for the car so they can be used while your eyes and hands stay where they should be.

At the heart of CarPlay is Apple's personal assistant Siri, enabling you to do tasks such as make a call, dictate and send a message or have a received message dictated to you all through voice control. CarPlay can also be controlled with the knobs, dials and buttons in your car though, as well as the touchscreen.

Naturally, CarPlay only supports Apple iPhones and is compatible with models from the iPhone 5 and newer running iOS 7 and above. If you have an Android device, such as a Samsung Galaxy S8 or S9, you'll need to read our feature on Android Auto explored instead. 

Apple CarPlay: How to set it up

Apple CarPlay set up is very simple. You'll need a Lightning cable which you'll need to plug into a USB socket in the front of the car and then into your iPhone, unless you have one of the few cars like the new BMW 5 Series that offers wireless connection, which has been available since iOS 9. The Apple CarPlay icon should then appear on your car's built in display and from here you'll be able to get to the CarPlay interface with a simple tap.

If you're having issues, head into the Settings icon on your iPhone > General > CarPlay. From here, there is a My Cars section where you should see your CarPlay-compatible car appear. You can also press and hold the voice control button on your car's steering wheel to start setup.

Tapping on your car in the list on your iPhone will then offer more settings options. You can choose whether to allow CarPlay to work when your iPhone is locked, as well as move around the order of how the CarPlay apps appear on your car's display.

As you would on your iPhone, pressing and holding the icon you want to move will allow you to put it in the order you want it. This will then be replicated on your car's touchscreen.

Apple CarPlay: User interface and controls

Apple CarPlay essentially turns your car's built-in display into a giant iPhone. It's also as intuitive as your iPhone and works in a very familiar way, though not identical to your iPhone. The biggest difference is that only a few of the apps on your iPhone will appear on your car's display through CarPlay.

Sadly, there isn't much compatibility for third party apps at the moment, except a select few, which include WhatsApp, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Tidal, Spotify, At Bat, Stitcher, Overcast, Audiobooks.com, Audible, Vox, NPR One, Clammr and Downcast, as well as Google Maps and Waze following the iOS 12 update. The only icons you'll see on your car's touchscreen will therefore be Phone, Messages, Apple Music, Apple Maps, Podcasts, Audiobooks and any of the third party apps listed. 

You will also see an icon for the car manufacturer of your car. Tapping this will take you away from CarPlay and back to your car's main infotainment system, offering access to its navigation option or settings for example.

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When in one of the CarPlay apps, you'll see a small icon of the app you're using in the top left corner, with two of the most recent apps you've been using below it. You'll also see the time, signal strength of your iPhone and a home button for returning to the main CarPlay dash.

This home button looks similar to how the original home button looked on iPhones before Touch ID appeared with a small square in the middle so it's easily recognisable. In terms of control, you can either use touch, voice if you push the steering wheel button, or your car's knobs and buttons, as we mentioned previously.

Apple CarPlay: Notifications

Certain notifications will appear from your iPhone when connected to CarPlay, such as event alert reminders, new message alerts and of course incoming calls.

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We dive into a little bit more detail on the Messages front a little further down, but a pop-up banner will appear at the top of any CarPlay app screen if you get a new message or event alert through Apple Calendar.

The banner will disappear after a few seconds, as it does on your iPhone, but if you tap it, Siri will ask if you would like it to read the new message or open Maps to launch directions for an upcoming event. 

Apple CarPlay: Calling

Being able to make phone calls in the car is nothing new. It's been possible for years thanks to Bluetooth so the Phone section of Apple's CarPlay is perhaps the least exciting. That said, you couldn't possibly have something like CarPlay without the ability to make and receive calls so it's a fundamental part of the system too. 

There are several ways to make a phone call using CarPlay, the first of which is to press the voice control button on your steering wheel, after which the Siri screen will appear. You can then tell Siri to call the name of the person you wish to contact.

Alternatively, you can tap the Phone icon in the CarPlay menu. The Siri screen will then appear again, only this time it will specifically ask who you want to call, or whom you would like to speak with. Again, you say the name of the contact and Siri replies with "Calling [contact name]".

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You can also opt to find the contact yourself, or type in the number on the keypad yourself. In order to do this, you'll need to tap the Phone icon and head to the "Show Contacts" in the top right of the Siri screen. From here, five tabs will appear at the top of the car's touchscreen: Favourites, Recents, Contacts, Keypad, Voicemail.

The tabs replicate what you would see within the same five tabs at the bottom of the Phone app on your iPhone. Therefore, whoever your favourites are on your iPhone will be the same ones that appear on the CarPlay screen. Arrows on the right of the CarPlay screen allow you to scroll and there is also an A-Z button within the Contacts tab that when pressed will pull up each letter of the alphabet on your car's display, allowing for easier searching.

During a call, your car's display will look very similar to how your iPhone screen does during a call, though a few of the options are lacking, such as FaceTime. The name of the person you are talking to appears in the centre of your car's display, with the red circular end call icon and three circular options beneath comprising mute, keypad and add call.

Apple CarPlay: iMessages and text messages

Sending and receiving messages is one of the features of CarPlay that is a little more exciting than being able to make and receive calls. Like calling though, there are a couple of ways in which you can compose a new message to someone in your contacts. 

The first is the same as calling in that you can use the voice control button on the steering wheel and tell Siri you want to send a message to the name of the contact you wish to text or iMessage.

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Another option is to press the Messages icon on the CarPlay main menu and Siri will instantly greet you with: "To whom shall I send your message?" or similar. As you would expect, you then say the contact's name and Siri will ask what you want to say.

Dictate your message to Siri as prompted and when you finish talking, Siri will read back your message and ask if it should send it. You then have the option to send the message as it is, cancel it, or change it in case Siri has misunderstood you, or you have changed your mind about what you want to say.

As with the Phone icon, you can click on "Show Messages" in the top right of the Siri screen when you open the Messages icon to see a list of the contacts you have recently sent or received messages from. Again, it looks like your iPhone Messages screen does but the message itself won't be shown beneath the name of the contact and you won't be able to read the last message by clicking on the contacts name either.

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Instead, tapping on the contact will result in Siri asking you what you want to say in a message to that particular contact, giving you another way of composing a new message. There is also a pen and paper icon in the top right hand corner of this screen that will also pull up the Siri screen asking you who you want to compose a new message to, followed by asking you what you want to say.

When it comes to receiving messages, a banner alert will appear at the top of your car's touchscreen if a new message comes through, no matter what CarPlay app you are in, whether Apple Maps or Spotify. The banner alert will show the name of the contact the message is from and a number in a red circle will appear on the main Messages icon too, as it would on your iPhone.

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You can either directly tap the banner alert as it comes through, or tap the Messages icon. If you tap on the banner alert, Siri will then say you have a new message from the respective contact and ask if you would like it read to you. If you tap the Messages icon, Siri will ask if you would like your new messages read or if you would like to compose a new message.

You'll be able to ask Siri to read the message again, as long as you do it straight away, and you'll also be asked if you would like to reply, after which you can dictate your reply. Three option icons will also appear on the car's touchscreen, comprising call, read again and reply.

Apple CarPlay: WhatsApp

Apple CarPlay offers support for WhatsApp, though the functionality isn't as accomplished as it is for iMessage. When you tap on the WhatsApp app on your car's dashboard, you'll be greeted with Siri, asking what you want your message to say.

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There is currently no option to see your WhatsApp messages like with iMessage, so you are restricted to Siri control only. This may develop in the future however. 

Apple CarPlay: Apple Maps Navigation

Apple CarPlay offers navigation through Apple Maps, as well as Google Maps and Waze following the iOS 12 software release - more on those in a minute. Apple Maps through CarPlay works in a similar way to Apple Maps on your iPhone in that it pulls in information from where it can, such as events in your Apple calendar, emails, contacts and messages.

Upcoming events will appear in the bottom left of your car's display when in the Maps app, and tapping on them will allow you to select guidance or to clear them. This is also where directions to Home will appear, again allowing you to tap on the small black box and request turn-by-turn guidance from where you are to get you home should you need it.

In the top right of the Maps icon is the option to show Destinations. From here, you'll see a list of anywhere you have recently searched for on your iPhone or an Apple Mac computer linked to your iCloud account, as well as suggestions based on information pulled in from various places, such as emails or messages.

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Arrows on the right allow you to scroll through, and if you can't find where you want to go, you can press the Siri voice icon in the top right hand corner and Siri will ask where you want to go. You can then say the name of a place or a postcode. You can also access your favourites from the heart icon in the top right corner.

At the top of the list of recent destinations there are also icons for finding local amenities, such as Petrol, Parking, Food and Drink, Coffee Shops and Supermarkets, similar again to what you would find if you launched Apple Maps on your iPhone.

Apple Maps through CarPlay is good but it isn't quite as advanced as TomTom, Google Maps or apps such as Waze when it comes to knowledge of traffic or problems. It does work better than some car navigation systems though and if you're an Apple Maps user on your iPhone, you'll find the CarPlay version very familiar, easy to use and easy to follow.

Apple CarPlay: Google Maps Navigation

As we mentioned above, Apple has added support for Google Maps and Waze navigation options in the iOS 12 software update. Like Apple Maps on CarPlay, those used to Google Maps will get a very familiar Google Maps experience through CarPlay.

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The Google Maps app, and Waze when it becomes available soon, will automatically appear on the second page of your CarPlay screen, but follow the instructions we mentioned earlier and you can rearrange your CarPlay dash to have Google Maps more accessible the first page. You can also read our separate feature using a Seat infotainment system to show how to use Google Maps on Apple CarPlay.

Once in Google Maps, you'll be able to set your destination like you do in Apple Maps and your route will be displayed, along with the time, distance, ETA and option of different routes. You'll also get live traffic reports and information you might not get through your traditional in-car sat-nav.  

Apple CarPlay: Music

Apple CarPlay supports many of the main music services, including Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Play Music and Tidal with all those you have on your iPhone appearing on the main CarPlay dash. Services other than Apple Music appear on the second page by default, but you can change this if you follow the setup instructions we mention at the beginning of this feature.

Under Apple Music, there are three tabs at the top of the main screen after you click in the Music icon: Library, Playlists and Radio. Within the Library tab, you'll find everything from recently added songs to individual menus for artists, albums, genres, songs and downloaded music. The Playlist tab shows a list of your playlists, while Radio allows you to choose various radio stations, providing you have mobile data turned on for Radio.

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Spotify follows a similar structure, again with three tabs at the top of the screen when you tap on the Spotify icon: Your Library, Browse and Radio. The Your Library tab then has four separate menu options, comprising Playlists, Songs, Albums and Artists, allowing you to browse through your songs as you would in the Spotify app.

The Browse tab within the Spotify icon lets you see new releases, as well as flick through various recommendations, while the Radio tab shows recently played stations, whilst also allowing you to see recommended stations and specific stations in genre.

With any of the compatible music services, you'll be able to tap a song, artist, album or playlist and it will play away through your car's sound system. Music will stop during calls, navigation instructions, or when you're dictating or having a message read to you, as you would expect, but otherwise it's a very seamless experience.

Apple CarPlay: Podcasts and Audiobooks

If you're an audiobook or podcast fan, CarPlay supports these too, which is great because what better time to listen to a new book or podcast than on a long car journey.

In terms of Podcasts, tapping on the Podcast icon will present three tabs at the top: Unplayed, My Podcasts and Top Charts. From these tabs, you'll be able to find any podcasts you've downloaded, as well as search for new ones you might like to listen to through the Top Charts tab.

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Once you've selected what you fancy, the name of the podcast will appear on your car's display, along with rewind, fast forward and play/pause buttons underneath, much the same as when you play a track on a music service through CarPlay. A Now Playing tab will also appear in the top right of your car's display as it does when playing music.

In terms of Audiobooks, you'll need to download some before they appear in the Audiobooks app but any that you have already will appear as soon as you open the app. As with Podcasts, tap on the one you want to listen to and the story of Harry Potter could come blasting out of your car's sound system in no time.

Apple CarPlay: Final thoughts

Apple CarPlay is a great bit of technology that brings your iPhone to life when in the car. The interface is lovely, navigation is super simple and the whole experience is seamless, making various tasks in the car much, much easier.

Is CarPlay the best it can be? Not quite yet in our opinion, but it's still fantastic and much better now it supports more third party apps, including Waze, Google Maps and WhatsApp.

We'd expect things to continue to develop over the coming years but especially thanks to the extra support from the latest iOS 12 release, if you have an iPhone, CarPlay is something your new car shouldn't be without.