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.

This feature gives 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 use those features safely when 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 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, 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 cars like the 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.

When CarPlay first arrived, it wasn't possible to use your iPhone at the same time as that iPhone being used for CarPlay. That changed with iOS 13. It's not something we would suggest you do if you are driving, but the latest version of CarPlay allows you to use your iPhone at the same time as you use CarPlay, without changing what's on the car's screen - which would have happened previously.

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, only some third party apps are compatible. These include WhatsApp, 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. The only icons you'll see on your car's touchscreen will be Phone, Messages, Apple Music, Apple Maps, Podcasts, Audiobooks and any of compatible third party apps. 

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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The dashboard has changed since CarPlay first launched, offering an additional menu screen with iOS 13. Rather than just showing you the apps available, the additional menu screen allows you to see maps, audio controls, and smart Siri suggestions in one place.

It's much more in keeping with what a car dashboard should look like and it gives you an overview and quick access to the stuff you'll need the most. Previously you had to constantly jump between app screens to achieve this.

With Siri suggestions, the dashboard will try and guess what apps you might need before you realise you need them, such as suggesting the HomeKit app when you pull up at your home if you've got a HomeKit-enabled garage door, for example. Additionally, CarPlay in iOS 13 introduced a light mode as well as dark mode (the default previously).

CarPlay automatically detects the time of day, so it doesn't burn your eyes when driving at night. It also means that it's easier to see the screen when day driving too.

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.

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.

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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. If you don't want to receive notifications whilst driving, you can turn on the Do Not Disturb feature on your CarPlay Dashboard.

Apple CarPlay: Calendar

The latest version of CarPlay sees a dedicated Calendar app introduced so you can see your calendar appointments rather than having to call them in from Siri.

If those appointments have an address in them, you can click it to send directly to Apple Maps and get immediate directions.

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 you can tell Siri to call the name of the person you wish to contact.

Alternatively, you can tap the Phone icon in the CarPlay menu. Siri 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.

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.

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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.

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.

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, Siri will ask what you want your message to say.

Apple CarPlay: Apple Maps Navigation

Apple CarPlay offers navigation through Apple Maps, as well as Google Maps and Waze - 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.

With iOS 13, Apple introduced improved navigational guidance and the ability to quickly and easily share your ETA with contacts while on route. You can search for key things like petrol stations on the route (although not electric charging points), and there's more natural language phrases, such as "turn left at the next traffic lights" to make the instructions more intuitive. 

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Navigation doesn't have to take up the entire screen either, with music controls able to sit below turn-by-turn directions, while other app icons sit in the right column ready for you to click on. In the US, more detailed maps are available. Sadly, the new mapping data is currently only available in the US, but Apple says that it is working hard to bring them to other countries and regions around the world as quickly as it can.

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 in 2018. Like Apple Maps on CarPlay, those used to Google Maps will get a very familiar Google Maps experience through CarPlay.

The Google Maps and Waze apps 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.

For iOS 13, Apple redesigned the Music app on CarPlay to make it easier and more logical to use. As with the Apple Music app on your iPhone, everything is broken down into sections including Library, For You, Browse and Radio.

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It's also easier to discover your Personalised Mixes and recently played tracks, with a much bigger focus on album art to make it easier to pick things at a glance. 

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, 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 Browse 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.

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 13 release, if you have an iPhone, CarPlay is something your new car shouldn't be without.