The internal technology experience has become one of the most important aspects of modern cars. Drivers are now looking for connectivity, flexibility and integration and that's ushering in changes. For BMW, that sees the introduction of a whole new infotainment system.

BMW has been talking about iDrive since 2001, but in an age of xDrive and eDrive (which both refer to powering the actual car), iDrive no longer really makes sense - as a name at least - for an internal system. 

In 2018 we had the introduction of a new digital driver display working closely with the central display. This isn't totally new - the BMW i8 and BMW i3 both previously had digital displays - but the new Live Cockpit is different - ushering in a new era of driver-focused technology for BMW through 2019.

BMW Live Cockpit, Live Cockpit Plus and Live Cockpit Professional

Before we get started, let's make it clear that these car systems often get complicated and there are a lot of terms being thrown around by BMW. There are two elements to Live Cockpit - the "info display" which is the driver display and the "control display" which is the dash display in the centre of the car. 

The BMW X5 launches with Live Cockpit Professional as standard; BMW says that BMW Operating System 7.0 is the platform that underpins it - and the brochure says that Live Cockpit Professional is standard on the X5 xLine trim and above. Simple! 

Both the BMW 8 Series and the X5 have Live Cockpit Professional, both have a 12.3-inch info (driver) displays, but the X5 has a 12.3-inch control (centre) display while the 8 Series has a 10.25-inch control display - so there are different implementations of the same technologies. But again - pretty simple.

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But now things get more complicated: in the case of the new 3 Series, Live Cockpit Professional is standard on the M Sport version, meaning that other versions - Sport, SE - get dials as standard for the driver with a central 5.7-inch display, while the control display is 8.8-inches in the centre of the car - called Live Cockpit Plus. The 2019 3 Series will be the first car that offers both versions.

Once you upgrade to Live Cockpit Professional on the new 3 Series you again get that 12.3-inch info display and 10.25-inch control display, but BMW's website says "BMW Live Cockpit Professional is iD7" in a section titled "Operating system 7.0 (iD7)" - so you can see where the confusion in names starts to come in. 

Here's how the different versions break down:

  • Live Cockpit - entry-level without navigation, this version won't be in the UK
  • Live Cockpit Plus - 8.8-inch control display (1280 x 480 pixels) with touch, running iD6 (the outgoing "Professional")
  • Live Cockpit Professional - top of the range with BMW Operating System 7.0, 12.3-inch info display, high resolution info display (1920 x 720 pixels)

What happened to iDrive?

Recent iterations of iDrive saw the introduction of touch in 2015 and then in 2017 BMW introduced live tiles with more personalisation. BMW told us the change in name is really because there's a lot more going on than just the controller - which is what iDrive started life as - the controller you used to control the systems.

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The actual iDrive controller with buttons remains very much the same in operation has it has done on most of BMW's cars from the last 10 years with a dial you can use to rotate through the interface and click to select - and flanked with shortcut buttons to major areas.

Some will find it refreshing that you still have a physical controller where some rivals - like Audi with MMI Touch - are starting to remove the physical controls for an all-touch experience.

Of course, as we pointed out, there are still plenty of references to iDrive 7 floating around. 

A new driver display 

The new driver display - or "info display" - is all digital. BMW has had fully digital displays in the past, but the new Live Cockpit Professional ushers in a new design and layout.

BMW is keeping the speedometer and rev counter and those sit in arcs around the outside of the driver display. As BMW is all about driving, it seems these core pieces of information are central to the experience that it offers.

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The centre of the info display becomes a map, showing your position as well as carrying navigation directions. The left side of the display is for driving specifics like a digital readout of your speed, display of driving aids and so on, while the right-hand side is given over to other information, like entertainment.

You can make some changes to the left-hand side, like adding a second speed readout (useful if you're driving away from home), and you'll get information like cruise control here, while the right-hand side is where you'll be able to scroll through information like radio stations and so on. If you're listening to an album, you'll get album art. It's easy enough to access these items from the steering wheel controls.

It will also be on the right that driving mode is displayed and you can also have trip computer details here - like your average speed and fuel consumption.

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One thing to note is that switching to Eco Pro mode will change the colour theme blue. This is a little like the BMW i8 display, which switches from blue in normal driving to red when you switch into sport mode. 

The thing to remember is that the Live Cockpit Professional display might be standard on your BMW (8 Series, X5) or it might be an extra option - meaning that some will have traditional dials with a centre display (Live Cockpit Plus), paired with a control display in the centre of the car, as it was before.

A customisable control display 

The centre display - the control display - has slowly been growing in BMW models over the past decade. From cowled in the dash to sitting atop, the central display moved to being a wide aspect - but is on the increase again, as display inches become increasingly important. 

The size of the display will be dictated by the design of the car that it's embedded into and offering touch and in some cases gesture control, it's on this display that you see some of the flexibility that BMW Operating System 7.0 will offer.

Covering major sections, the control display system is divided into media, communication, navigation, car control and apps. These sections can be accessed via touch controls down the side of the display, with each section therein being customisable.

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There's a drag-down shade at the top - like a smartphone - with some additional controls - including the ability to adjust the main menu or home screen as it would be on a phone. 

That home screen divides up major areas presenting information from a range of sources - navigation, media and communication for example, for at-a-glance information, or to provide big touch areas to move forward. 

Once in a section - media for example - you have a left-hand navigation menu (which will hide to the left so you can swipe it in or out), the centre of the display will show the content and the right-hand side will have actions. It's all pretty logical.

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The nice thing is at the bottom of the left-hand menu you have "personalise menu" meaning you can remove things from the list you don't want. Sticking to media, for example, if there are some sources you never use, you can remove them from the list to tidy things up.

There's a lot of design parity between the info and control displays, with cross-over of controls to the steering wheel for some things - like media control - so you don't have to take your eyes off the road too much.

BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant

BMW has introduced its own Hey BMW smart voice assistant. While Alexa is dominating homes, car manufacturers are keen to ensure that you can use voice more effectively in the car too - and BMW's system is actually pretty good.

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Hey BMW will be available on all models running Live Cockpit Professional with BMW Operating System 7.0 and those ordering the new BMW 3 Series will have it as an option from November 2018, although we notice that BMW is saying that you only get it for 3 years - we guess there will be a subscription cost thereafter.

BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant is designed to give you better in-car control via voice. Rather uniquely, you'll be able to give the Assistant a custom name/hotword and BMW claims it will learn routines to be able to dynamically deliver better results. It will be able to react to statements and control the car - to adjust the heat for example - as well as be able to identify songs, add navigation stops, answer general questions and integrate with Office 365 and Skype for business users.

BMW is also keep to ensure that the assistant can travel with you. From what we understand, the personal profile that it develops will become part of your BMW ID, so you should be able to move to a new car, sign in and it will know who you are, what you like and so on.

Apple CarPlay, at a cost

BMW made the big move of offering Apple CarPlay wirelessly in 2016 - the first and only manufacturer to do so. That means you don't have to plug the phone in to access CarPlay, but you do still need to pair your phone, connecting via Bluetooth.

The CarPlay experience is then essentially the same - because it's governed by the software on your iPhone. Your phone then does all the work, with the car's display then basically just acting as a touch display, but not processing the data or running the apps - as that's all done by the iPhone.

Is wireless CarPlay a big draw? It's convenient, yes, but unless you have a recent iPhone X, XS or XR model then you might want to plug your phone in to charge anyway. If you do have a recent phone model, then Qi charging pads provide convenience for wireless charging (if available on your model). Importantly, it means you can run CarPlay and leave you phone in your pocket.

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On the BMX X5, there's a Qi charging pad in the central cubby hole, but it's positioned so that you'd not be able to access your phone when it's in place, which is great for deterring you from fiddling while driving. 

Of course, many Android phones support Qi charging, so can also benefit. 

The downside of CarPlay on the BMW is that it isn't free. There's a cost - and even if you opt for the Connected Package Professional (including Remote Services, Concierge Services, Real Time Traffic) you still only get 12 months of Apple CarPlay. The prices for CarPlay come out as: £85 for 1 year, £255 for 3 years, £295 unlimited - although there's also a 1 month trial for £1.

Yes, other manufacturers offer it free, so it's a good job that BMW's core systems are pretty good, because some might choose not to take Apple CarPlay at those prices.

What about Android Auto? 

There will be support for Android Auto on BMW cars from mid-2020. The system will be wireless, meaning that it offers parity with the way that Apple CarPlay has been implemented, so there's no need to physically connect you phone with a wire after the initial setup. Wireless Android Auto is only supported on a limited number of devices according to Google and that includes Pixel phones and some Samsung phones. We're asking if cable connection will also be connected and we'll update when we hear back from BMW.

BMW says that you'll get information in the driver display and the heads-up display and regular Android Auto functions will be supported, like a wide range of apps from your phone and Google Assistant. 

So far BMW has said nothing about how much it might cost - we suspect it will the same arrangement as Apple CarPlay.

You can find more information on Android Auto in BMW cars right here.

BMW Connected Packages

Aside from the hardware and features that it offers, BMW also offers connected packages. They wrap-up a number of different services covering: Remote Services, BMW Online, BMW Connected+, Intelligent Voice Assistant, Real Time Traffic Information, Connected Parking, Concierge Service and Connected Music.

Some items will be bundled into a package that's included with the car (likely with a limited subscription that might mean older cars need renewing) and some parts are an additional extra. For example, the new BMW 3 Series comes with Connected Package Plus as standard; the 3 Series M Sport comes with Connected Package Professional, which adds the new Intelligent Personal Assistant.

There's a lot of variation, but there's also a lot on offer, with BMW Remote Services offering smartphone access to the car. There's also Digital Key for5 available on some models which will let you use a Samsung smartphone to unlock the car instead of the key, allowing you to grant temporary access to someone else.

Connected Music is available from Napster and Deezer and at a cost - which is likely to be what tempts people towards Apple CarPlay - easy integration of apps on your smartphone and with a wider selection available through Apple CarPlay - like Spotify or BBC iPlayer - makes it a more compelling choice.

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There's also the super-cool display key, of course. 

Summing up

BMW is offering a lot of technology through its cars. There's integration of a number of different systems and with the launch of the new Live Cockpit and BMW Operating System 7.0, BMW is setting out the digital future for its vehicles. 

Cockpit Live Professional brings a new modern driver display that's fully digital, allowing a more dynamic view that extends beyond the restrictions of physical dials. It's a slightly conservative application, especially compared to the full colour mapping offered by rivals Audi with its Virtual Cockpit, but with a consistent theme running across all screens - including rear entertainment screens, it looks good.

But we do like that the iDrive controller exists in some form, meaning that if you've been in a BMW at any point in recent years, you'll probably find the new system intuitive and pretty easy to use. The important thing is that the core systems are good: mapping is good, it's clear and finding addresses is easy; driving instructions are clear and the accompanying visuals make driving with the car's core systems a pleasure. 

That's important when some of the alternative approaches - like Apple CarPlay - cost extra in the long run, meaning you might be happy not to spend more money to use them.

We'll be updating as we experience more of BMW's new tech integrations on more of its updated models.