If all you want to do is play music from your phone in the car, cheap and easy solutions abound, from a regular audio cable, to picking up a head unit with Bluetooth. Fancy in-dash "infotainment" systems promise more, combining music, navigation, and hands-free communication. But the few I've sampled have had clunky interfaces that made me go right back to performing those tasks with my phone--yes, I'm that jerk futzing with her phone at stoplights until you honk at me to go.
Apple's CarPlay software is intended to bridge the chasm between your iPhone and your car stereo, letting you access Maps, Messages, Music, and more, including compatible third-party apps like Spotify, Beats Music, Rdio, and iHeartRadio. CarPlay has a lot going for it--all the data it needs is on your iPhone already, and the Siri integration can be a godsend, letting you reply to incoming texts without taking your eyes off the road. But in a few cases I found myself reaching for my iPhone when the touchscreen and Siri weren't getting things done--just like I would have done before upgrading to CarPlay.
Setup is so simple you can hardly call it setup--all you do is plug in your phone. I tested CarPlay on the high-end Pioneer AVIC8000NEX, which has a capacitive touchscreen, and a row of tiny physical buttons along the bottom. It was professionally installed in my colleague's car, along with a dash-mounted microphone for talking to Siri. The microphone is a nice touch--it's always listening for the "Hey Siri!" prompt, and I didn't have to worry about my iPhone being close enough to pick up my voice over its own microphones.
You can also pick up your tethered phone and navigate with that (I had to a few times), but the goal is to be able to use your voice most of the time. CarPlay systems that come in a new car will have a Siri button on the steering wheel and preinstalled microphones.
But the real beauty of CarPlay is that you don't have to install apps, update apps, log into iCloud, or sync anything. The apps and information are on your phone already, and CarPlay just gives you a familiar, car-friendly interface for using them.
The interface immediately looks familiar, using the same icons as on the iPhone and iPad. A home button in the bottom-left corner always lets you go back to the home screen, although I did find it a little small compared to the larger, easier-to-tap icons on the home screen grid.
If you have an active phone call or navigation session going and you switch to another app, the Phone or Maps icon appears in the top-right corner so you can tap it to quickly go back. That worked well, but I wished that corner also had a universal Back button to go back to whatever app I was using last, not just Phone or Maps.
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