The Now Playing icon on the home screen is a nice touch. Tap it to go to the currently playing song, no matter what app is actually playing it. You won't have to remember if you're listening to the Music app, Rdio, or iHeartRadio. When you're presented with a long list of items, like your contacts or a list of songs, you can scroll through on the touchscreen, or scroll faster by tapping or dragging the scrolling list of letters on the right side of the screen.
CarPlay-compatible third-party apps like Rdio, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Beats Music, and MLB At Bat simply show up as icons if they're already installed on your phone, and for the most part they work the same. I didn't have to log into my Rdio account, for example, and all my favorites and playlists appeared instantly. But not every Rdio option was accessible on the CarPlay touchscreen--I couldn't toggle the shuffle feature on and off without reaching for my iPhone.
At least the phone stays synced up to what you're seeing on the CarPlay stereo's screen. When I was using Rdio on the stereo, Rdio launched on my phone. When I was following directions in the Maps app on the stereo, my phone displayed a list of every turn. You wouldn't want to consult this while actually driving, but it's nice to be able to hand off to a passenger.
Siri is my copilot
Hands-free communication worked very well. When you tap Phone or Messages, you don't see a list of contacts automatically: Instead, it's a Siri prompt, with a smaller button to access your actual list of contacts. The idea is, assuming you know who you're trying to contact, you can just ask and Siri will take care of it.
During my tests, I was driving in rush hour traffic when my nanny texted me that she and my son wanted a ride home from the BART station. I saw a notification that a text had come in, and asked Siri, "Please read me that text." She did, and I said, "Reply that I'll be there in 15 minutes." Siri dictated that back to me, and when I confirmed it was right, she sent it. But I didn't have my son's car seat with me, so I then asked Siri, "Call my husband." The call was placed, I asked him to do the pickup, and that was that.
The whole thing took two minutes at the most, and I never had to take my hands off the steering wheel. Before CarPlay, I could have tried to do this all with Siri while I was driving--just by talking to the phone--but to be honest, I probably would have exited the freeway to pull over and take care of it myself.
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