Car infotainment systems explained
If you’ve been researching new cars and have seen the term ‘infotainment system’ used, yet you’re not entirely sure what it means, we’ve put together a handy explainer.
What is an infotainment system?
It’s an odd word, but it’s a portmanteau of the words ‘information’ and ‘entertainment’. That gives you your first clue as to what these systems include.
The first is information systems, such as the navigation software, car data (including fuel economy and error warnings etc) and other in-car settings. The second is entertainment, usually centred around audio, such as the radio or Bluetooth connectivity.
Increasingly, manufacturers are burying controls usually reserved for physical buttons into the infotainment screens, such as climate control.
How are these systems controlled?
In the vast majority of cases, the infotainment systems display information through a centrally mounted screen. In most modern cars, these are touchscreens, though many also allow you to navigate menus using dials or joysticks.
Furthermore, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, along with various other smartphone integration apps, allow you to ‘mirror’ your phone on the infotainment screen. This allows you to access information or music from your phone without having to touch it.
The latest developments have seen voice control become common, with the likes of Mercedes leading the way. Simply say ‘Hey Mercedes’ followed by a voice command, such as ‘set the navigation for home’, and the car will do it.
Which car manufacturer has the best system?
For too long, car manufacturers have struggled to make fast, intuitive and well-designed infotainment systems. While the likes of Apple and Google spend millions on constantly updating their smartphone operating systems, the nature of car production, which sees designs locked in years before the car’s release (and with smaller dedicated budgets), means car infotainment systems often feel slow and outdated compared with smartphone and tablet interfaces.
Fortunately, that’s changing recently, thanks to some high-end cars introducing ‘over the air’ updates, something that will roll out to more mainstream cars in time. Meanwhile, Volvo’s first electric vehicle will run a native Android infotainment system, which could – and perhaps should – become much more common in the industry.
That being said, some manufacturers have found themselves at the top of the infotainment game, and if functionality and services are important, these are the brands to go shopping for.
Audi’s MMI system is one of the best in the business because of its simplicity. While its most recent models have a twin-screen set-up that includes all car functions and pressure-sensitive controls that take a while to adapt to, its older models have a far more intuitive system.
The screen displays have a black background with white text and orange accents, which makes it very easy to read on the move. There are few frills in the design, which is exactly what you want. It’s also easy to navigate between screens with just a glance using the scroll wheel.
Another premium German manufacturer, BMW has arguably had the best infotainment system in the business for years now. It’s controlled using a scroll wheel that also has click functions, making it incredibly intuitive to switch between menus. This is also bordered by shortcut buttons for the most-used screens.
While the design is a bit fancier than the Audi’s, it’s laid out in such a way that navigating is easy, and every option you’re looking for is buried in the menu you expect it to be.
Mazda’s user interface design looks similar to Audi’s, with the functional scroll wheel similar to BMW. However, the screen doesn’t quite have the brightness and resolution of its more premium rivals, and the graphics are much more simple.
However, for ease of use, it’s tough to beat. There are easily navigable screens for the most common menu options and physical buttons to make it even quicker. And while there’s not quite the breadth of information available as others, that does make it much easier to use.
As a company in the Volkswagen Group, Seat’s infotainment system is based on the same architecture as the likes of Volkswagen and Skoda. They’re all pretty much the same in principle and you can’t go wrong with any of them, but as one of the Group’s more affordable and stylish brands, it’s good to know there have been no corners cut here, while the interface’s design is simple and modern.
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