Modern cars have a lot of tech in them, but it’s mostly focused on safety and efficiency. When it comes to entertainment and internet connectivity, it tends to be a case of bring your own device.

While Apple has announced iOS in the car, BMW already has a pretty sophisticated system in iDrive. The latest update brings a raft of improvements, which we tried out at the company’s HQ in Bracknell.

See also: Ford Sync voice recognition test

BMW ConnectedDrive: overview

BMW ConnectedDrive

ConnectedDrive isn’t simply a web browser on your dashboard, although that’s part of it. It aims to give you the information you need while driving without being too distracting.

From a weather forecast or sports news to finding a highly rated restaurant or the local speed limit, you can get pretty much everything you need through ConnectedDrive.

We looked at a 3-series Touring model equipped with the Business Media Package, which is a £990 option. There’s no subscription charge for the first three years, but after that you’ll have to pay to keep using BMW Online and other features which require an internet connection. Currently, that costs £120 per year.

Rather than rely on your phone’s internet connection, ConnectedDrive has its own built-in SIM card which means you get all the internet-connected features without eating into your own monthly data package. It also means the system can call the emergency services automatically if you’re involved in an accident, or you can call BMW’s concierge service to get information or request roadside assistance should your car break down.

BMW ConnectedDrive 2013

BMW ConnectedDrive: touch and talk (and listen)

The iDrive controller should be familiar to existing users, but the dial is now larger and incorporates a touchpad, much like the one on your laptop. As well as controlling the cursor in the web browser (more on that later) it also lets you swipe around and draw letters, such as when you need to input an address in the satnav.

Of course, there are easier ways of entering text: voice recognition. Using technology from Nuance, ConnectedDrive allows you to control most functions just by speaking. Once you know the commands, you can enter a destination in the satnav, search Google or play a particular album.

iDrive touch controller

Completing the trifecta of control is the iDrive wheel and buttons: arguably the quickest and most reliable way of navigating around the interface.

When you’re driving, ConnectedDrive can read emails, messages and other information (such as news stories) aloud using a text-to-speech system. It’s fairly fluent – at least on a par with Apple’s Siri.

BMW ConnectedDrive: features

In the ConnectedDrive menu you’ll find Info plus, Messages, Mobile Care, BMW Online and Internet.

Info plus places a call to BMW’s concierge service, which is available 24/7 and can transfer addresses to the in-car navigation system.

Messages is where you’ll find information sent from the Info plus service, or details you’ve sent to the car yourself using the Google Send-to-Car feature.

Mobile care is the shortcut to call the breakdown service.

BMW Online includes news, weather forecasts, online search (Google local search), office (email) and apps (including Qype, Wiki Local, Yelp and more).

Internet gives you a proper web browser where you can visit just about any website. There’s support for Flash and HTML5, and you can use the touchpad to control the cursor.

BMW ConnectedDrive 2013 Web browser

BMW ConnectedDrive: Navigation

Built-in satnav is nothing new, but most systems still rely on the RDS-TMC data which isn’t always particularly up to date. Given that TomTom and other providers (such as Google) offer so-called HD traffic, car manufacturers seem behind the times.

However with the integrated SIM, ConnectedDrive provides real-time traffic information and can use that to plan the fastest route as well as showing exactly where traffic is backing up locally.

BMW ConnectedDrive 2013 HD traffic info

The satnav also benefits from the new system’s upgraded processing power. Zooming in and out of a map is super-smooth, and you can even zoom out to a globe view and rotate it at will.

You also get a 3D building view for major towns and cities, which might help to make the directions clearer in unfamiliar places as you can identify landmarks and better understand the route on-screen.

BMW ConnectedDrive: connect your smartphone

BMW ConnectedDrive App

Flip up the central armrest and you’ll find a cradle into which you can slot an iPhone. The cradles are removable, and a Lightning version is said to be on the cards later this summer.

If you have another smartphone, you can connect it to the USB port or standard aux input. Naturally, there’s full Bluetooth support so you don’t need a wired connection at all.

BMW also has a ConnectedDrive app which works with iPhones, iPad and Android devices.

BMW ConnectedDrive: verdict

We spent only a short time with ConnectedDrive, but it’s clear that it’s still one of the most comprehensive – not to mention slick – infotainment systems available today. Although it isn’t a touchscreen, the wide high-resolution display is a joy to use and the iDrive control system works well.

We’ve only covered a fraction of ConnectedDrive’s features here, so don’t forget to watch the video for more detail.

Other manufacturers are catching up, but for now, ConnectedDrive leads the way for in-car tech.

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