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Home / Features / What is Apple CarPlay? The in-car software for your iPhone explained

What is Apple CarPlay? The in-car software for your iPhone explained

You've probably heard Apple. automakers, or even us talk about Apple CarPlay; but what exactly is the in-car software?

Stuff Toyota bZ4X review Apple CarPlay

When it comes to cars, you’re typically more interested in what’s under the hood than on the infotainment screen inside. But the software in your top car is becoming more important than ever. We don’t just use them for music, but also for navigation and keeping our eyes off our phone. But, let’s face it, the software that cars ship with isn’t very good. Enter Apple CarPlay, software for your car that’s an extension of your iPhone.

Once you connect your iPhone to your car, you get access to this trimmed down extension of iOS called CarPlay. But what exactly is the in-car software, and how does it work? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is Apple CarPlay?

CarPlay launched in 2014 and enables you to mirror a toned-down version of iOS to your car’s infotainment system. Once you’ve hooked up your iPhone, you can interact with the CarPlay interface instead of your car’s bog-standard software.

It essentially acts as an extension of your iPhone’s software, but gets rid of anything you don’t need while driving. That means you get access to music and navigation mainly. But you can make calls and reply to messages as well. It gives you access to Music, Messages, Phone, Podcasts, Maps, WhatsApp, Calendar, and more. You don’t get to read any written text, mind, Siri reads it to you. And if it’s for a message, you have to reply via your voice.

A large part of the software is using Siri, so you can keep your eyes on the road. That means you can’t start firing off tweets at the traffic lights or checking Facebook for updates! The bottom line is that it’s a safer way to view information, rather than on your smartphone. Pretty neat, right?

Apple's current version of CarPlay open on infortainment screen

CarPlay sits on top of your car’s standard infotainment system, which still exists underneath. Since the software is essentially an app dialled up to eleven, you’ll need to trudge your way back through the car’s software for any vehicle settings or maintenance info. At least, until the next version of CarPlay can take over every aspect of your car’s software. Insert evil laugh here.

CarPlay is the most popular in-car software, beating Android Auto (the Android alternative) and standard manufacturer software. Apple claims 99% of cars in the US support CarPlay (not quite so many in the UK), and that 79% of Americans wouldn’t buy a car without it. We’re not quite sure how true this is, but we’re big fans of the in-car software nonetheless.

So how does it all work?

To use CarPlay, you’ll need to hook up your iPhone to your vehicle. Once the feature is enabled on your iPhone, you connect the device to your car either by cable or via Bluetooth. Unfortunately, the way you connect is hardwired into the car by the manufacturer, so you can’t change this (unless you retrofit some type of dongle). Lots of vehicles support both options, which lets you pick the one that’s most convenient.

From there, you don’t need to touch your iPhone again. You’ll see the software start on your in-car screen, and you can go from there. The Settings app on the car software lets you tweak the wallpaper and other such settings – you don’t do these through your iPhone. And once you’ve set CarPlay up for the first time, it’ll open up just how you like it when your phone connects via Bluetooth or a cable.

The in-car software is available on iPhone 5 and later models running iOS 7.1 or later. So you’re pretty much certain to be able to use CarPlay. The trickier part is making sure your vehicle supports it. You’ll need a car from 2016 onwards to get the software. Apple’s software works with pretty much every single car manufacturer. But specific model compatibility may vary. You can check out Apple’s full list of vehicles that play nice.

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Connor is a writer for Stuff, working across the magazine and the Stuff.tv website. He has been writing for around seven years now, with writing across the web and in print too. Connor has experience on most major platforms, though does hold a place in his heart for macOS, iOS/iPadOS, electric vehicles, and smartphone tech. Just like everyone else around here, he’s a fan of gadgets of all sorts! Aside from writing, Connor is involved in the startup scene. This exciting involvement puts him at the front of new and exciting tech, always on the lookout for innovating products.

Areas of expertise

Mobile, macOS, EVs, smart home

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