Five infotainment features every new car should have

Person connecting their mobile phone to their car's infotainment system.

Tim Nicholson

Posted June 04, 2020

Everything you need to know about infotainment and car connectivity.

Remember when the most advanced tech feature in your car was a CD player? Simpler times...

The choice and sophistication of vehicle multimedia and infotainment systems have exploded in recent years and car makers are upping the ante with every new model they launch.

In fact many buyers now prioritise infotainment functionality over other factors such as comfort features or a car’s power and torque output. Any car-maker that lags behind in this area does so at its peril.

Every major automotive group in the world has developed its own version of an infotainment system – some in-house and others in collaboration with tech companies – with varying degrees of success.

Both Apple and Google have also developed automotive products based on their iPhone and Android operating systems.

Infotainment (information and entertainment) refers to a combination of various vehicle systems and functions, operated via a central screen that sits somewhere near the top of the car’s dash.

Key features of any infotainment system include phone connectivity for calls and messaging, audio and entertainment functions including radio and media streaming, apps, system settings and in some cases satellite navigation.

Wrapping your head around an infotainment system can be overwhelming as each brand’s offering differs. Given there are more than 60 automotive brands vying for your attention in Australia, we’ve detailed some of the functions you’re likely to find in most infotainment systems, rather than diving into each specific brand. Let’s start with where it’s housed.

Touch and go

Aside from a few low-grade utes and base-model small cars, most new passenger cars in Australia are fitted with a touchscreen as the main infotainment hub.

Touchscreens usually use LCD (liquid crystal display) or TFT (thin film transistors) to display graphics and information and generally range in size (measured diagonally) from a couple of inches to more than 12. Tesla’s screens are up to 17 inches.

Some manufacturers have minimised the number of buttons on the dash and centre console by incorporating many of the vehicle’s other functions – beyond phone and audio – into the infotainment system.

While a reversing camera is almost always found in the central touchscreen, some manufacturers have also included functions such as air-conditioning and climate control, seat adjustment and seat heating/cooling, and vehicle information via the trip computer.

For example, Volvo models incorporate everything in the infotainment screen with the exception of audio volume and the defroster. Tesla goes further, including virtually all vehicle functions in its massive tablet-like touchscreen.

Car touchscreens function in a similar way to a smartphone – just tap the icon on the screen to access whatever control you need and follow the prompts for further actions. Different manufacturers have different approaches to touchscreens, including some rather advanced options. Some have ‘pinch to zoom’ functionality that allows you to zoom in on a sat-nav map by pinching the screen as you would on a smartphone or tablet.

Volkswagen’s Discover Pro system uses proximity sensors to detect a person’s hand near the screen and intuitively guesses what function you’re going to select. You can then use gesture control to flip through albums or artists in the audio section or wave your hand to move to a different area of the menu page.

BMW’s gesture control allows you to make a swirling motion in the general direction of the touchscreen to turn the volume up or down or reject an incoming call by waving your hand dismissively. Clever stuff.

Porsche and Audi systems feature haptic feedback so there’s an audible click and a physical buzz on your finger when you press an icon on the touchscreen, to help connect the user to the technology.

One significant downside of touchscreens is the risk of driver distraction and you should avoid using any touchscreen functions while driving. They are really only safe to use while the car is stationary. If you want to change a track or switch from streaming music to radio, most cars have controls for this on the steering wheel and it’s safer to use them than reach across to the screen.

Several manufacturers, including BMW and Mazda, provide central controllers housed in the centre console, so there’s no need to reach across to the screen to make a selection. You simply turn the dial to navigate various menus on the screen, then select by pressing on the dial. 

Some manufacturers such as Lexus have gone further, including a handwriting recognition touchpad in the centre console that allows you to write letters or numbers for functions such as sat nav, although it can be tricky to be accurate unless you’re left-handed.

Perfect pairing

Virtually all new passenger cars, SUVs and light commercial vehicles sold in Australia these days have Bluetooth as standard. Bluetooth enables users to connect a phone to the in-car system wirelessly to make calls or stream music. You can also answer or reject calls using the central screen, via controls on the steering wheel or via voice control. You can view your phonebook, see recent calls and listen to voicemail messages via Bluetooth.

Port of call

Most cars have more than one USB port somewhere in the centre console or storage bin, which will allow you to connect your phone and play music or podcasts through the infotainment system. Some brands have also started including USB-C ports in their latest models. Some Honda models even have an HDMI port allowing you to ‘mirror’ your phone or laptop on the central screen.

Radio gaga

The days of trying to find your local station via the frequency dial on the AM/FM radio are long gone. It’s all digital now. Your infotainment system still has AM and FM radio and, depending on the manufacturer, will have manual or automatic tuning.

The biggest change in the past few years has been the proliferation of DAB/DAB+ digital radio. Once found only in premium models, digital radio is now offered in more affordable cars. Digital radio has drastically increased the number of station options in cars (Coles Radio anyone?) but it can drop out if you’re in an area with poor coverage.

On a side note, many new cars don’t even have a CD player these days, so you’ll need to use Bluetooth or another digital option.

An Apple a day

Using your phone while driving is dangerous and illegal in Victoria, but smartphone mirroring essentially mirrors your phone’s home screen, including a selection of apps, on the car’s infotainment screen. Social media apps including Instagram or Facebook are not available as they are too distracting.

If your car is fitted with Apple CarPlay connectivity it is easy to set up. Just connect your phone via USB, follow the prompts on your phone and you’re good to go.

Both Apple and Android systems are now available in wireless format, but only a few manufacturers offer it at this stage. It’s a matter of time before this becomes standard.

To operate the Android system, you need to download an app to your phone and connect it via USB. These systems run on data so if your mobile-phone plan doesn’t have a lot of data, be careful.

Both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto allow users to access mapping apps for sat nav, make phone calls and listen to and respond to text messages all via voice-recognition systems – Siri for Apple and Hey Google for Android.

To message someone, just say the name of the contact you want to message, state your message and the system will check it with you before sending. If someone has messaged you, the system can read it out to you while you drive.

Apple CarPlay has access to Apple Music and Spotify, Apple and Google Maps, WhatsApp and more. Android has all but the Apple suite.

MirrorLink is a similar system and is open source, so is not linked with Google or Apple. It’s compatible with several mobile-phone brands – but not Apple. MirrorLink-friendly apps include Spotify and Stitcher internet radio and it has telephony functionality.

Unlike Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, you can’t use your phone while MirrorLink is enabled, which makes it a safer option for many.