BMW iDrive 8 Infotainment Review: Looks Good but Missing Some Crucial Buttons
Before the company royally angered its fanbase with bucktooth grilles and charging a subscription fee for heated seats, BMW pissed traditionalists off in the early 2000s with its then-new iDrive system. As one of the very first appearances of bona fide screens in cars, iDrive 1.0 was controlled exclusively by a single rotary knob. Ironically, though, if you fast forward 20 years, eight iterations, and countless imitators, the current version of BMW’s trailblazing infotainment system is now largely regarded as one of the better ones on the market. Go figure.
Display hardware is top-shelf, the software is attractive and logical, and the current control knob and its accompanying buttons are a decent redundancy for touchscreen controls.
For the purpose of this review, the system being evaluated lived inside of a 2022 BMW i4 M50, but renditions of iDrive 8 in other current and upcoming Bimmers—like, as of this writing, the iX and facelifted versions of the X7 and 3 Series—should be pretty much the same.
BMW iDrive 8 Review Specs
- Car: 2022 BMW i4 M50
- Infotainment screen size: 12.3 inches
- Instrument screen size: 14 inches
- Volume knob? Yes
- Apple CarPlay/Android Auto: Wireless
Similar to the last-gen Mercedes displays, iDrive 8 centers around a pair of screens masquerading as one. The driver gauge information screen measures 12.3 inches while the center stack display is 14 inches—nice and big but not overwhelmingly so. “But Chris, doesn’t that look weird having one screen bigger than the other?” you ask. Not really. Since the outer part of that gauge screen would be covered by the steering wheel anyways, you’re not losing any of the pixels you’d actually see without having to move your head. (Are you listening, Porsche?)
As a very contemporary take on BMW’s whole cant-the-center-stack-towards-the-driver thing, this dual-screen setup is curved. Both screens are also very sharp, high-res, and bright enough to see clearly in direct sunlight while also being able to dim to a comfortable level at night. The middle one reacts to touch commands swiftly and smoothly.
Because it isn’t always ideal to be reaching up to tap and swipe on a touchscreen, though, BMW’s low-mounted scroll wheel—an input device that dates back to the very first version of iDrive—is an intuitive and useful way of interacting with the system while driving. Buttons surrounding that wheel provide quick shortcuts to media, navigation, the home screen, and, of course, “back.” These are inherited straight from the previous version of iDrive, so existing BMW owners should feel right at home. For newcomers, they do take a little getting used to but I was eventually able to use these to switch between screens without looking.
A physical aspect of the outgoing system that unfortunately didn’t survive is BMW’s row of numbered shortcuts which could be assigned to any audio source, radio station, or even navigation destinations. Now, that module houses a volume knob (thankfully), next and previous track buttons, and switches for the hazards and defrosters.
First off, the new interface is very pretty. It’s all triangles, rhombuses, and reflective, semi-skeuomorphic surfaces that are quite relaxing and pleasant to behold while the snappy transitions and subtly shiny bronze theme frankly remind me of the PlayStation 5’s system UI. The background is black at the top and becomes gradually brighter towards the bottom, which means the top of the screens blends into the view out the windshield while driving at night. It’s quite a cool peripheral vision effect.
The new gauge cluster graphic is very non-traditional but admittedly neat-looking and features a cool, minimalist mode that really does ease up on the distraction. Switching this car into sport mode changes the entire UI’s color scheme to red and purple while eco pro mode makes it blue and yellow.
When you start digging into the actual layouts, though, iDrive 8 isn’t a huge functional overhaul over the previous version. You’ve still got shortcuts on the left side for the most used functions, and then more granular commands for whatever screen you’re currently in on the right. Just like before, BMW’s built-in navigation is, as far as proprietary OEM nav systems go, one of the better ones out there, especially when it comes to how it audibly and visually delivers turn-by-turn instructions. Big, clear, and detailed maps on both the screen and the head-up display show you exactly which lane you should be in and which exit you should take.
Par for the modern luxury car course, you configure the myriad of settings from interior ambient lighting to lock/unlock settings, to how long you’d like the pathway lighting to last after exiting the vehicle all via the touchscreen.
Bayerische Media Werke
As for the entertainment part of the equation, BMW made some questionable design decisions. When listening to satellite radio, selecting the Favorites section brings up a list of flagged stations, but selecting one automatically brings you back to the complete station list. There does not appear to be any way to exclusively scroll through just your favorites without manually popping in and out of the Favorites tab. Absolutely not helping matters is the fact that the Favorites list consistently takes a second or two to load up—a second or two too slow for such a simple command. Y’know what could’ve been helpful here? The ol’ numbered shortcut buttons that BMW removed for this generation of iDrive.
(Also, the word “Favorites” is curiously spelled without a “u” despite this being a Canadian-market car.)
The controls to rewind and fast-forward through tracks within a satellite radio station are done via text selections laid out vertically on the right side of the screen and not with the generally accepted and way more intuitive media player buttons that pretty much every other media player on the face of this planet has used for decades.
It should also be noted that the BMW i4 is one of those EVs that doesn’t have AM radio.
For those who would rather choose exactly what they’d like to listen to, however, iDrive 8 features built-in Spotify. This lets you access your streaming library without relying on a smartphone but it uses the same, weirdly laid-out BMW media interface. Compared to the real Spotify app or the one available via Apple CarPlay, this feels a bit like using an app you previously only ever used on a smartphone on, well, something that isn’t a smartphone. Like tweeting via T9.
Overall, the media system feels very logically put together, for better and worse. It feels like an engineer was given an extensive PowerPoint presentation that listed all of the functions iDrive should have, and then they put them all together, checklist-style, without too much thought into how people actually use this shit. That said, I was able to get used to it all within a few days and get around reasonably quickly without much frustration.
Cool to the Touch
Bad news, hard-button fans. BMW has got rid of the hard buttons for climate control. All of that now lives permanently at the bottom of the touchscreen. This reminds me of the new Volkswagen Golf’s climate controls—an association BMW shouldn’t really want, trust me—although, at least you can see these ones at night. Hitting “climate menu” in the middle brings up detailed controls like fan speed, where exactly the fans blow, and heated seat controls. As somebody who mainly keeps things in auto and only changes the temp, I actually didn’t mind this too much, although I’m still convinced buttons would’ve been better.
Cool thing about the HVAC controls though: After you make a temperature adjustment, a blue or red pulse appears, presumably until the target temperature has been reached. A subtle-but-fancy, very smart thermostat-like behavior.
‘Hey, BMW, Let’s Go for Vietnamese Noodles’
Prompted by the words “Hey, BMW” (or a custom name you can give to your BMW), voice controls will respond to simple commands such as, “Let’s go to Chatime” by throwing up a list of nearby bubble tea chain locations, but gets flummoxed by more complex phrases such as, “Let’s find a Chatime in Markham.”
Also, for what it’s worth, the system apparently has no idea what “pho” is, under either common pronunciation.
If you really do not want to deal with BMW’s native interface very much, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are, of course, both on-board and wireless. I can’t speak to Android Auto, but CarPlay implementation is indeed wireless, quite reliable, and takes up the entire screen, bar the HVAC section at the bottom and BMW’s home button on the top-left that takes you back to the native system. No complaints here.
As a step towards deeper CarPlay integration with the built-in system, Apple Maps navigation directions are relayed to BMW’s native map as well as the head-up display. It’s a welcome addition and finally proves that in-CarPlay nav can indeed play well with proprietary systems. But on behalf of the majority of drivers, BMW, call me when you’ve accomplished this with Google Maps.
Once you get used to it, BMW’s latest version of iDrive remains one of the better infotainment systems on the market. The software is sharp and luxurious-looking. The screens are high-end and the touch-sensitive one responds to taps and swipes like a top-shelf consumer electronic made in 2022. Sure, BMW’s built-in media/radio player can stand to be a lot more intuitive, but its nav is very well-conceived as far as proprietary systems go.
Ultimately, however, I don’t think it’s as straightforward as Genesis’s Hyundai-based setup or as clean as the new Cadillac system that’s present in the Lyriq. And, as pretty and logical as it is, I still found myself relying a lot on Apple CarPlay. Thankfully, the implementation of that iPhone-pairing technology is quite well done.
Barring those touch-only HVAC controls, iDrive 8 thankfully doesn’t fix what wasn’t broken with iDrive 7. But it also doesn’t really fix the things that were, either.
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