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Apple CarPlay: A guide to connecting your iPhone to your car

Apple CarPlay beats most default infotainment systems -- but it's not perfect. Here's everything you need to know before you get started.

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Getting a new car is fun, until you get into the infotainment system. Car makers -- whose expertise is in vehicles, not software -- tend to build overly complicated systems that make you feel like a caveman using a smartphone for the very first time.

That's not a good thing when you have other priorities. For instance, keeping your eyes on the road.

Carmakers aren't necessarily changing their ways, but they are giving drivers another, more familiar infotainment option: CarPlay. It's Apple's way of applying its iPhone software expertise to the car, with Siri voice commands at the core.

Apple CarPlay Default Layout.jpg
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Why you want CarPlay

CarPlay is a stripped-down version of iOS designed for your car. With it, you can send messages with iMessage, play music, get directions, listen to podcasts, stream radio (Beats1, of course), and call people -- without ever touching your phone.

The system relies heavily on Siri voice commands, so you can keep your eyes on the road, not on your phone's tiny screen.

It sounds like it's basically iOS for your car, but it's not. CarPlay doesn't replace the standard entertainment system -- it's just an app. So when you need to do car-specific tasks like adjust the temperature, view a backup camera, listen to SiriusXM or adjust your car's general settings, you'll exit CarPlay and go back to the standard interface.

Which cars does CarPlay work with?

As long as you have an iPhone 5 or newer, running iOS 7 .1 and above, your phone will work with CarPlay. But that's only half the equation. Let's look at the cars that support Apple CarPlay.

Apple has a complete list of compatible cars, broken down by make and model. You can look at the list in its entirety here. There are 24 different car makers on the list, with a total of 114 car models offering CarPlay support.

Don't get discouraged when you realize all the cars on the list are 2016 models or newer -- you can retrofit an older vehicle with CarPlay support through third-party solutions. Here are a few examples:

As long as you're willing to swap out your car's infotainment unit with a CarPlay-ready one, just about any car can be made compatible.

Setting up CarPlay

Grab a Lightning-to-USB cable, plug it into your iPhone, plug the USB end into your car, and you're set.

The first time you plug in your phone, you'll have to go through a quick approval process to let your car access your phone. (You'll want to be parked, not driving.) From there on, all you'll do is connect your phone and it'll automatically go into CarPlay mode.

At this point, the CarPlay app will automatically launch, or you'll select it from the infotainment system's menu. The main screen is a grid of app icons that looks like an adapted version of your iPhone's home screen. On the left side is the time and a cell signal meter. Just below the stats, you'll see a digitized version of the iPhone's home button. Tap on that at any time to go back to the home screen, or tap and hold to activate Siri.

Navigating the interface is done with the standard taps and swipes, but sadly, the second-nature pinch-to-zoom gesture is missing from Maps. Instead, you'll need to tap on buttons to zoom in or out of a given map. That's likely a design choice reflective of the car's hardware, not CarPlay.

Apple CarPlay Music App.jpg
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About Apple's CarPlay apps...

For safety reasons, not all apps are available through CarPlay, and what you see is what you get. You can't add, remove or rearrange the icons, so the default setup -- Phone, Music, Maps, Messages, Now Playing, Podcasts and Audiobooks -- is fixed.

There is one exception, though. Depending on your car manufacturer, you might see a shortcut to your car's primary infotainment system within CarPlay, so you can do things like quickly switch audio modes or control climate settings.

Back to the default Apple apps. One thing you'll notice is how basic they are. The Phone app, for example, doesn't automatically bring up any sort of dial pad. Instead, you're immediately prompted by voice to give the name of the person you want to call. You'll need to tap on Show Contacts to view more options like Favorites, Recents, Contacts, Keyboard and Voicemail.

The Messages app is similarly Siri-driven. A voice prompts immediately for the name of the person you want to message. If you have unread messages, Siri will ask if you want your unread messages read out loud or if you want to compose a new message.

If you try to use the Messages app like you do on your phone, you'll be deterred. You can view your conversation list, but you can't view the message thread the way you can on your iPhone. Instead, tapping on a contact's thread prompts Siri to, once again, ask you who you want to message. The rest of the apps are similar -- bare-bones and Siri-driven.

Apple CarPlay Third Party Apps.jpg
Jason Cipriani/CNET

Installing non-Apple apps

Non-Apple apps are what make CarPlay awesome. On the official CarPlay site, Apple lists some of the better-known music and radio apps like Spotify, Slacker and NPR News as being CarPlay-compatible. But if you want to see a complete list of compatible apps, search the App Store for "CarPlay."

Any third-party CarPlay apps will automatically show up on the second page of the CarPlay screen; just like on your iPhone. Just know that in some cases, you'll need to go finish any app setup on your phone before it'll appear in CarPlay. For instance, with the podcast app Clammr, I had to follow the prompts to select favorite podcasts and news categories before anything would show up in the CarPlay app.

Right now, only third-party music and audio apps work with CarPlay, so don't hold your breath for Google Maps to work with CarPlay anytime soon.

The best part: Siri

You can still use Siri as you normally do when your iPhone is in CarPlay mode. You can ask for things like sports scores and weather -- basically, any commands but Web searches. For instance, you can say things like:

  • Tell me the weather.
  • Call __
  • Get directions to __
  • Play ____
  • Send a message to ___
  • Is ___ open right now?

Depending on your car's setup, you can prompt Siri a few different ways. For vehicles with a Bluetooth button on the steering wheel, just press and hold the button until you hear the familiar Siri tone. Or, tap and hold the digital home button on the CarPlay screen (it's on the left).

Finally, if you have "Hey Siri" set up on your iPhone, you can just say "Hey, Siri" and say your commands.