DS Infotainment system

What is a car infotainment system?

What is a car infotainment system? How do they work and what do they do? Our guide tells you everything you need to know.

You might have heard the term ‘infotainment’ in relation to cars but what does it mean? In short, it’s a mash-up of ‘information’ and ‘entertainment’ and it refers to the sleek display (or displays) that you’ll find in most modern cars’ dashboards.

As well as providing information and entertainment, these are also often the main way that you interact with – and control – many of the functions in the car. With so many different infotainment systems and so much jargon around the topic it can be hard to get your head around. To help you, here’s our no-nonsense guide to car infotainment systems and what to look out for when choosing your next car.

What is an infotainment system?

An infotainment system typically takes the form of a touchscreen or display that’s mounted in (or on) the dashboard in the middle of the car. These have increased in size over the past few years, with some as large (or even larger) than the tablet you have at home. 

The number of features available will depend on the price and specification of the car, with more expensive or luxurious models having more processing power, applications and digital services. But even in their most basic form you can expect an infotainment system to operate the radio, satellite navigation (if specified), Bluetooth connectivity to a smartphone or other device and often provide access to vehicle information such as service intervals, tyre pressures and more.

As cars become increasingly digital you can expect the information part to become more important, as internet connectivity via an onboard SIM card allows you to pull up live parking information, weather forecasts and much more.

How have infotainment systems changed over recent years?

Quite simply, they have become far more intelligent and now take care of many of the functions you find in a modern car. In place of a wealth of switches and controls spread across the dashboard, many cars use one screen that serves as both a display and control centre. 

If you want to make the cabin warmer you’re now just as likely to have to swipe or prod a screen than turn a dial or knob, for example, and you’ll likely use the same screen to select your music, find out your average mpg or plan your journey using sat nav. The same screen may also be the display for a reversing camera, an interface where you can access the internet and a place where you can change the car’s settings. 

As well as a central screen most cars have an increasingly sophisticated driver display (the bit you see through the steering wheel), often linked to control buttons on the steering wheel. Another common feature is voice control, which allows you to simply say a command such as “Hey Mercedes, make my seat warmer” and then let the car do the rest for you.

Can I connect my smartphone to an infotainment system?

Even the most basic in-car entertainment systems now give you some kind of Bluetooth connection to a phone, allowing for safer hands-free phone calls and streaming of media services. 

Many modern cars go far beyond a simple connection between the two devices and also support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which open up a whole new world of smartphone connectivity. This sort of smartphone integration is rapidly becoming a standard feature and you’ll find Apple CarPlay and Android auto on everything from a humble Vauxhall Corsa to a top-spec Range Rover. 

While it doesn’t mean you can use all of your favourite apps while driving, it means that many of your phone’s useful features can be operated safely while you’re driving. Both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay feature a carefully curated list of apps that have been specially designed for safer operation in the car. You’ll find things like Google Maps navigation, Waze route guidance and Spotify, for example, although you can expect some features to be disabled when moving, such as the ability to input text and search on-screen. Modern infotainment systems generally prefer you to use voice commands via Siri, Alexa or even a vehicle’s voice recognition system, in order to reduce driver distraction.

Can I get the internet in my car?

It might not be commonly known, but the European Union introduced legislation in 2018 that stated all new cars had to automatically connect to the emergency services in the case of a crash. This requires modern vehicles to be fitted with a SIM card (like your phone), allowing data to be transferred over the airwaves.

As a result, it’s simple enough for manufacturers to now offer connected services in the car, such as live traffic reports, weather forecasts, news headlines and local search functionality via the sat nav system. Access to a full internet browser might be off limits, but many systems also provide a Wi-Fi hotspot from this SIM card, allowing you to tether a smartphone, tablet or laptop and piggyback off the data. Some manufacturers require a monthly subscription fee in order to keep these connected services running, so it pays to do your research before choosing your next car.

Why do infotainment systems all have different names?

While the functionality of most infotainment systems is similar, each car brand generally has their own name for theirs. Audi refers to its infotainment system as MMI (Multi Media Interface) whereas Ford uses the name SYNC. You’ll find iDrive in a BMW, while Mercedes-Benz has introduced the latest version of its MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience).

In reality, what these systems can do is very similar. There are differences in the way you use them, with some using only a touchscreen and others using a combination of a screen linked to a rotary dial, buttons or a controller that’s similar to the mouse you use with your laptop. Some even use ‘gesture control’ which allows you to change settings simply by waving your hand in front of the screen. In each case, the infotainment system is the key interface between you and your car and which one is best is largely a matter of personal taste.

What’s the future of car infotainment systems?

Most car brands are planning to introduce ever more digital services and connectivity to their cars, so you can expect infotainment systems to provide an increasing number of functions, even though the interface you use might not change much. 

Increasingly, you’ll be able to sync your car’s infotainment system with your other devices and digital accounts too. Volvo’s future models are moving to a Google-powered operating system, for example, so your car could be linked to your Google profile in order to make for a seamless transition of services when you get behind the wheel.

If you’re looking to upgrade to a car with newer tech you can use our search page to find the one that’s right for you. You can buy it online and either have it delivered to your door or choose to collect it from one of our Customer Centres.

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