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Apple CarPlay Turns Your Auto Into an iPhone on Wheels

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

I have seen paradise, and it has 460 horses under the hood, an exhaust note that will rattle your bones, and a Laguna Blue paint job that could cause the blind to see.

For the past few days I’ve been barreling down New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway behind the wheel of Chevy’s 2016 Corvette Stingray. I may never be able to drive an ordinary car again.

But the most exciting part to me wasn’t what was under the hood (a 6.2-liter small-block V8 that goes from 0 to 60 in 3.8 seconds), it was what was inside the dash. The ‘16 Vette is one of the first US production cars to come with Apple CarPlay software inside and Siri riding shotgun.

Yes, I am that geek.

Read More: Everything You Need to Know About Apple CarPlay and Android Auto

Simply put, CarPlay is a safer way to use your phone behind the wheel. When you connect your handset to the Vette’s USB port, CarPlay turns this snarling hunk of American road muscle into an iPhone on wheels by replacing the Chevy’s clunky standard infotainment system with a slick Apple interface.

While CarPlay is coming to a slew of vehicles from the world’s biggest automakers over the next 12 months, the Stingray is the very first car to get Apple’s vehicular blessing. And that’s fine by me, because it meant I got to lay down fat slabs of rubber and wake up my neighbors while driving a car that literally turns people’s heads.

Using CarPlay

I’ve been reviewing and testing connected car technology for a while now, and despite all the improvements there’s still one major problem: Everything is too damn complicated.

Look at any infotainment system from any manufacturer, and you’ll see a mess of apps, buttons, and notifications that are incredibly hard to parse when you’re parked, let alone while driving through the Lincoln Tunnel in rush-hour traffic.

Pairing your smartphone with your in-dash infotainment system can also be a pain. With some models, doing something as simple as streaming music and making hands-free calls can require a call to tech support and a handful of Xanax.

But setting up CarPlay is as easy as it gets. Just plug one end of a Lightning cable into your phone and the other end into your car’s USB port. A CarPlay icon will then appear on your car’s in-dash screen. Just tap it and you’re set.

CarPlay then declutters your car’s infotainment setup by switching it with a simplified home page featuring oversized icons for your Phone, Apple Music, Maps, Messages, and other apps, along with a Home button icon, your connectivity status, and the time. It’s as if someone took your iPhone and installed it in your dashboard.

Apple’s decision to use giant icons proved incredibly helpful when I was looking for specific apps while driving. Rather than having to focus my attention on the screen for a few seconds, I was able to quickly glance at the display, find what I wanted and select it. And when you’re traveling at 100  65 miles an hour, the ability to keep your eyes on the road is a very big deal.

Even then, though, CarPlay isn’t as easy to use while driving as Google’s competing Android Auto, which displays the apps and information it thinks you’ll need based on the time of day, your schedule, and your Google search history. With Android Auto, you can see weather, reminders, and more without having to manually switch between apps.

Siri is my copilot

To make sure you keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel, CarPlay comes with Apple’s voice-powered Siri virtual assistant. And while I find Siri to be largely pointless on my iPhone and iPad, she’s virtually indispensable when driving.

To use Siri in the Corvette, you have to press and hold the steering wheel voice command button. Pressing and immediately releasing the button launches the Vette’s own voice assistant, which can get pretty annoying if you happen to press the button the wrong way more than once. But that’s a Chevy problem, not an Apple problem.

Overall, Siri’s voice recognition was impressively accurate, even more so than Android Auto’s voice recognition.

You can tell Siri to make phone calls, send and read emails and texts, get directions, and play any song in Apple’s Music library. And of course, you can ask her trivia questions like, how tall is the Empire State Building? (1,454 feet, including the antenna.) Or you can just ask what it’s like to be her, which as she puts it, involves people constantly asking her questions.

There are limits to what Siri can do, though. Apple doesn’t let her reply to questions that require complex Web searches, because, well, you’re driving. CarPlay won’t display links to websites or any text, for that matter, to avoid distractions. (Google puts similar restrictions on Android Auto.)

My biggest issue with Siri is that she can’t perform voice searches inside third-party apps like Spotify. Sure, I can use Siri to launch the streaming music service, but I can’t tell her to play a specific song or playlist inside the app.

Speaking of which …

Driving music

Apple Music is incredibly useful while driving, and with Siri playing DJ you can listen to nearly any song or artist you can think of without having to fiddle with any touchscreens or dials.

But there was one problem with Apple Music. During my weekend with the Corvette, I found that after I paused Music and sent a message or made a phone call, the app automatically came back on without my pressing play.

During our CarPlay video shoot, I was trying to demonstrate how Siri can be used to send or listen to text messages, but every time I sent a message, the Music app would turn back on and start blasting whatever song I listened to last. As a result, I now despise Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise.” Thanks, Apple.

Maps without the Google

If you’re the kind of person who depends on Google Maps to get around, I’ve got some bad news: You can’t use it with CarPlay. Instead, Apple forces you to use its own Apple Maps software, which is a major letdown.

Sure, Apple Maps is nowhere near the catastrophe it was when it launched with iOS 6 in 2012. You’re way less likely to be directed to drive onto an airport runway or get lost in the wilderness. But it’s still not on par with Google Maps.

I drove the Corvette to Atlantic City from Queens and Apple Maps got me there in one piece, but it took me on a different and slightly longer route than Google Maps would have suggested.

What’s more, I have all of my landmarks, such as my work and home addresses, saved in Google Maps, so I couldn’t simply tell Apple Maps to take me home. I instead had to give my full address.

If there’s one thing Apple can do to improve CarPlay it would be to let me use the navigation software I want to use. This is America, dammit.

Get your motor running

Despite a few quirks and its lack of Google Map support, Apple’s CarPlay is easily the best way to connect your iPhone to your car. The interface is easy to navigate, Siri’s voice recognition is excellent, and Apple Music gives you access to nearly any song or musician you can think of without having to lift a finger.

The two big caveats: You’ll have to own an iPhone 5 or later, and your car will have to support CarPlay.

But if I had to choose between CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto, I’d pick the latter. Google’s car interface is more conducive to quick glances, and it’s also smarter — it provides you with the apps you need before you even know you need them.

Odds are, though, you won’t have to choose. Most carmakers who’ve signed on to support CarPlay also plan to support Android Auto. So you won’t be forced to switch smartphones — or cars — to get a truly high-tech driving experience.

Email Dan Howley at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley or on Google+.