Examining the BMW iDrive Interface

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BMW's iDrive Vehicle Control System

BMW cockpit featuring iDrive
iDrive is designed to provide easy access to secondary systems. Photo © Jeff Wilcox

The iDrive system was originally introduced in 2001, and it has gone through a number of iterations since then. Like most OEM infotainment systems, iDrive offers a centralized interface that is capable of controlling most secondary vehicle systems. Each function can be accessed through the use of a single control knob, but later models also include a number of programmable buttons.

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iDrive System Information

BMW iDrive system information screen
The system information screen displays vital data such as the OS version. Photo © Jeff Wilcox

When iDrive was originally introduced, it ran on the Windows CE operating system. Later versions have used Wind River VxWorks instead. VxWorks is billed as a real-time operating system, and it's specifically designed for use in embedded systems like iDrive. BMW offers periodic software updates that have to be performed by a dealership service department.

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iDrive Control Knob

BMW iDrive control knob
One knob provides access to all of the systems that iDrive controls. Photo © Eric S.
The central conceit of iDrive is that the entire system can be controlled by a single knob. That allows a driver to access a variety of secondary systems without looking away from the road or fumbling for buttons. Critics of the system claim that it has a steep learning curve, but most drivers get used to it pretty fast. In 2008, BMW started including a number of additional buttons. These buttons act as shortcuts, and the control knob can still be used to access all of the secondary systems. Each button can be programmed to access a particular function, screen, or even radio station.
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BMW Rotary Controls

BMW iDrive data input
BMW's iDrive interface relies heavily on the main knob control. Photo © Jeff Wilcox

Most of the controls in the iDrive system are designed to take advantage of the control knob, which makes it easier to navigate them without looking away from the road. To facilitate that, the communication, GPS navigation, entertainment and climate control systems are each mapped to a cardinal direction. Some models don't include a navigation option, in which case the onboard computer monitor replaces the navigation system on the dial. When text input is required, such as searching for a POI in the navigation system, the alphabet is displayed in a ring formation. That allows letters to be selected by rotating and clicking the knob.

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iDrive Navigation Screen

BMW iDrive navigation screen
The iDrive screen can display two data sources at once. Photo © Jeff Wilcox
The widescreen iDrive display is capable of showing information from two different sources. The smaller portion of the screen is referred to as an assistance window. During navigation, the assistance window can display directions or positional information while the main window shows a route or local map. The assistance window can then be used to display route information if another system, such as the radio or climate control, is brought up on the main screen.
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iDrive POI Search

BMW iDrive POI search
The POI database is separated into a number of categories. Photo © Jeff Wilcox
The iDrive navigation system includes a searchable POI database. The database includes a number of categories, and at one time each category had to be searched separately. That was somewhat inconvenient for people who weren't sure what category to search, so it's now possible to run a POI query of the entire database. If your iDrive system still has a limited search functionality, you can contact the service department of your local dealership to inquire about potential system updates.
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iDrive Traffic Warnings

BMW iDrive traffic warning screen
The traffic warning alerts help steer drivers around problem areas. Photo © Jeff Wilcox
In addition to basic navigation functionality, iDrive is also capable of issuing traffic warnings. If the system locates a traffic problem on the selected route, it will issue a warning so the driver can take action. These warnings show how far away the problem is and how long of a delay to expect. The iDrive navigation system is also capable of calculating alternate routes, which can be accessed by selecting the detour option.
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iDrive Vehicle Information

The vehicle information screen displays useful data about various systems. Photo © Jeff Wilcox
Since iDrive is designed as an infotainment system, it can also display a variety of vital information about various primary and secondary systems. The vehicle information screen is capable of relaying information from the on-board diagnostics system, which makes it easy to keep track of the oil level, service recommendations, and other vital data.
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