Examining the BMW iDrive Interface

An overview of iDrive's various features, settings, and updates

Interior of bmw display of idrive
Jeff Wilcox / Flickr / CC-BY-2.0

Introduced in 2001, BMW's iDrive infotainment system has gone through a number of iterations. Like most infotainment systems, iDrive offers a centralized interface capable of controlling 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. 

In 2014, BMW upgraded iDrive to include ConnectedDrive, the software interface for the larger iDrive system. ConnectedDrive features iDrive technology but relies on touchscreen controls instead of rotary knobs and push buttons.

Here we run through the various specs and features available with BMW iDrive.

iDrive System Information

BMW iDrive system information screen
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When iDrive was originally introduced, it ran on the Windows CE operating system. Later versions relied on a real-time operating system called Wind River VxWorks. In 2016, BMW introduced the Professional NBT EVO system, bringing a major hardware and software overhaul to the system.

Owners of vehicles with iDrive can visit BMW's support site to download iDrive updates. These updates can then be loaded onto a USB drive and installed via the vehicle's USB port.

iDrive Control Knob

bmw idrive control knob
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The central conceit of iDrive is that the entire system can be controlled by a single knob. This allows the driver to access a variety of secondary systems without looking away from the road or fumbling for buttons.

When iDrive was first released, critics complained that it had a steep learning curve and suffered from input lag. These problems were fixed through a combination of software updates and redesigns in later versions.

Starting with the 2008 model year, iDrive included a number of buttons in addition to the control wheel. These buttons acted as shortcuts, while the control knob was still used to access all of the vehicle's secondary systems. Each button in these versions of iDrive is also programmable to access a particular function, screen, or even radio station. With the introduction of ConnectedDrive in 2014, the system introduced touchscreen controls.

BMW Rotary Controls

BMW iDrive data input on screen
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Most of the controls in the iDrive system are designed to work with the control knob, which makes it easier to navigate without looking away from the road.

To make the system easier to use, communication, GPS navigation, entertainment, and climate control systems were all mapped to a cardinal direction. In models that didn't include a navigation option, a display of the onboard computer monitor replaced the navigation system on the dial.

When text input is required, such as searching for a point of interest (POI) in the navigation system, the alphabet is displayed in a ring design. That allows letters to be selected by rotating and clicking the knob.

iDrive Navigation Screen

BMW iDrive navigation screen
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The widescreen iDrive display is capable of showing information from two different sources at the same time. The smaller portion of the screen is referred to as an assistance window.

During navigation, the assistance window is capable of displaying directions or positional information, while the main window shows a route or local map. The assistance window can be switched to display route information if the driver opens the radio or climate control on the main screen.

iDrive POI Search

BMW iDrive POI search
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In versions of iDrive that feature a built-in navigation system, a searchable point of interest (POI) database is also included. This database includes a number of categories.

Early versions of iDrive's POI database required the driver to search each category separately. That design choice was poorly received since it required drivers to take their attention off the road when figuring out what category to search for. Later versions of iDrive allowed the driver to query the entire POI database without specifying a category.

If your iDrive system still has limited search functionality, you can contact the service department of your local dealership to inquire about potential system updates. It may also be possible to download an update and install it yourself via USB.

iDrive Traffic Warnings

BMW iDrive traffic warning screen
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In addition to basic navigation functions, iDrive is 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 to avoid it.

These warnings show how far away the traffic 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.

iDrive Vehicle Information

Interior of BMW stuck iin traffic
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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 onboard diagnostics system, which makes it easy to keep track of the oil level, service recommendations, and other vital data.