Examining the BMW iDrive Interface

Interior of bmw display of idrive
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BMW's iDrive is an infotainment system that 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. 

The successor to iDrive is BMW ConnectedDrive, which was introduced in 2014. ConnectedDrive features iDrive technology at its core but moved away from the rotary knob control scheme to touchscreen controls.

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 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.

Owners of vehicles with iDrive can also 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
Benjamin Kraft / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

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 of the system claim that it had a steep learning curve and suffered from input lag. These problems were fixed through a combination of software updates and redesigns implemented in later versions of the system.

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.

BMW Rotary Controls

BMW iDrive data input on screen
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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 ease of use, the communication, GPS navigation, entertainment and climate control systems in the original iDrive 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 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.

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 is then capable of switching to display the route information if the driver brings up another system, such as 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 attention off the road to figure out what category to search for any given point of interest.

Later versions of iDrive, and updated earlier versions allow the driver to query the entire POI database without specifying a category.

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. 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 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 traffic 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.

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 of the vehicle.

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.