An update to the iDrive controller adds new functionality.

BMW was the first manufacturer to add a computer-style controller to its cars. Love it or hate it, the infamous iDrive seriously influenced a host of carmakers - and now BMW has taken it to the next level.

Called ConnectedDrive, the new system is essentially a major upgrade of the existing iDrive set up, and is being drip-fed to Kiwi buyers over the coming year or so. It is already available in China.

The iDrive controller has been simplified, and has added a 45mm touchpad to the top of the rotary control knob. It recognises handwriting, like BMW's local-market nemesis Audi's MMI (Multi-media Interface), and it then reads back what you've written.

This is why the system is already in China's new BMWs - the Mandarin alphabet, and its thousands of very structured characters, lends itself to 'fingerwriting' recognition. It would also, at a guess, be quite a good way of refining the far more random English alphabet written in so many different ways.


BMW New Zealand boss Mark Gilbert says that while some features are here now, it's unclear when other tricks will be added.

"Elements of ConnectedDrive are already available in New Zealand," he told Driven. "For example, these include full colour heads-up display, surround view with rear view camera, speed limit info and, from an infotainment standpoint, Bluetooth Audio Streaming combined with album cover display.

"New ConnectedDrive features will become available over time and across a wider variety of vehicles in the range, but I cannot comment as to what these will be or when they will be arriving.

"All these functions are based on the advanced networking of driver, vehicle and environment, and are joined under the umbrella term of BMW ConnectedDrive."

Infotainment, internet access, vehicle set-up, mobile office, comfort and even safety advances will be grouped in this basket - even help finding decent carparking has gone under the microscope.

Navigation will also get a shot in the arm with pinch-to-zoom functions now second nature courtesy of smartphones like iPhone and Android devices - these will be extended to work on webpages and more once the iDrive touch screen is released to other markets from mid-2013.

The LCD touch screen will now have a 1.3GHz processor with a 3D graphics chip, which will work faster and more smoothly than before, enabling 3D navigation, and flasher layered graphics.

But it's the hotspot and voice recognition capabilities that are most exciting here - and most likely to impress those who struggle with using iDrive.

Speech recognition is a must-have in satnav, but the software supplied by Dragon-maker Nuance will also take dictation. This automotive Moneypenny will transcribe your words into text, read them back to you, make any changes and then send the results by email or SMS. It even understands punctuation like 'new line'.

It'll also be possible to connect two Bluetooth devices at the same time - two phones, or a phone and a tablet - and merge both into a joint contact list for easier mobile office functionality. Even calendar entries are now easy to navigate via the screen.

There's also a straight voice memo function, which will record two minute bites and email or archive and then load on to a USB stick. It so far recognises six languages, and as Nuance uses a remote server, it can learn from its work, and improves as more people use it.

Natural speech can also be used - "Connect me with Sally Ridge" will understand that you want to make a call, and who to, although it won't understand who you're calling and recommend that even Michael Laws' talkback show would be preferable.

Now if drivers can't get something to work, just ask the car: "How do I adjust headlight settings?" and it tells you. Tell it to put the radio on a certain station, and it'll do that too.

Hotspot for old BMWs

There's also a clever new base station - not unlike the old cellphone cradles back when monsters like the mighty Motorola brick ruled the roost - which takes a SIM card that turns the car into a Wi-Fi hotspot, which runs on the latest cellular data networks.

Unfortunately, 4G and LTE systems are yet to materialise in New Zealand and Australia, but the hotspot will downgrade to 3G. This means it will work, but not as rapidly, and if all of your mates are trying to download stuff on your expensive data plan, it'll go slow and cost heaps when the bill comes.

It's not integrated into the car, which means two good things - the base, which has its own aerial and battery, can be removed from the car and used as a mobile hotspot for about half an hour, or can be plugged into a USB port or charger and happily powered all day.

Owners of older or current BMWs wanting to get their hands on this fancy gadget, will be able to retrofit it with what the company calls "a bit of tweaking".