It seems like only yesterday that BMW launched iDrive 8, but iDrive 8.5 and 9 are already on their way. BMW hasn’t gone into much detail about these two next-generation operating systems, but they’ll arrive as soon as this year and feature the promises every manufacturer makes about improved connectivity and flat interface design. However, buried deep in the press release are two paragraphs that suggest BMW is philosophically moving away from a part of its iDrive infotainment system that dates back to the Chris Bangle days – the rotary control knob.
Here’s what BMW had to say.
From Bayrische Motoren Werke:
When the BMW iDrive system was first launched in 2001 with the new BMW 7 Series, its main purpose was to use one display and one interactive element for as many functions as possible in order to cut down on the number of buttons, controls and displays. The BMW iDrive Controller therefore acquired the status of universal control device as we knew it from a computer mouse. Scrolling and clicking on a desktop became turning, pushing and pressing in a car – intuitively and with minimal distraction from the road ahead.
After about 20 years, the digital user experience is dominated by touchpads, touch-sensitive smartphone displays and voice assistants. Swiping, tapping and speaking are the most common methods of interaction. The BMW Curved Display’s touchscreen functionality and dialogue using natural language represent the contemporary form of interaction between human and car.
Translated into normal-person speak, BMW sees the iDrive rotary controller as legacy tech. The new X1 doesn’t have an iDrive knob at all, and BMW’s current iDrive 8 is set up more for touchscreen use than remote use. While iDrive has always been a contentious bit of tech, the move towards touchscreens feels disappointing, especially if you’re used to both methods of control. So how did we get here? Well, let’s take a look back at the history of iDrive — which was in some ways revolutionary — to see how this all came about.
iDrive Was Revolutionary Infotainment Tech
Back around the turn of the millennium, infotainment in cars wasn’t a mainstream thing. Sure, a couple geeks threw CarPCs into their rides, but as far as cabin tech goes, things were largely limited to GPS navigation systems that could display route guidance, pull data from CD changers, tune into the radio, and play cassettes. That’s it. The concept of settings in cars was relatively foreign and although some manufacturers like BMW let you pull up information like fuel economy on navigation displays, these GPS systems had very limited integration with the rest of the car. That all changed with iDrive. Suddenly, E65 BMW 7-Series owners could fine-tune HVAC distribution, call contacts, play DVDs, adjust vehicle settings, and use GPS all from the same screen using a rotary knob. It was intimidating as hell, but amazing tech for 2002.
When I was on the hunt for my 3-Series, one of my main requirements aside from drivetrain and mechanical condition was for it to be a single-hump car. Although the CCC version (a common name for it) of iDrive found in earlier E90 3-Series models was improved on the hardware side over the system found in the 2002 745i, it still had its issues. Not only are components failure-prone, the menu structure is rather clunky and there’s something timeless about not having a color screen in the dashboard. However, BMW learned as it continued to develop iDrive, and the third generation of iDrive (often referred to as CIC) was a marked improvement.
Instead of a four-quadrant main menu, CIC adopted a top-level vertical list that was easy to scroll through and offered many functions at first glance. What’s more, the new QNX-based UI looked so much fresher than on the outgoing model, with just the right amount of skeuomorphism. Suddenly, iDrive became friendly, convenient, and easy to master. What’s more, CIC came with massive hardware upgrades. Maps were now pulled from a hard drive, the screen was heaps crisper with higher resolution, and the controller featured hard shortcut buttons for multimedia functions. It was a thorough revamp that made iDrive a pleasure to use.
Things got even better in 2012, with what BMW officially called Next Big Thing or NBT for short. The fourth generation of iDrive gained a great deal of new hardware and revised software. Everything was faster and crisper, a transition to a red colorway aided night vision, and maps went 3D. The future for iDrive was looking clear and bright until it all turned a little bit murky.
Then the big changes came…
The next version, iDrive 5, brought a touchscreen and a tile-based main to the table. It was somewhat charmingly 3D, not having succumbed to flat design, but it marked the start of a big change. Granted, iDrive 5 understood its purpose. Every major tile was top-level and there was no need to swipe across multiple home screens. What’s more, submenus were very similar to what you’d see in NBT, with vertical lists that were easy to scroll through for media sources, phone connectivity, and vehicle settings.
If iDrive 5 dipped a toe into tile-style interfaces, iDrive 6 jumped in the pool. Now every category of functionality had a widget and not all of them fit on the same screen. You’d have to scroll across pages like on a phone to see all the various functions. It doesn’t take a genius to think that not having all key functions at one quick glance is a step backward, and iDrive 6 just felt a bit harder to use than iDrive 5. Sure, the new fonts and crisper element design did look more modern than what you’d get on iDrive 5, but usability trumps attractiveness.
Next up, iDrive 7, which was really the start of BMW focusing on touchscreens over rotary control. Not only did it have multiple home screens with tiles spread across all three, the tiles weren’t even laid out in a straight line. As a result, the top menus weren’t intuitive to scroll through, but BMW did make one tiny concession to intuitive use with a little sidebar for key functions. Unfortunately, because it was tiny, it had a steeper learning curve than the main menus in many prior generations of iDrive.
Still, even though iDrive 7 was less intuitive than CIC, NBT, or iDrive 5, it had its perks. Part of the beauty of rotary knob-focused iDrive systems was that they forced BMW to implement hard controls for functions like climate control and heated seats. Models as recently as the 2022 3-Series had a wide array of hard keys, including a handy bank of programmable presets. Unfortunately, iDrive 8 happened.
With the current iDrive 8, most of those key climate functions (including heated seat activation) are now buried in an infotainment submenu that’s sluggish, cumbersome, and difficult to navigate even on flagship models like the X7. What’s more, not all key functions can be found in the sidebar. The virtual icon for car settings has been banished to widgets or the app drawer, and trying to use the touchscreen results in a surprising amount of lag.
So here we are, iDrive 8.5 and iDrive 9. There’s a full embrace of touchscreens and smartphone aesthetics. Not only is BMW going with a vertical widget stack on the driver’s side of the touchscreen, it’s also throwing small square icons on the home screen, a combination that seems at odds with rotary controller friendliness. On the plus side, BMW claims it’s going back to a “zero-layer approach” which should allow drivers to access all manner of functions from a single home screen. On the minus side, not a single mention of the traditional iDrive controller can be found in the press release when BMW talks about using the new systems.
The iDrive controller as we know it certainly had a rocky start, but it eventually achieved its goal. It was ergonomically brilliant, as its location in the console meant drivers didn’t have to lean forward to prod a screen. It kept grubby fingerprints off a shiny surface, encouraged the use of hard controls, and operated with sublime tactility. Every click, press, and jog had satisfying resistance that felt fitting for a premium vehicle. As much as we’re used to touchscreens on mobile devices, humans like mechanical interfaces. While it’s too soon to say for sure that the iDrive controller is dead, I’ll strangely miss it if it goes. There’s something sad about the prospect of losing a familiar frenemy. Plus, although rotary controls aren’t perfect, BMW’s pivot toward touchscreens looks clunkier than what we’ve seen with knob-focused interfaces. Funny, that.
(Photo credits: BMW)
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I quite honestly enjoy the CIC iDrive in my E82 – granted it is 13+ years old and the hard drive is as slow as a Prius in the left lane, but it allows me to manage audio / nav / telephony with minimal effort or focus stolen from driving. If anything, it is easier to manage than my old E30 / E36 vehicles, where you’d pretty much want to pull over if you needed to change a cassette in the stereo, and god help you if someone called while you were driving…
Considering BMW’s questionable design choices recently, it’s more like BMW doesn’t want you to buy their cars anymore.
Scheisse! BMW is going Tesla with touch screen everything because fuck ergonomics we want to be the cool kids. The “iDrive” knob on my Mazda is actually a solid system because I get everything infotainment related done with just the knob and no touch screen
I never use the touchscreen functionality on my MX-5; I always use the knob. And let me tell you why.
-The knob is right near my hand so I can use it and the neighboring buttons without having to look down.
-Fingerprints make me rageful.
-I don’t have to lean forward and try to center my finger on a screen while bouncing down shitty Midwestern roads.
-Fingerprints make me rageful.
-There are few things worse than hitting the wrong “button” on a touch screen, figuring out what you did wrong and then having to use the touch screen to go back and hit the correct “button”.
-Fingerprints make me rageful.
Not all iDrive 5 implementations had touch screens. As a new BMW owner (iDrive 5), I do miss not having a touchscreen with CarPlay but am getting used to the rotary controller. It works well for the car-specific functions, but is super-clunky with CarPlay. Overall, it’s not terrible.
“. . . and dialogue using natural language represent the contemporary form of interaction between human and car.”
If there’s anything possibly more infuriating than fat-fingering a touchscreen, it’s having to repeat yourself at a voice prompt. Maybe this is just my horrendous Connecticut mumble at work, but I cannot recall interacting with a single natural language interface that doesn’t have predictable bouts of “oh boy, grandpa’s refusing to wear his hearing aid again.”
And call me crazy, but I think designing car I/O that encourages frustration and anger while driving is a bad idea.
I have iDrive 7 in my 2022 X5 xDrive45e. I think it’s pretty great, but the knob is a big part of that. That said, the voice controls aren’t that good, and I doubt iDrive 8 or 9 is any better.
I’m sure the deletion of the knob is a cost-cutting measure, though, rather than a favor for users.
BMW’s customer demographics will remain knob-centric.
I see what you did there
The (d)evolution from top to bottom in this story is a photo essay of how BMW has moved away from its roots. Even the steering wheel on the X7 is hideous and misshapen.
I had 5 of those versions of iDrive, from a 2004 545i 6-speed to a 2016 X6. The interface improved with each version and was a good mix of screen presentation and tactile feel. The new one just looks like it’s copying Tesla.
The automotive industry’s war on buttons, knobs, and switches rages on. I’ve used the rotary dial iDrive before and found it to be perfectly fine. I’ve also used Audi’s similar infotainment dial/button set up a ton since my parents refuse to drive anything but Audis and frankly I think it’s excellent. If their perpetually frustrated technophobic Boomer asses can live with it then truly anyone can.
The newer BMW haptic/touch screen hell world looks absolutely miserable. I can’t for the life of me understand why these companies are still trying this bullshit when every time it’s been attempted manufacturers have had to rush back to traditional controls. Did all Ze Germans (who seem to be the worst culprits of this garbage) not watch Honda try this a few years ago and fail?
That’s a rhetorical question, of course they didn’t because they’d rather over engineer and every minute detail and tie it all to ludicrously complicated computer systems so it all starts failing piece by piece as soon as the lease is up and the poor sap who bought the car used has to drop $4,000 at the service department because a single wire went bad and rendered the entire car useless.
Get off my lawn. On a serious note-does anyone know how much using touch/haptic everything actually saves manufacturers? Obviously it can’t be insignificant seeing as so many of them are pushing the technology even when it’s demonstrably worse in every conceivable way, but is it worth it? Shit if there was a $500-$1,000 “put all the buttons back in” feature my dumb ass would gladly pay it.
I’d definitely take the iDrive knob from my 13 320i over the touchpad in my TLX.
Touch screens should be banned in cars.
Can’t use your phone, it’s distracting, but a bloody touch panel the size of a 1998 desktop screen that does everything a phone does too isn’t a problem.
I have the same/similar controller in my Mini. Unfortunately, I also have a similar knob control in a similar place in my Grand Cherokee. But the Jeep knob controls the transmission (PRND). I have to make a mental adjustment after driving one car or the other for a long time.
I do absolutely adore the switch gear in my family’s vintage BMWs. My e36 M3 has the most ergonomically laid out cabin, I can perform any task causing minimal distraction. The buttons all feel wonderful to the touch. My parents E38 740iL has the most satisfying controls I’ve used in a car, particularly the turn signals and wiper controls, they are perfect. Every time I get in a vehicle with a touch screen, I’m reminded why I choose to put up with driving older cars, the touch screens are infuriating.
My parents have a newer Jeep, it takes 3 levels of menu to turn on the heated seats! That is literally the most used button in the whole center console of every car we own, why is it three levels in …
I have a ’98 E36 323i I still use regularly.
It’s only… 25 years old. Shit.
I have a 2022 5 Series, and the user interface wars are insane.
Toss Siri, Alexa, and “Hey BMW” all into the voice control mix, and it’s a Scheißsturm. Each one only performs certain things, so you’re constantly switching systems. The gesture control only works randomly (usually when a passenger makes a hand gesture while talking). The touch screen works reliably but it’s distracting and has multi-layer menus. The iDrive with a few buttons surrounding it works quickly and easily (although to be fair I have used them for a lot of years now).
When I got the car was asked to give comments to BMW about the car (like everybody, of course) and my comment was that having so many different interfaces isn’t luxury; luxury is supposed to be effortless.
BMW: The Ultimate Futzing Machine.
I had iDrive in a few BMWs, but current cars are all touch screen. The iDrive took a bit of learning but was OK.
The problem is that the surface always looks dirty- I keep a microfiber cloth and cleaner in the cars. However, a technology that looks like crap after you touch it is a bad technology. Surely there can be some technical fix.
BMW is just saving cost with fewer mechanical parts and all in the software ( which they will try to develop into an income stream).
I haven’t tried this, but it looks like one could modify/re-size a glass screen protector (intended for a tablet) to protect the infotainment screen in the car.
If nothing else it might make cleaning the display easier. Of course it might make some displays less receptive to input, too.