It was an idea so simple, so elegant, yet so powerful it was to change the way the world interacted with the automobile. It flew in the face of modern convention, which said more (buttons/switches/knobs) equals better. It was the concept of “one dial to rule them all” and it was supposed to free up consoles, fingers, and minds. It would not only create a more beautiful and serene driving environment, it would invigorate the drive itself.
It was iDrive, and when it was unleashed upon the world in 2001 it was…a total disaster.
How badly was iDrive received? Well, the horror stories are the stuff of legend. In the years since it was launched, we've seen bile-filled post upon bile-filled post on various blogs and forums. More modern evidence can be found on the social network Facebook, where a group devoted to fans of iDrive fans has a whopping two members.
Conceptually, iDrive was elegant and original, and spawned a host of (mainly Japanese) imitators. The problem was its user interface (UI) was poorly designed and executed. Many of its imitators quickly managed to surpass it.
What was the root of the problem? Beyond specific UI concerns, the main issue was that the system simply asked too much of the user. In its first iteration, iDrive required a level of patience and effort beyond what most BMW owners (or American car drivers in general) were willing to provide.
So how did BMW get it so wrong? How could they fail to see the yawning gap between the iDrive system and the end user? My theory: BMW's stubborn, independent mindset and a cultural difference between Germany and the rest of the world both contributed to iDrive's systemic failure.
As one of the smaller auto manufacturers in the world, BMW thinks very differently about the fundamentals of the car. You see it the kinds of vehicles it produces (like the X6) and the way its cars perform (such as the 3 Series). BMW's approach is often uncompromising -- which can lead to extraordinary successes (like the M3). Unfortunately, stubborn, independent thinking can sometimes get it wrong -- catastrophically in some cases. Think Toyota or GM would let a system like iDrive version 1.0 get out of a focus group? Not a chance.
Then there is the cultural difference. A Mercedes-Benz engineer once explained to me how the German owner is very different from his counterparts around the world. In Germany everything regarding automobiles (and beer and sausage making for that matter) is taken very seriously. You need only look at autobahn lane discipline and how many months and Euros it takes to get a German driver's license as evidence.
The engineer went on to say that the average German car buyer reads the entire manual after purchase. Every single page -- as though it were Goethe. Not just the vehicle manual either. All accessory manuals – including the mini-telephone book that tells him how to operate every feature of iDrive.
I don't know how true that is, but I do know that few of my fellow Americans to do the same -- for anything they purchase. How many of you read the manual for your latest smart phone or digital camera, let alone for your new car?
No, we Americans can't be bothered. For us, it has to be simple to use and easy to understand -- from the moment we make a call, snap a photo, or put the key in the ignition. We have a low threshold and absolutely zero patience for this kind of stuff. After all, it's just a car, right?
That difference in attitude, combined with BMW's dogmatic approach to the iDrive UI created the massive headaches that plagued iDrive from the beginning. Simply put, the system required too much effort from the user to perform even the most basic tasks -- like changing the radio station. And for more complicated operations -- forget about it. But I digress. I'm not here to further bash a system that has taken more shots in the last eight years than W. Let's talk about the newly updated system. Recently, I had the chance to futz around with a BMW 3 Series diesel equipped with the new system.
Now I'm not going go into all of the specific ways iDrive has been improved. That would require reading the manual, and who has time for that? (See how I did that?) No, I'm just going to give you a straight up American rundown on the system – which means, what I learned by fiddling around with it as I drove home.
The first thing I noticed is how w-i-d-e the new screen is. It's been some time since I've been in a newer 3 Series BMW, but at about 8.5 inches across and 3.5 inches tall, this screen is significantly larger than the one in the X5 I drove around couple of weeks ago. It appears crisper too, but that may just be function of its wider viewing angle.
More significant are the collection of buttons now situated around the controller dial. Recall that the first generation system featured only the large, smooth, spun aluminum dial that could be rotated, toggled and depressed in nearly every direction. The dial also featured haptic feedback -- which meant it resisted spinning or toggling in certain directions, depending on the menus available. In subsequent updates to iDrive, BMW removed the haptic feedback and reduced the number of directions the controller could be toggled (from eight to four). Engineers then added a “menu” button -- which seemed to be the clearest acknowledgment by the company that the system was flawed. One dial to rule them all became one dial (and a button).
The new system adds several more buttons, including CD, Radio, Menu, Tel, Nav, Back, and Option. The addition of these little black chiclets makes the system perform substantially better. Why? I'll get to it in a minute, but the keywords are: multiple pathways.
Back to the controls: the multifunction dial is still on the center console between the seats, where it falls easily under hand -- but the look and feel are different. It is now a smaller controller dial -- a rubber covered metal ring that rotates around a black composite hub. On top of this hub are four clearly marked arrows pointing forward, back, left, right. These may sound like tiny details, but they are important reminders about what the dial can do. The first-generation dial could be rotated and depressed as well as toggled in eight directions. Problem was, when combined with an inscrutable onscreen UI, this multitude of options was hardly intuitive and often forgotten in fits of frustration. These simple visual indicators now leave no doubt.
At the heart of the system upgrade is the new main menu. Remember the old menu screen with its color coding and seemingly simple layout (Communication/Up, Climate/Left, Entertainment/Down, Car Data/Right)? Remember how confusing it was to go between the four different menus or simply find that home screen, especially after getting buried in a few layers of submenus? Well BMW has developed a cure -- a new vertical arrangement of the categories that requires a simple spin of the dial for selection.
Once selected, the menu expands to the right -- and stays that way. Navigating between menus and submenus is now easily achieved by a simple right-left/east-west toggle of the dial -- for every category. A visual reminder is always on screen (with only the east/west arrows highlighted) and corresponds nicely with the dial under your fingertips. You pick this all up within the first few seconds of diddling with the system -- no more guessing which way to toggle the dial.
If you do get lost and want to jump back to where you started, simply toggle the dial to left until you're there, or hit the back button below the dial, or punch the menu button just above the dial. It sounds redundant, but it really offers the user more pathways to do the destination. No more toggling or spinning the dial aimlessly (or fighting against some unseen force). Things get even easier if you know clearly what you want to do. If you aim to make a call, tune the radio, or figure out where you are -- just hit the appropriate button and get started.
This is one of the main strengths of the new system -- I call it multiple pathways, which means the ability to do the same thing several different ways. In older versions of iDrive, the chief trip-up was that it always seemed like there was only one way to do things, one script to follow when accessing certain subsystems or getting to a desired submenus. Changing radio stations, for example, required toggling down from the menu screen, then over to the radio submenu, then the proper tuning mode before you could begin spinning the dial.
In the new setup, you simply hit a button to take you the radio screen (which is a shortcut of two steps) and begin tuning. Again, it may not sound like much, but it's a definite improvement, particularly for this short attention span, I-want-it-now, YouTube generation.
Now the improvements I've mentioned are just the beginning far as the new iDrive is concerned. Like I said -- I didn't read the manual, I simply dove right in and started punching buttons and spinning the dial like any American owner would. So far, I've found iDrive to be vastly improved. Of course, others will disagree.
Editor-in-Chief MacKenzie is one; he believes the first iDrive was best and that it has been dumbed down significantly with the removal of the haptic feedback and addition of all these buttons. In his opinion, the system now requires visual feedback -- to confirm an onscreen menu or to select the right button -- which means eyes off the road.
I disagree. I think over time, any system, whether it utilizes haptic or visual feedback, can be learned and memorized so that it is second nature. Furthermore, I think this new iDrive makes it far easier to get to that point. Sure, it isn't perfect. There are still a few things I'd like to change -- particularly the way locations for are inputted in the nav system (would it really be that hard to add search by phone number functionality?)
I'll also admit that the new and improved iDrive is not particularly groundbreaking -- Audi, Honda/Acura, Nissan/Infiniti, have been continually improving their systems in the time it has taken BMW to get this point. I'd say iDrive still fails to beat them in a few ways (familiarity might be a factor here, I readily admit), but the fact that I can mention iDrive in the same breath as those other more heralded systems (without grimacing) speaks volumes about how far BMW has come. You heard it hear first, folks, iDrive sucketh no more -- it's now a legitimate player.