Tuesday, February 19, 2008

BMW's iDrive Package: Does Anyone Care What I Think?

Now I've had about six weeks using this thing, I thought I'd pen a few notes on the good, bad and indifferent aspects of the main way in which BMW thinks you should interact with their cars: iDrive.

First off, I like the whole idea of "de-cluttering" the dash and moving all those buttons onto one, centralized control mechanism. Most of these functions you work with just once on a set-and-forget basis, and so anything that stops the inside of the cabin resembling a 1960s jet fighter cockpit, festooned with buttons and switches that require a check-list in order to remember what they do, is a definite plus. However, what then do you do with the stuff you actually do want to change more frequently, like the entertainment system or climate control settings? Well, given that you've already decided to centralize this stuff, you, well, centralize it into the same interface of course. And now the fun starts.

The iDrive controller has become simpler of late, having now only four directions you can push it to move across the display (the cardinal compass points) but still having the ability to rotate freely either clockwise or counter-clockwise; in addition, you can push it down to provide a "click" function. It quickly become intuitive and half the time I can now use it without taking my eyes off the road ahead. The home screen collects things into four main groups: communications, navigation, entertainment and climate, with a further information category (basically, in-car functions) available through a push-to-click. (However, having said all that, I still think Audi have done the same thing better: they have an button at each of the 4 main directions that you can use to directly call up each of the specific functions without having to return to the main upper screen and select the new option.)

I won't bore everyone to tears by slogging through each option in all it's Germanic glory, but rather just highlight a few features and why they suck or don't.

The display has basically two windows you can set up: a main information screen and an assistance window. Coming at this from Silicon Valley, it's hugely frustrating to have the assistance window be so limited in what it can show or do. Mostly, it seems to be designed to provide navigation information such as directions or a moving map. However, it's only about a third of the display in width (nope, can't change that) and so is only marginally useful for the map piece., though sort of adequate for using arrows to show where to go and when.

In the main navigation window, I end up having the traffic reports displayed which means I have two thirds of the screen showing text and one third the map (in the too-small assistance window). This is completely arse-over-end and I have no idea why BMW reckoned this made sense. Furthermore, the traffic incidents, listed in descending order by which ones are closest, scrolls automatically when new ones pop up. This means that if you glance quickly at the screen then the stuff closest has often slipped up and off the display, something that's only hinted at by a small arrow on the right hand edge. Oh, and one other thing: it lists everything that's going on in the area, regardless of whether or not you care. This means that incidents continue to be listed even as you drive away from them, and there's no hint given that you can ignore any particular entry because of this. Net-net is that you keep checking to see if the mileage given alongside any incident is growing or shrinking before you decide if that particular one matters or not. Very poor usability then for this feature, leading me to conclude that no one actually tries to use these things in anger before they stamp them as "good to go" because it's so glaringly wrong headed. I mean, it's just software for crissakes: allow people to choose functions that give maximum flexibility as to how you use the features provided. If it offends some German sensibility then at least please give us stupid foreigners the option to have things behind us, that we are moving away from, be listed italicised or something. Sheesh.

Next up: one of the good things about this system is the range of entertainment (i.e. audio) options you have. However, unless you are in the display mode for the radio or iPod then the screen won't tell you what track or song is playing despite that fact that this data is now uniformly sent by satellite and terrestrial providers alike. I'd much rather see that information than, for example, be told today's date when on the navigation screens (my default setting.) But no, customizing even the contents of minor fields like the date thing isn't allowed.

Here's what I want: give me a web site I can log into and on which I can set up the display and vehicle settings that best fit my needs. Then have this configuration information loaded down to the car via the built-in cell phone connection. Simple, effective and highly-differentiated over the competition. The basics are there already, BMW themselves having demonstrated an integration with Google maps and destination & routing data getting sent to the navigation system from an Internet-connected PC.

Oh, and one other beef while I'm at it. Why can't I get a custom seat fitting rather than having to put up with the lowest-common denominator design that's optimized for a Mr or Mrs Average somewhere in Lower Saxony? Sure, there are 5 different axes around which you can move the various parts but that's a bit like having a park bench you can adjust: fine, but it's still basically very uncomfortable regardless of how you set the back rest or seat height. I'd happily pay $1,000 for a seat that I can sit in on a daily basis without feeling like I need to be booking in with a chiropractor every Friday just so I can walk upright again.

But then what do I know? I'm just a customer, after all, and not even a German one at that. No one asked before they rolled it out; no one has asked me after I took delivery either. And isn't that part of the problem? I'm tired of pointless surveys car companies here make you answer to see if the sales or service department gets paid, because they are worthless. Everyone knows that 5 is the only passing grade and in every case I've been coached by either the sales guy or the service chief ahead of time that unless you give the maximum score that they will be banished to a dealership in North Dakota selling Chevy Geos at best. No one - but no one - ever calls to ask how the car could be made better, what's missing from the package, likes and dislikes or anything at all to do with usability. And that's a huge opportunity wasted.

No comments: