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BMW OnlineThe next major part of ConnectedDrive is BMW Online. This is the most obviously "webby" part of the platform. Think of it as a mini BMW-branded web portal with limited functionality and you'll get the idea. It opens with a four-day local weather forecast based on location data from the GPS system. Below that there's a menu of web services, including News, Google Search and Weather.
News is a lot like a WAP portal on a cheap mobile phone. Sections include Top News, UK News, Sports, Business and Entertainment. Every section has a selection of ten news stories, each with a single, small image above a column of text. It's functional enough, but hardly comprehensive. If you were stuck in the car with no other means of communication, it would be better than nothing.
The Weather section pretty much speaks for itself other than the fact that it can also tell you the weather at the target destination programmed into the navigation system, which is moderately useful.
Google SearchThe most interesting part of BMW Online, therefore, is Google Search. It's not a full search function, more of a customised local search incorporating mapping. You start by typing in key words associated with a point of interest (this must be done via the iDrive wheel, voice input is not supported here). The system then spits out a list of geographically relevant results based on either your current position or your chosen destination. A Google-served map is also generated with pointers for each location just like the standard web interface. Having chosen one, you push the location data into the navigation system and off you go. Oh, and the results also attach small thumbnail images of the location if available.
Essentially, it's a glorified, Google-branded online points-of-interest database. Except that it kind of sucks. For starters, it's bloody slow. Frankly, the sluggishness of the Edge network connection makes using any of the online services pretty painful - even moving about the menus seems to take aeons. But Google Search is particularly tedious. Making matters worse, the results list is usually pretty baffling. The problem is the lack of detail. Search, say, for a Waitrose supermarket and you will be treated with a long list of apparently identical one or two word entries. You have to click through to the entry page to get more information, which is the last thing you want to do given how long it takes anything to load.
Even then, the full information pages are often patchy and incomplete while the Google Maps interface looks like an extremely rushed afterthought. It's the only part of the iDrive interface that lacks polish. What's more, we found the data to be unreliable, sometimes navigating us to locations that were either out of date or flat wrong.
Ultimately, Google Search is nowhere near reliable enough to be regularly useful. Surprising to say, but BMW's alternative iDrive POI database, though more limited, is more reliable, easier to use and generally a better bet. At best Google Search is an interesting first-gen system, but only because it hints at the possible capabilities of future implementations.
Finally, it's worth noting that all the online services including Google Search are only accessible when the car is stationary. While we appreciate the safety issues involved, we think some kind of override that allows passengers to use the system on the move will eventually be essential.