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Frankly, there are very few companies that can produce high quality digital user interfaces, so BMW's achievement here is significant. To put iDrive into a wider context, the world's richest software company (that'll be Microsoft) routinely fails to produce user interfaces as well thought through as iDrive. Indeed, with the latest iteration of iDrive in the E90 3 Series, it's not unusual to find yourself thinking "wouldn't it be handy if BMW had added X or Y feature to make things easier" only to subsequently realise it was there all along. Obvious examples here are the aforementioned programmable shortcut keys and the traditional rotational volume controller which incorporates the overall system mute button.
That's not to say it's perfect. We do have a few misgivings. For starters, the input wheel is set too far back for true comfort. In the 3 Series, its location is perhaps somewhat dictated by the placement of the gear selector. Despite that, we feel there is room for improvement here. The menu hierarchy is also occasionally erratic - the division of labour between the dedicated "Back" button and pushing left on the wheel is sometimes very confusing and unpredictable. What's more, BMW is guilty of unnecessarily burying some features too far out of reach, the specifics of which we'll come to momentarily.
As tested, our 330d also includes BMW's voice control interface. It's a pretty comprehensive system and supports recognition of everything from spoken phone numbers to addresses and contact information. In these guises, it works extremely well. It can also be used to navigate the overall iDrive interface, in which role it's significantly more hit and miss. As with all voice control systems, it's a case of choosing your battles carefully. Reserve your use to the areas where it's most effective and you'll find it a handy tool. Over reach and it will drive you slowly insane.
Finally, iDrive continues to eschew any form of touch-screen control. For the most part, that's a good thing. The interface is highly optimised for the wheel controller and the absence of touch has allowed BMW to bury the screen beneath a binnacle and pretty much eliminate glare. Nevertheless, just occasionally you will wish touch input was available, particularly when inputting address information into the navigation system. In this scenario, you must use the wheel to scroll around a circle of letters on screen and rather laboriously slot them in, one by one. However, thanks to the uber cleverness of ConnectedDrive, this BMW makes manually inputting addresses an extremely rare occurrence.