MF Review: MINI Connected

It all started with that simple iPod connector that debuted in 2003 in BMWs and MINIs. The idea of connecting technology from outside the car and allowing it to power the infotainment center in the dash. Fast forward seven years and MINI has finally taken a giant leap with MINI Connected.

In fact leap isn’t even the right word. In reality Connected is a watershed moment in automotive technology for the simple fact that it takes software development out of seven year automotive cycles. And equally important it introduces app like mentality that allows for software development to focus on new features that are built on robust platform. That means MINI can tailor the Connected app and your car’s future functionality for whatever comes next in the world of technology. What’s going to be hot in 2013? We have no idea. But in 2013 MINI can update MINI Connected and have it there ready for you.

Or you can also think of it this way; Connected allows MINI related functionality to be driven by your iPhone and then displayed on MINI’s new gorgeous hi-res display all while being controlled by the center joystick. It takes the phone out of your hand and makes the car the interface for your life.

At the recent press launch of the 2011 MINI range, we had a chance to walk-through MINI Connected with BMW Senior Engineer Robert Passaro (one of the lead engineers of MINI Connected). Robert not only talked us through each feature but gave us some background on the technology and why it was built. The idea (as mentioned above) is all about decoupling the car from the technology.

But we’ll let Robert walk you through the system. Here’s a quick video of Robert and myself going through Connected. (video after the break)

It was interesting to hear from him first hand about the MINI Connected delay for the US market. The official reason is that MINI was waiting to finalize the additional features (listed below) before they brought the option to their largest market. MINI didn’t think Connected was as compelling as it needed to be with just we radio, RSS and Twitter.

For the record here’s the current list of features on the European app (which will be updated when the US version comes out):

  • Web radio
  • RSS news reader
  • Twitter client (with auto populated tweets optional that know location, temp and time)

And now here’s the full list of features that the US app will have (combined with the list above):

  • Google local search
  • Google send to car
  • Dynamic music (creates music based on your driving and what your doing (ie turn signal, acceleration, cornering)
  • “Minimizer” (tells you how to optimize the way you drive for better efficiency)
  • (original feature) Web radio
  • (original feature) RSS news reader
  • (original feature) Twitter client (with auto populated tweets optional that know location, temp and time)

Now that we’ve talked about the technology and what we’ll have when the US version of the app and option is released, let’s talk about how well MINI Connected actually works.

Of the three the RSS reader is the one that most cries out for either a larger screen or a different system interface. Because of the space used for the MINI infotainment interface navigating through the text (or even choosing the car to read the text) can be a little cumbersome.

Twitter on the other hand is extraordinarily simple. It allows your to choose between posting your own update or choosing from three canned tweets that contain GPS, speed or temperature data to creating something vaguely compelling (ie I’m motoring on I94 and it’s 54 degrees).

By far the most interesting of the featuring in 1.0 is the web radio. The system (much like iTunes radio option) allows you to choose one of thousands of web radio stations all over the world. Even MINI has a handful of stations from Europe that stream music wirelessly. It’s incredibly compelling and would kill the need for Sirius in my next car.

All the functionality of course relies on your iPhone’s connection to broadband data. But what does this mean for owners without unlimited data plans? We spoke to MINI about this and based on some quick calculations they’ve done, even if you used MINI Connected to stream video five days a week for two hours a day (a pretty long commute) you’d only reach around 1GB. AT&T for example has two plans; one with 250MB and another with 2GB. Clearly the 2GB will be a good idea with MINI Connected. Of course that doesn’t count many iPhone owners who are still grandfathered in with old unlimited plans.

The app currently supports five languages and will be expanding in 2011. And speaking of expanding MINI didn’t give anything away in regards to what platform is next. However if we had to guess (from reading body language) it would likely have to be some form of Android. Of course what form and what flavor of Android it’ll be compatible with is anyone’s guess. After that we’d guess a stripped down version would be available for Blackberry.

But there was one more technology we got to play with at the 2011 MINI press launch; iPod out. Ever since that first iPod/car connection in 2003 automakers have been struggling to create a way to control iPods and now iPhones. To answer this MINI and Apple have worked together to create a standard called iPod out. The technology enables the MINI Connected system to display the familiar iPod navigation menu in the vehicle’s main center speedo display, and control the music playback features in the iPhone, the iPod touch and the latest generation iPod nano, using the vehicle’s controls.

The interface is designed by Apple and because it’s symbiotic, it’s very fast. Better yet, features can be added by Apple courtesy of updates to the iOS. It’s the ultimate way to get your iPhone or iPod playing through your MINI.

MINI Connected is a technology that is good and about to get much better. It’s an automaker ceding control to allow for better technology, more integration and future proofing of the cars we buy. For MINI it’s an easy way to always make sure the customer has the entertainment and functionality they want. For us it’s an easy way to always have the latest technology in our cars. It’s a classic win win and we can’t wait to see it hit the US market-place.

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