What is infotainment?

Infotainment explained: sat-nav, hands-free phone and radio in one

Simon Ostler
Sep 27, 2021

If you've ever read a car review, chances are you'll have come across the word 'infotainment', and you may have wondered what it means. Well, the word itself is a mash up of the words 'information' and 'entertainment' and is broadly used to describe any form of user-interface present inside a car.

An infotainment system will normally include features such as the car's radio, or sat-nav if there is one, displayed on a screen normally mounted in the centre of the dashboard. It can also be used to display all manner of useful information about your car such as fuel economy or even what's behind you when you're reversing. The most common format for a car's infotainment these days is a touchscreen, but there are other examples which make use of touchpads or fancy scroll wheels or even voice control.

In-car infotainment systems are everywhere these days, even cheaper models such as the latest Ford Fiesta or Vauxhall Corsa are fitted with touchscreens and numerous media functions. If you're a tech enthusiast and you spend a great deal of time with your phone and your tablet, chances are you'll be keen to drive a car with this kind of kit included.

Quite why it's referred to as 'infotainment' is a bit of a mystery, though, because there's nothing overly entertaining about what it offers, so here at BuyaCar we tend to refer to any on-board software as a media system or media display. But, for the sake of this article, we'll continue to refer to it as good-old infotainment.

Common features of infotainment systems

Alongside the most common infotainment features such as sat-nav and digital radio, some manufacturers like Mini and Ford offer systems that will read out text messages that you receive or even Facebook updates. With that you're given the option of replying or liking the updates by dictation, using voice control.

There are also good number of infotainment systems that recognise phone-pairing services such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which cast your smartphone's display onto the dashboard, so you can operate your phone easily and legally through the car's display. It also means you can use apps such as Spotify and Waze when driving.

In higher-spec models, the infotainment system can also be deployed as a reversing camera, which can be extremely useful if you're driving a car with limited rearward visibility.

Other uses for infotainment

The amount of information readily available to the driver is quite extraordinary really. Trip computers will analyse fuel consumption, while the numerous on-board sensors will measure tyre pressures to spot any punctures or general deflation. The system can also provide useful updates on your car's general health, alerting you to any problems that may arise before those dreaded warning lights start appearing. It will also remind you when a scheduled service is due.

Some infotainment systems will also allow you to also alter certain performance characteristics of your car, too. In more upmarket models, you'll have a range of driving modes to choose from that allow you to choose how firm the suspension is, or how responsive the steering is. This means you can personalise the feel of your car depending on your mood, with soft and comfy settings for cruising down a motorway, or firmer, sporty suspension for when you decide to have a little fun on a twisty road.

Likewise, there are settings for how a car’s engine will perform. Meaning you can select a lower power mode when you are driving at slow speeds, or looking to improve your fuel economy, or you can switch to a sportier setting for more power or even more exhaust noise.

Infotainment screens

Screen size and resolution differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, but the more you spend, the bigger, better and brighter a display you will generally get. Some of the cheaper infotainment systems can also be a bit fiddly to use with awkward and temperamental touch controls.

Touchscreen systems are the most common, but the infotainment system can also be split across two screens, one in the centre of the dashboard, and a second one behind the steering wheel. This is often known as a digital dashboard display, and can be customised alongside the central screen to display a wider range of information.

You'll often be able to display navigation instructions right in front of your eyes to stop you having to look away from the road to figure out your next turning.

Controlling infotainment screens

Navigating through all the features listed above is no easy feat. Carmakers have come up with many different ways to make it easy for motorists to use, one of the best systems is BMW’s iDrive being one of the best on offer. It uses a rotating knob to help move through the system. Mazda also used a rotary control system. Other systems, use track pads, gesture control, buttons, while Lexus makes use of a track pad-like design.

The most common way of controlling an infotainment system is with a touchscreen, and this simply requires you to touch the screen with your finger in order to navigate through the system. This can be quicker than using a track pad or a scroll wheel, but it does also require you to be very accurate with your touches, which can be distracting and cause you to look away from the road for longer than is safe.

In that respect, the safest way to control an infotainment system is to use voice control. This is a feature found in the likes of Mercedes' MBUX infotainment system. Voice control allows you to talk to your car, using pre-set voice commands to get your car to do or display certain functions. In the case of MBUX, the system will also learn your voice and your preferences over time, which makes for a very streamlined and convenient experience from behind wheel - no prodding at hard-to-see buttons on a dim touch screen.


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