07/31/2012 05:24 EDT | Updated 08/01/2012 05:04 EDT

BMW ConnectedDrive: Testing Out How Smart A Car Can Get

Dave Pankew

Test Drive Subject: BMW ConnectedDrive, the car company's latest in-car entertainment and navigation system

Price: Approximately $225 per year, based on a one-year subscription to BMW Assist at $199 and a subscription to Nuance for voice-to-text from approximately $25 to $45 per year, according to The Globe and Mail

What It Is: BMW claims to have been the first carmaker to offer an in-dash navigation system all the way back in 1994 on its 7 Series. It was also arguably the first automaker to experience the backlash that comes with poor user interface design when it introduced the iDrive system in 2001. Nav systems today have trickled down to cars costing a fraction of the 7 Series these days, and iDrive has matured to become a competitive infotainment platform among the luxury set. BMW Canada unveiled their latest generation of its infotainment platform that includes so much more than text recognition, blazing fast navigation screens and a revised iDrive dial to control to it all.

Called BMW ConnectedDrive, the system introduced in early 2011 is now amplified by two huge improvements. The first are new graphics for the entire system that feature black backgrounds and atmospheric lighting effects, as well as a new view option for maps called "3D City Models" for select urban locations, including Toronto. The new graphics processor flies though screens and around maps meaning one of our former gripes is apparently gone forever.

The second improvement is the introduction of iDrive Touch, which is a touchpad interface like those first used on some Audi models that's embedded on the top of BMW's familiar iDrive rotary dial controller. Measuring 45mm in diameter, the touchpad can be used not only for inputting characters, but also features a pinch-to-zoom function when viewing maps and will soon have the ability to control a cursor when BMW makes a browser function available. iDrive Touch will launch this month in China, where the input's gesture control method works particularly well with that language's some 10,000 characters, and then will go on to appear in all other markets a year later.

SEE: Glamour shots of the BMW hanging out in partner Chartright's aircraft hangar for a demo in a very special ActiveHybrid7 with the new system on board:

Photo gallery BMW ConnectedDrive See Gallery

Trying It Out: One of the most impressive features we found is BMW's integration of a 4G LTE hotspot into the car, which accepts an LTE-capable SIM card, and it can broadcast those quick 4G data speeds to multiple devices via a local network. It can also be removed from the car and go mobile, providing internet access on-the-go with a 30-minute run-time on battery and the ability to go longer when plugged into a power source via USB.

BMW is also advancing the cause of voice recognition in cars with a new message dictation function that can transcribe casual speech and then send that text via text or email to any recipient in the driver's contacts. The system can also record voice memos up to two minutes in length, which can then be sent via email or transported out of the car via USB thumb drive to the driver's computer.

Our Thoughts: While we didn't have a chance to try out all the features on this prototype (like the full-featured iDrive Touch controller), this system looks to be the most comprehensive out on the market. Announcing Twitter and Facebook statuses has sure been a good way to pass the time in traffic, and those mapping graphics are truly fantastic.

The Warning: Of course, like any new gadget in your car, there must be a caveat about playing around with it while driving. The iDrive Touch, which lets you draw the letters when you're seeking out directions right on your steering wheel, is probably quite intuitive -- but don't try it for the first time on the highway. And let’s not forget the BMW Apps and LTE adapter currently only work with the iPhone.

Tips: BMW has pledged to provide a software development kit to third-party app developers, with the hope that popular smartphone app makers will produce vehicle-compatible versions of their apps for the BMW ConnectedDrive system. Other automakers have reached out to particular app developers already to get apps like Pandora and Stitcher on their systems, but this may be the first time an automaker is releasing an SDK and guidelines for any developer, including those for Android, to produce an app for its system. So keep an eye out for that extra added bonus on your iPhone.

Have a suggestion for a Test Drive? Tried something you loved or hated? Let us know on Twitter at @HuffPostCaLiv, or in the comments below.

SEE: The products we've tried out in the past:

Photo gallery Products We Have Tested See Gallery