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Hands-On With the Subaru Outback’s New Apple CarPlay

subaru-outback-wilderness-2022-01-apple-car-play-center-stack-display-interior 2022 Subaru Outback Apple CarPlay | Cars.com photo by Joe Bruzek

Up until recently, portrait-style touchscreens in new cars had a glaring flaw: Smartphone mirroring from Apple CarPlay and Android Auto was restricted to a small space sometimes barely larger than the phone itself. By contrast, landscape (or widescreen) formats could use more, or even all, of the screen’s real estate.

Subaru adopted a large, optional portrait-style touchscreen in its redesign of the 2020 Outback wagon and Legacy sedan, which originally constrained CarPlay and Android Auto to a small display size. But an update lets CarPlay use a larger portion of the 11.6-inch portrait touchscreen, though it doesn’t facilitate that for Android Auto (not the first time Android users play second fiddle). We recently sampled Subaru’s new CarPlay configuration in the 2022 Outback Wilderness Edition to see how well it works.

Related: Portrait Mode Employed: Subaru Updates Starlink for Apple CarPlay

Previously, Apple CarPlay only took up a 6.5-inch slot on Subaru’s 11.6-inch touchscreen (both measured diagonally) when the screen launched, so drivers weren’t getting the full effect of Subaru’s large, high-quality display when connecting their phones. That’s puny, given an iPhone 12 Pro Max has a 6.7-inch screen, and even an ordinary iPhone 12’s screen is 6.1 inches. Subaru and other automakers aren’t entirely at fault here because CarPlay’s design restrictions have mostly supported landscape-oriented displays, though that seems to be changing.

But Subaru’s update, implemented on new Subarus and available to owners post-purchase, allows CarPlay to operate in portrait orientation and take up a larger portion of the screen. CarPlay’s diagonal screen size increases 27% to 8.25 inches; that’s most noticeable when using navigation via CarPlay, where the now-portrait display gives a more natural view to show what’s ahead.

subaru-outback-wilderness-2022-03-apple-car-play-center-stack-display-interior 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness Edition Apple CarPlay | Cars.com photo by Joe Bruzek

It’s not full-screen, however, as the Outback houses other climate and vehicle functions on the screen even when CarPlay is in use. Individual icons for applications are larger, with more displayed in the home screen for less need to flip between pages of apps. On the downside, the menu and tile buttons at the bottom of CarPlay remain tiny and hard to pinpoint while driving. Still, I found the new arrangement saves the Outback and Legacy from the obligatory caveats for shoppers who want to use CarPlay.

Unlocking a larger display on a portrait-oriented touchscreen was a collaboration between Apple and Subaru, according to Charles Ballard, a product and technology spokesperson at Subaru. And unlocking that layout required an update to the head-unit software, which Subaru made available to Outback and Legacy owners via USB updates through dealerships in late 2020. The update was a running change at the factory for all 2021 and newer Outback and Legacy models, according to Ballard. In Spring 2022, Subaru will start pushing updates like this over the air so owners can receive them at home.

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The biggest knock, of course, is that this functionality is only with CarPlay. If you’re an Android Auto user, you’re left with the small display; Ballard said Subaru currently doesn’t have any plans to increase Android Auto’s display size.

subaru-outback-wilderness-2022-04-android-auto-center-stack-display-interior 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness Edition Android Auto | Cars.com photo by Joe Wiesenfelder

Subaru isn’t alone in changing the way phone mirroring works in portrait-style touchscreens, as the 2022 Ram 1500’s optional 12-inch vertical touchscreen will have a portrait-optimized display for CarPlay but not Android Auto. We reached out to a few other automakers that use portrait touchscreens, including Ford and Volvo, but at this time they haven’t announced whether theirs will use an updated display size for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. It doesn’t seem out of line, however, considering it’s now possible, and Subaru and Ram’s update works to great effect.

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