Auto Tech: Subaru StarLink Infotainment System automotive technology subaru auto articles auto tech
Subaru Starlink smartphone app. Click image to enlarge

Article and photos by Jacob Black

It’s no secret that Subaru’s infotainment controls and human machine interface have lagged behind other manufacturers in recent years. The simple fact is that radios, multimedia systems and telephony systems weren’t a priority for the marque that prides itself on rugged, tough, versatile capability and all-wheel-drive handling.

Unfortunately for Subaru, those systems were a focus for their competitors. And thus the frank admission during the launch of the 2015 Subaru Outback that Subaru was subpar in this area. Was. Not anymore.

The system unveiled in the Outback is a dramatic improvement.

Basic Overview

In base trim, you get a 6.2-inch touchscreen with four hard buttons and two knobs for volume and tuning as well as a 3.5-inch TFT screen nestled in the instrument cluster. In top spec there’s a seven-inch touchscreen with six “pseudo-button” touchpoints and two volume knobs, plus a five-inch TFT screen in the instrument cluster.

All the usual stuff is there in both models – aux/USB input, a CD player, satellite radio – but the upgraded model also gets a micro-SD card slot. Both systems have an integrated back-up camera, but only the seven-inch system gets navigation.

The 6.2-inch system has audio, phone, apps and setting options on its home screen. The 7.0-inch system also has navigation, and vehicle information screen. The basic system used tabs to separate menu items under the settings screen, while the advanced system uses icons to access submenus. The top-spec system also allows split-screen functionality.

Auto Tech: Subaru StarLink Infotainment System automotive technology subaru auto articles auto tech Auto Tech: Subaru StarLink Infotainment System automotive technology subaru auto articles auto tech
Subaru Starlink system versions. Click image to enlarge

The smaller and simpler version is slightly more responsive and faster than the upgraded version. Both systems are elegant and attractive, with customizable background colours for the fashion-conscious set. Gone is the rickety old radio or tiny screen wedged awkwardly into the dashboard – this system is among the best-looking around.

Some things take two presses where other systems take just one, sacrificing quick access to multiple functions for a cleaner look and feel but paradoxically, that actually has made it easier to use.

If the icons and buttons look familiar to you, it might be because Subaru shares the same basic operating system and software as the system used by Toyota with some key differences. For example, the Starlink mobile app.

Auto Tech: Subaru StarLink Infotainment System automotive technology subaru auto articles auto tech
Auto Tech: Subaru StarLink Infotainment System automotive technology subaru auto articles auto tech
Auto Tech: Subaru StarLink Infotainment System automotive technology subaru auto articles auto tech
Auto Tech: Subaru StarLink Infotainment System automotive technology subaru auto articles auto tech
Subaru Starlink Apps menu, Phone menu, Bluetooth pairing screen, Quick Message presets. Click image to enlarge

Starlink App

Subaru also offers the Starlink smartphone-linked app that allows you to review news, weather, your calendar and play music from the internet via your smartphone. The data is transferred through your data plan on your phone, and the information is transferred to Subaru’s screen. It involves downloading the free Starlink app to your phone, but once the initial syncing is complete, it is surprisingly easy to use and fast.

More apps will be made available for Starlink as time goes by.

There is a nanny-state warning screen which can be programmed to not appear again. Starlink app functions are accessed via “Apps” in both systems.

Bluetooth Telephony

I have been vocal in the past about Subaru’s sketchiness when trying to link some phones to their cars – but in the new version I had no issues at all. The system grants easy access to the Bluetooth setup menu via the Phone or Settings menus, and adding/deleting a device can all be done via the touchscreen. You do still have to initiate the pairing process from your phone which is a shame as many manufacturers have now sorted out car-to-phone pairing, but the system is fast to connect and up to six phones can now be stored.

You can also connect your phone by voice – but not while you’re driving. The touchscreen method is faster.

Both systems share the same setup and pairing format, but the upgraded version gives access to text-to-voice functionality as well. It will not only read messages aloud to the driver, but allow you to respond via 15 preloaded messages like “LOL” or “On my way”.

Ergonomics

Because Subaru has opted for a cleaner look on the dashboard you do still need to get to most secondary functions with two button presses – but in the base system it’s likely you’ll want to leave it on the audio display most often anyway. Leaving a volume knob and a tuning knob, as well as two buttons for seek means the traditional user experience of the radio is not interfered with, and it’s fast. Tuning and volume knobs seem always to respond better than sliders and touch because you can control the pace better. Want to turn down the radio quickly? Turn the knob quickly! Want to step from Eighties on Eight to Nineties on Nine on Sirius? Turn the knob just one click, slowly. Want to leap from Nineties on Nine to Backspin (Channel 46) – spin the tuning knob fast.

Connect with Autos.ca