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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
PROBLEM:
I'm always listening to music or podcasts when I drive. I use my iPhone 5, but there's never really been a good, convenient, affordable solution to this. Bluetooth's theoretically perfect, but the sound quality's never been up to my standards. Auxiliary sounds great, but you lose any and all steering wheel integration. USB interfaces with the wheel and sounds the best, but nobody really likes this:




A solution does exist for this: spec.dock It solves the problem beautifully... for $184.00. There had to be a better answer.

...meet ELEGANT DIY SOLUTION:
I started looking for places within the car to route a hidden USB cable to connect to my Mediabridge. The end connector needed to be easily accessible to quickly connect my iPhone when getting in & out the car, and reasonably secure to protect my phone. To my delight, the inside of the armrest was (almost suspiciously) perfect! It was rubberized, secure, convenient, and the perfect size:




With only a little bit of cutting, the result is a flawless, solid, almost OEM-looking iPhone dock inside your armrest:




This DIY is EXTREMELY forgiving. I was very worried when I began that I'd make a mess of the armrest interior. But the construction is such that the rubber lining covers up any & all drilling imperfections, and also puts plenty of tension to hold the connector rock-solid. "Perfect every time." The only other external cut you'll make is invisible after reassembly.

If you've ever considered a spec.dock, are in any way disappointed by Bluetooth, or you're just sick of putting your $600 phone in a cupholder: consider this DIY. I've been driving with it for about 6 weeks, and it frankly feels as natural as anything you'd pay BMW to install.




TOOLS:
  • A cable for your phone, to live inside the car*
  • Flat-head and phillips-head screwdrivers
  • Drill and a smallish drill bit (3/16-3/8-inch). The exact size doesn't matter too much, as you'll find out
  • A large pair of pliers
  • X-Acto knife, small saw, steak knife, machete: anything to cut thin plastic. There's some thin internal plastic ribbing in the arm rest. You'll need to make a ~1-inch long cut into it for cable clearance. You won't see this surgery at all, so don't worry about making it pretty
  • Optional: an awl for poking
  • A few hours/a lazy Sunday
(* Note: Buy an official Apple Lightning cable. Cheap knockoff cables lack an official authentication chip and will throw this error every time. Plus: official cables have a very smooth, slim Lightning connector, which really helps this DIY. Buy "OEM." Apple asks $19, but official cables pop up on "daily deal" sites all the time. I bought my official 3-foot/1-meter cable for $8, shipped.)


COMPATIBILITY:
  • I did this procedure with my iPhone 5, but it should work fine with any Lightning connector-based iPhone or iPod (including: iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, 5th gen. iPod touch).
  • Older, 30-pin connector iPhones/iPods will NOT work. I don't even think there'd be enough room inside the armrest tray (you'd have to drill out 4x the amount of plastic). You may get it to work, but I do not recommend it.
  • Android phones: maybe. Lots of these phones physically won't even fit inside the armrest. The small, smooth, symmetrical Apple Lightning connector makes for a firm hold with very little drilling, whereas microUSB connectors are all over the place. You might get it to work, but good luck.

FINAL NOTES:
  • Though it looks 100% clean, this is still a destructive mod. The two affected pieces can be repurchased online for as little as $30.
  • Some people are still upset about Apple switching from the legacy 30-pin to Lightning. I'll argue to anyone that this was a good thing, but rest assured that Lightning is very good, and was a long-term investment for Apple will probably outlast you driving your E46.
  • Cop-out: My 1999 328i is an original run E46 (built Nov 1998, 15 years old!). It's been around for a while, but I've only had it a year. Lots of the faux-leather covering on the plastic had come off when I got it, and there were plenty of scratches. Forgive me, I did not do it.

Let's get started!







Start in the backseat. Open the rear ashtray cover and pull out the ashtray and insert.




Under the ashtray you will find two plastic screws and grommets. Lightly unscrew these. There's not much holding them in.




With the screws out you'll be able to remove the entire roller assembly. Pull out the cable on the right-hand side to fully remove




Unscrew the two metal screws under the roller assembly




You'll now be able to remove the entire rear trim assembly, revealing the armrest springs on the side. Route the ashtray cable out the side of the assembly to fully remove




The rear of the armrest should resemble this




Make your way to the front seats. Remove whichever insert you have from the center console. The cup holder/coin tray removes as shown




Move forward. You now have to remove the shifter boot. There are a few options:
Manual transmissions: I believe you simply pry up the leather boot around the gear lever.
Steptronic transmissions: I believe you have to pry up the panel around the leather boot
Older, non-step autos (like me): You'll need to remove the shifter handle to remove the shifter plate. The procedure is simple: grab the handle and pull like hell (pictured). Advice:
  • You don't have to hold the shifter button
  • It helps to straddle the lever and pull with both hands
  • Sometimes they're REALLY STUCK. Pull harder
  • Put the transmission in neutral for a better angle (Put the parking brake on!!)
  • You'll likely hit the rearview mirror, and your chin




Automatic transmissions: pry the shifter cover up with a screwdriver




Regardless of transmission, you'll end up with a view similar to this. (Automatics: feel free to put the lever back in and shift back into park.)




All that for these two screws. Remove them.




Remove the parking brake boot. Put your fingers under the edge and pry up. Extend it as far up as you can.




Now you can remove the entire center console. Grab the sides and pull it straight back a few inches.




My 15-year old plastic hasn't held up very well.




Last step for this is to remove the door lock/hazard switch. Pop it up from underneath and unplug the cable.




Remove the entire center console assembly up and through the parking brake. The more you engage the lever the easier it is to remove. Be sure the ashtray cable n te rear does not catch.




Put it in a safe place.




Be careful of these clips under the rear ashtray. They're needed for reassembly, but mine had long-since split in half. Keep track of them.




Back in the front: move/tilt the seats back to reveal two springs (either side). Twist them slightly with your pliers to remove. (Don't worry. They're VERY easy to put back in)




One of the springs




With the springs removed, using your finger, pull out the the two plugs from either side. (Note the easily misplaced rear-ashtray clips and rear ashtray cable at the top of the image)




The armrest cover can now be removed




Tilt the armrest straight up and unclip this trim piece




Tilt the armrest back down and remove these two trim pieces (either side). My 15-year old plastic again didn't hold up and these almost fell off. Yours will probably need to be unclipped.




Pull the armrest out. I put these two plastic covers back in for safekeeping. Let's move inside.
 

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·


The bottom half of the armrest, with the rubber insert, on my kitchen counter.




Flip the armrest upside-down and unclip this small tab




Run a screwdriver/guitar pick/your fingernails along the edge and undo the clips holding the rubber insert in. I recall 5-6 (quite secure) clips.




The bottom armrest and rubber insert. Again, an iPhone 5 fits perfectly.




Start with the lower armrest piece. There are two large plastic ribs. You need to cut a large (~3/4-inch) channel through the righthand one. Use the image as reference. It doesn't matter how you do this, so long as it resembles the image above. (I used a drill to make a series of holes, broke the plastic between them with snips, and smoothed it all out with a file.)




Place your iPhone in the tray, and note where you want the connector to be




It's time to drill. Make the hole the same size as the white plastic Lightning connector itself. Notes on drilling:
  • This is the hardest part of this mod. There's no real good angle to get at the plastic. Be patient.
  • DO NOT drill through the rubber side!!! Drill through the plastic side in the back. This 1) aligns the hole and 2) makes the end result look seamless
  • I found that drilling between the two outside plastic ribs was nearly perfect for alignment.
  • When you get through the plastic you'll feel the rubber layer. It will stretch. STOP DRILLING HERE and switch to an awl or knife.
  • DO NOT cut a nice, round, Lightning-sized piece out of the rubber!!! Instead, just cut a small slit (see second photo). The rubber will stretch, help anchor the connector, and hide any imperfections in drilling. The stretchy rubber is key to this looking good!



Before you try the fit, thread the Lightning cable through this convenient slot in the lower armrest.




My photography suffered here. Keep drilling and cutting and trimming until you can push the Lighting connector all the way through the hole/slit. Pull it COMPLETELY through until just the cord is threaded in the hole.
Now here's the trick: push the connector back through the hole. It'll be much harder this time. Here's what's happening: the stretched rubber layer is being pushed into the hole, rolling up BETWEEN the plastic and connector. This tight layer of rubber does two things:
  1. Puts a lot of friction onto the connector, creating a stable, solid hold without glue
  2. Covers up the rough edges on the drilled plastic, making the hole look clean and professional
    At this point, if you like, you can apply glue, Sugru, silicon, etc to the back of the connector for added solidity. I've been using this mod for 6 weeks without glue with no issues.



You can see now why I said don't worry about the drilling. The tray looks perfect, and I wasn't even following a guide.




Once you have the Lightning connector how you want it, it's time to snap everything together. It should resemble this.




This part's a little tricky. You have to thread the cable through the channel you cut earlier, pull out the slack, and snap the two armrest halves together. (You'll see why you the channel had to be cut so deep. The top half has another rib that comes down, which would slice the cable in half!)




Eventually you'll get the halves together. When you do, the armrest'll look completely normal, apart from the innocent-looking Lightning connector! The cable should exit out the convenient slot.




During reassembly I realized I needed to cut another small slot. I recommend NOT cutting this slot out of the small semi-circle plastic piece. Cut it the same armrest insert. No reason to mar another bit of trim.




Reassembly the opposite of disassembly! The springs are extremely easy to put back in. The cable should be like so




Push the USB connector through this convenient hole by the shifter




Pull the cable through. It's perfectly safe in my automatic, but I don't know if manual transmissions have this kind of empty space, or if it'll tangle up the gear lever. Consider running the cable under the outside trim of the footwell if you're concerned.




Pull the cable through another convenient hole under the ashtray. My ashtray was already gone (nonsmoker). This compartment is my little connectivity center. The female USB and Aux connectors from my Mediabridge run here.




All done! This is one of the best things I've ever done to my car. The end result is looks completely invisible, clean, and professional.

Before doing this I was a little worried about the convenience. What if I want to change the song? What if I get a call? I'd felt a lot of regret after buying a Mediabridge too. This mod has eliminated all worries I'd had about it, and completely justified my Mediabridge purchase. The phone still connects via Bluetooth, so I have total voice control from my steering wheel ("Play [artist, album, song, playlist]", "Call [person]", "Get me directions to [location]"). It's wonderful. And if I get a call, the Mediabridge automatically switches to Bluetooth and shows caller ID on the radio! Press the steering wheel to answer/reject, and the music plays again when you're done! It looks so natural, the uninformed just think my BMW has really, really good phone integration :)

If you have a Mediabridge or similar, I really, REALLY recommend this mod to you. It's so incredibly convenient, sounds so good, and is so cheap/easy to do. It just takes time.
 

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Kudos on the well documented install. Two questions:

1. Is the weight of the entire phone being held up by that lighting adapter? If so, over time I would expect this could cause problems with your iphone..

2. Does the MediaBridge by default, work with the bmw steering wheel (track up/down, answer/end call, siri), or need additional accessories to fully work?

I'm asking because I believe over at BavAuto their depiction of using siri was to initiate thru the home button - not the steering wheel.

Thanks!
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 · (Edited)
1. Is the weight of the entire phone being held up by that lighting adapter? If so, over time I would expect this could cause problems with your iphone..
In my case, yes, the iPhone is being completely supported by the connector, but that's just how mine ended up. I don't see why, using this guide, one couldn't angle the connector in any way they see fit. In any case, the iPhone 5 weighs so little I don't foresee any problems. Nothing seems loose or different after six weeks of heavy use. There's very little tension on the connector in practice.

2. Does the MediaBridge by default, work with the bmw steering wheel (track up/down, answer/end call, siri), or need additional accessories to fully work?

I'm asking because I believe over at BavAuto their depiction of using siri was to initiate thru the home button - not the steering wheel.
I believe many years ago that was the case. Today, a Mediabridge interfaces beautifully with my steering wheel and any BMW steering wheel, without any additional configuration or accessories. Up/down changes tracks, and the hands-free button triggers Siri as well as answers/ends calls. It works so well that I never see the need to open the armrest, or even touch my phone!

You do, however, have to enable Bluetooth on your iPhone. Your Mediabridge will switch to the Bluetooth input automatically if a call comes through or you trigger Siri, but it automatically switches back to USB immediately afterward. One of its many little quirks.

Kudos on the well documented install.
Thanks!
 

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Good work man! I did the same except my satellite radio receiver is there
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 · (Edited)

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This one. It's halved in price since I bought it, which is depressing http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0078S8T8W/

The March 19, 2013 review by Andrew is mine. I keep it semi-updated. Be sure you read that before you buy. It's far from a perfect product. Shockingly, they still sporadically release firmware updates for it, and frankly I'm shocked they still update this thing.
Hey thanks for the info and thanks for keeping the review updated. I love people like you! Haha. Anyway that thing sounds great to me as I'm most interested in using my iPhone via usb or aux and not over Bluetooth.
 
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