Numerous cars are set up for hands-free cell phone calling (now required by law in five states—California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Washington plus the District of Columbia—and anticipated in others). And most auto companies have models that let you play your iPod through the car audio system and use its controls. But so far only the Sync system—developed by Microsoft for Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury models—lets you give voice commands for both your phone and music player.
"I haven't seen any other technology that is really competitive," says Wayne Cunningham, who reviews auto electronics as senior editor in charge of the Car Tech channel for tech product review Web site CNET.com.
Ford certainly is trying to press this advantage, especially with its small-car Focus. In a much-played ad, a young driver is trying to show off his Sync and his cool iPod selection. Instead he is mocked by his friend, who says "Play artist Michael Bolton" and starts a song by the curly-haired crooner. Ford says the attraction of Sync—plus gas mileage rated at 24 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway—has boosted sales of the Focus. But even if you're in the market for something bigger or more luxurious—from a Ford Explorer to a Mercury Sable—Sync typically comes as a $395 option. Ford says that about half its buyers opt for Sync where it's available. Beginning this fall with 2009 cars, almost all Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury models will offer Sync systems.
Getting the voice-command magic to happen, though, isn't always as simple as it sounds—as I found out while testing a Sync-equipped 2008 Mercury Sable. The Sync system should "pair" with any cell phone equipped with the Bluetooth feature for wireless connection. And indeed, it quickly connected to and copied the address book in my two-year-old Nokia. So I was saying "Call home" in no time at all and making it happen.
Things were more complicated with my iPod Mini. Having plugged in the Mini with its regular USB cable, I discovered that the Sync system was reading only about 10 songs of the 250 or so on the iPod. When I said, "Play Artist Madonna" it started a song by Lily Allen instead. Oh well, they both live in London. After consultation with the Sync help line, I discovered that iPod Minis like mine only work with Sync if connected with a special $50 cable made by a company called Keyspan. But this may have been an issue of outdated equipment. Cunningham and other reviewers say they have not had compatibility or voice recognition problems for their music players—including Zune and other makes besides iPods.
Let's take a look at your phone and music options—with Ford and beyond—if you need hands-free calling, better tunes in the car—or both.
Even if you aren't about to buy a new car anytime soon, you can find less expensive ways to add hands-free calling. You can buy a Bluetooth car kit for less than $150 that will clip to the visor and pair with your phone. The Motorola ROKR t505, for instance, usually sells for $99 or less on sale on the Internet. And the $120 Parrot PMK5800 lets you give voice commands for phone calls.
You can pick up a hands-free function as part of a hand-held GPS navigation unit. Models like the $350 Garmin Nuvi 660 and the $400 Magellan Maestro 4250, top-rated by Consumer Reports, also will make Bluetooth connections to your cell phone. With music players, if you own a Chrysler, Dodge, or Jeep model, you may be able to get a dealer-installed kit for about $175 that lets you play your iPod through the car's audio controls instead of trying to read the small iPod screen while you are driving. And if you have a cell phone that stores music, the Bluetooth connection will let your songs play through the Motorola kit or one of the GPS units.
Looking ahead, versions of the Sync technology are likely to spread. Microsoft has signed a contract with Korean auto makers Hyundai and Kia to use a similar system called Microsoft Auto. And Ford is planning improvements in its Sync product. By late 2008, cars with Sync will include a feature that will call 911 automatically in case of an accident and will send diagnostic reports about any problems with your car to your e-mail. Both these features compete with GM's OnStar without the subscription cost. If you already have an older car with Sync, it will cost you about $100 for the dealer to add the newer features. But PC-like ability to get the latest updates is a significant advance, says CNET's Cunningham. "These updates will mean that auto electronics can be improved much faster than in the past," he adds. "And I think the competition is going to have to respond to that."
Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."