"Hands-free" Bluetooth is bit of a misnomer since you usually need a free hand to press a button. Voice-activated Bluetooth systems aren't completely hands-free either, but because they can be controlled by spoken commands, they allow users to keep both hands on the wheel more often.
Two voice-activated Bluetooth speakerphones for under $100 arrived in stores recently, so we hit the road with them to see whether they're all talk or if they actually do the job. With basically no installation, both are a breeze to set up, and they can stream music as well as give you voice guidance from navigation apps. These hands-free units can even search for movies and sports scores or update your Twitter feed.
Moshi BTHF205T Bluetooth Hands-Free Car Kit ($79.99)
The stylishly compact Moshi BTHF205T has straightforward controls, including an oversize main multifunction button, volume button and on/off buttons. Mounting the Moshi is a no-brainer: A metal clip secures it to a sun visor. Strangely, when the unit is clipped on, the built-in microphone is positioned at the rear of the unit, facing the windshield. But you can flip it around if you find it helps you to be heard more clearly on calls.
The unit charges with a USB cable that adapts for use with a car's cigarette lighter. It paired almost instantaneously with an iPhone 3GS. No passcode was required and the phone automatically found the unit. Note that you need to turn on the Moshi hands-free kit after you have readied the phone for Bluetooth pairing. It doesn't work if you don't. The company provides a comprehensive "quick start" pocket guide to navigate you through all the basics so you can get up and running easily.
A handy feature is the "Call Favorite" speed-dial settings, but on many phones (like the iPhone 3GS), it can only be configured once you have received a call from that number, not from a number in a phone's address book. Once set up, Call Favorite is a quick way to make calls to up to eight favorites, including "Home," "Voicemail," "Office" and five number options.
On the Road
While driving, you can access up to 13 voice commands with a "Hello Moshi..." prompt, including "What Can I Say" (list of voice commands), "Pair" mode (puts the phone and unit in pairing mode), "Call Back" (calls the last incoming call) and "Redial" (calls the last number dialed). Overall, voice recognition was somewhat inconsistent. At times it would be dead-on accurate, responding immediately to the prompt. At other times, the unit would not respond at all, an issue resolved with a one-button push of the main button to initiate or terminate calls. The downside, of course, is that this requires you to take a hand off the wheel.
On incoming calls, contact names were pronounced reasonably well. Most of the time — but not all the time — the voice command "Answer" or "Ignore" worked. Callers also remarked that conversations over the Moshi unit were clear and easily understood.
Another plus with the unit is the ability to use the "Call Information" prompt to access Bing 411 for everything from traffic and restaurants to horoscopes. We asked for traffic information on a trip from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena and got a helpful update and two routing options. The unit also had good battery life. It gave the advertised six hours of talk time, which was helped by a power-saving feature that automatically turns off the unit when it has been in disconnection mode for about 10 minutes.
BlueAnt S4 ($99.99)
The BlueAnt S4 sports a sleek design with a reflective black surface, beveled edges and an overall size and shape reminiscent of the iPhone. Further riffing on the iPhone's cool factor, the unit also employs "swiping" and tapping to control features like volume adjustment and disconnecting calls. The ample speaker means that there are no problems with volume, and the S4 can pair to two phones simultaneously.
Charging is done via BlueAnt's notoriously short USB cable and only takes a few hours for a full tank, either with a PC connection or using the cigarette-lighter adapter. The unit is a whiz at managing contacts, in our case transferring nearly 1,000 contact names in under a minute. (Capacity is up to 2,000 for each paired phone.)
The BlueAnt S4 also has a battery-saving mode: A third setting on the on/off switch enables longer usages between charges by putting the unit into sleep mode after two minutes of inaction; tapping the multifunction button wakes the unit. Another sweet feature is the S4's ability to update address book contacts as they change via a simple voice command.
On the Road
BlueAnt bills the S4 as the "first true hands-free voice-controlled Bluetooth car speakerphone" and it's hard to argue with the hype. Other than sliding the power button on and the occasional tap to disconnect calls, it's truly a hands-free operation.
We were also impressed with the clarity and volume of the S4's speaker. Even with road noise and an open window, we had no problem hearing incoming calls. Because the unit supports Bluetooth audio, it allows you to listen to tunes on a compatible phone and even plays text-to-speech directions from a navigation application. And when you receive a call, the unit automatically mutes the music or nav directions.
The person you're speaking to might be little less impressed with the unit's performance, though. We got mixed reviews from callers. Some said the calls were clear; others said clarity was just OK, with a slight echo. But our phone service (thanks, AT&T!) might also be the culprit.
Like the Moshi unit, the S4 also integrates Bing 411. Using the voice command "Favorites" accesses sports, stock quotes and movie information. A call-waiting feature also allows you to switch between calls by tapping the volume plus and minus signs.
Another advanced feature is the integration of the Vlingo SafeReader app, which lets you use your voice to create text messages and update your Twitter and Facebook status. With an Android phone or BlackBerry you can even hear incoming SMS messages. That's something automakers are only beginning to offer, and with the BlueAnt S4, you don't have to buy a car to get it.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds these products for the purposes of evaluation.