With the proliferation of hands-free laws, Bluetooth is quickly becoming the must-have option on new cars. If you don't have Bluetooth built into your current ride, the technology is also available in a variety of aftermarket Bluetooth flavors: hardwired units, speakerphones, headsets and via car stereos and portable navigation systems.
When we set out to test a variety of the most popular aftermarket Bluetooth types, we found that there's something for everybody. And we discovered that with prices coming down — and the feature count going up — there's no excuse anymore for taking your hands off the wheel to phone home.
Hardwired Unit: Parrot MKi9200
Pros: Best-of-class noise cancellation, accurate voice recognition
Cons: Potentially complex installation for advanced sound systems
Smaller is better when it comes to aftermarket Bluetooth devices, especially in autos, where the goal is often to keep a low-key look while still offering a large feature set. Throw in hands-free functionality and you really have a road warrior. The Parrot MKi9200 hardwired unit delivers on all three, starting with a 2.4-inch high-resolution TFT color screen that provides the type of rich, clear graphics and icons you can check at a glance, whether you are in telephony mode and displaying caller ID (including photo) or using its music chops to check out album art or track names.
Though the unit is designed to work with phones from multiple manufacturers, it's at its best with the plug-and-play compatibility it shares with the iPhone, including an auto-pair feature. (When we tested it with an iPhone 3G, it immediately synced contacts and music without the need to input a password or scroll through lists of devices.) Once paired, the unit continued to impress with features like voice-dialing (if supported by your phone), audible contact names and menu items and a generous settings menu, including an audio EQ.
The MKi9200 is musically talented as well. It includes a cable to connect an iPod, USB device or thumb drive or any portable player via an aux input. It also accommodates Bluetooth audio for wireless music streaming. But one of the most significant features is an RF remote control that can be mounted on a car's steering wheel so your hands never have to leave it to make and receive calls, skip through playlists or even independently control the volume of the car's stereo.
Portable Navigation Device: Magellan RoadMate 3065 Commuter
Pros: Free lifetime traffic alerts
Cons: Tinny audio
Magellan has made a name for itself with its feature-filled RoadMate series of portable navigation systems. With the recently introduced 3065 Commuter, Magellan ups the ante by adding full Bluetooth hands-free calling capability as well as some pretty sweet features.
On the navigation side of the equation, Magellan has the platform down. A generous 4.7-inch screen offers easy access to nifty features like the One Touch screen, where you can assign multiple points of interest (POIs) for one-touch route calculation, a menu option to reference more than 6 million POIs and a deep settings menu. The unit also comes with free lifetime traffic alerts and a traffic wake-up feature that automatically delivers traffic data before you hit the road.
Syncing the unit with an iPhone's address book that had more than 1,000 contacts took less than a minute. The Bluetooth icon is easily accessed on the home screen and opens all your go-to features, including call home, redial, address book, dial pad, speed dial, a handy call log and the voice-dial icon (only iPhones with 3.1 firmware and Android OS units with 2.1 firmware support the voice-dial feature). In Bluetooth mode, the Commuter is an overall solid performer, with one minor speed bump: audio quality. Sound came over as tinny and it needed more volume at highway speeds.
Speakerphone: Scosche SolCHAT
Pros: Solar powered; voice-announced caller ID
Cons: Outgoing audio sounds boxy
With green-energy efficiency on everyone's mind, it's nice to see a clever application of solar power that's also user-friendly. The Scosche SolCHAT hands-free speakerphone allows you to carry one less cable by integrating a small solar panel on the back of the unit. Different mounts are supplied with the unit so that it can be affixed to a windshield or visor to soak up the sun's rays.
The coolest thing about the SolCHAT is that it actually works. In a week's worth of testing in sunny Southern California, we never once had to plug it in, even on the initial charge, which was supplied by about four hours of direct sunlight. (And for those living in cloudy climes, power can also be supplied by a USB charger or car charger.) With fairly consistent sun, the unit has remained charged ever since.
The unit performed as advertised, auto-pairing instantly with an iPhone 3G and syncing in two minutes with a contact list, which enabled precise voice-announced caller ID — delivered by a ladytron with a sultry British voice, no less. Controls are simple, consisting of a multifunction button, a mode button and volume controls, but they allow for a respectable feature set, including the ability to switch among multiple phone calls, five language options and a privacy mode that lets you use the unit like a regular handheld phone.
Headset: BlueAnt T1
Pros: Voice dialing; voice-announced caller ID
Cons: No car charger; short charging cable
The BlueAnt T1 headset is a little wonder that makes you ponder how so much technology can be shoehorned into such a small, 0.35-ounce device. But the real innovation here is a truly hands-free experience, thanks to both voice-dialing and voice-announced caller ID that leave those mitts unoccupied for better things, like staying at the 10 and 2 positions on your steering wheel.
Setup of the unit is simple and straightforward. Charging is via an unusually short (12-inch) USB cable with a wall adapter, with a three-hour charge giving you six hours of talk time. But if you run out of power on the road, you're stuck: There's no car charger. Out of the box, the T1 impressed us with almost immediate pairing and rapid transfer of contacts, aided by an automated setup attendant who guides you through the process via voice instructions.
As previously noted, users of older iPhones and Android OS smartphones can load contacts to enable voice-announced caller ID, but voice-dialing is not supported. But whether you have voice-dialing or not, the headset does give you smart features via a multifunction button and volume controls, with additional functionalities that let you answer and reject calls, connect two phones simultaneously and put an active call on hold while you receive another call.
The T1 boasts BlueAnt's new Wind Armour Technology, and we found that it enabled shout-free open-window chats in city traffic. Call recipients also remarked on the clarity of the sound, thanks to the unit's dual microphones and wind-suppressing technology. We also liked extra touches like three sizes of swappable earbuds and removable silicon sleeves to protect against those occasional fumbles. It also does Bluetooth audio.
Head Unit: Alpine CDE-103BT
Pros: Multiple settings for a customized experience; great audio clarity for caller and call recipient
Cons: Some music functions need proprietary cable; software upgrades via PC only
Alpine offers full hands-free telephony capability in several of its head units, which puts you in the driver seat if you're looking to upgrade your car's stereo. The single-DIN CDE-103BT receiver has music in its DNA and lets users play a mash-up of modes, including CDs as well as MP3, WMA and AAC files. The Alpine unit is also compatible with portable music players via a USB port and auxiliary input. If you want to play music from your iPod or iPhone via the head unit, you will need to purchase a separate Alpine cable.
Bluetooth technology is supplied by Parrot — a definite plus. You speak through a discreetly mounted microphone and listen to calls through your car's speakers. Voice-dialing is available, but as noted, it must be supported by your smartphone. Setup is a quick pairing that's similar to other Bluetooth devices, including the almost immediate addition of contacts, which are recognized on the display.
And don't worry about missing a call even if you're blasting Beyoncé. The music mutes to allow for incoming calls. On the display, you can view caller ID, as well as missed, dialed and received calls. You can tap the phone icon once to redial dropped calls. Multiple settings also give you such options as the ability to connect up to five stored Bluetooth devices, automatically or manually answer calls and — if you don't want to hear your mother-in-law in full quad sound — set the speakers so the unit will play calls through various configurations: all, front left, front right or front right and left speakers.
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