Thanks to recent hands-free phone laws in California and Washington, millions of drivers are now looking to buy Bluetooth devices to keep their on-the-road phone calls legal. But because Bluetooth is built into so many different products these days — everything from cars to car stereos — it can be difficult to determine which one is right for you and your ride.
So we rounded up a sample Bluetooth solution in six separate categories and hit the road to see how well they work — or don't work, in some cases. While not an apples-to-apples comparison, we hope this hands-on test gives you a grasp of the range of products available and the general advantages and disadvantages within each category.
Factory-Installed In-Car Bluetooth — 2008 Mini Cooper Clubman ($28,700 as tested)
Pros: Seamless integration, voice dialing
Cons: You have to buy a new car; not portable
Mini Cooper's parent company BMW offers one of the best built-in Bluetooth systems among car manufacturers. And as with many Bimmers we've tested, the Clubman's $500 Bluetooth option allows straightforward pairing with a phone, plus the system will automatically download the address book from a paired device. And while you can't dial an address book entry via voice activation the way you can with some systems (such as Ford's Sync), the Mini does allow you to dial a number by saying the entire number out loud for total hands-free operation.
Chrysler's Uconnect system is also very good and it's available in Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles.
Bluetooth Headset — Plantronics Voyager 520 ($99.95)
Pros: Portable, relatively inexpensive
Cons: Not entirely hands-free; has to be charged
While a Bluetooth headset is not an automotive-specific application, that's exactly why it's attractive to many people: You can use it both in and out of a vehicle. But you have to remove your hands from the wheel to answer, receive or end a call by touching a button on the headset, and the device has to be charged. Plus, Bluetooth headsets can be uncomfortable over a long period. The Plantronics Voyager 520 headset is optimized for the car, with a built-in "windscreen" and a noise-cancelling microphone, and we found it relatively comfortable and easy to use. At highway speed we had no trouble hearing people on the other end and they had no problem hearing us.
Hardwired Bluetooth Kit — Parrot 3200 LS-Color ($249.99)
Pros: Permanently installed, voice dialing
Cons: Pairing took longer than usual; relatively expensive
A kit that's permanently installed in your car can offer convenience and features similar to a factory-installed Bluetooth system, but the Parrot 3200 LS-Color offers something that a factory system doesn't: photo caller ID. And you never have to worry about forgetting it at home or charging it since it taps power from the car. After a pairing process that took longer than normal, we found the 3200 LS-Color easy and intuitive to use. It quickly downloaded the address book on our BlackBerry to allow dialing by name, and with many phones it allows voice dialing so you never need to take your hands off the wheel.
Portable Bluetooth Kit — Venturi Mini ($129.99)
Pros: Portable, streams music from compatible devices
Cons: Too much static, not easy to set up and use
Like many portable Bluetooth kits, the Venturi Mini can move from car to car and gets its power by plugging into a car's cigarette lighter. (Some also run on a rechargeable battery.) But unlike a lot of portable Bluetooth "speakerphones," the Mini uses an FM modulator to send the voice of the caller on the other end through an unused frequency on the FM dial. This is the same technology used to adapt MP3 players into cars without auxiliary audio jacks. Unfortunately, the Venturi Mini suffered from some of the same problems as those adapters. While static can be problematic in urban areas with lots of radio stations, we found it was also a bit static-y in rural settings, too. Pairing was simple, although it wasn't the easiest to initially set up and use, and you can't access your phone's address book. The Mini does offer wireless music streaming using Bluetooth's Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) from compatible devices, such as portable media players and mobile phones, plus it has an auxiliary input.
Portable Navigation System — Magellan Maestro 4250 ($499.99)Pros: Two products in one, easy to useCons: Poor voice quality, doesn't download a phone's address book
Many midprice and high-end portable navigation systems now incorporate Bluetooth as a value-added feature. So if you plan to buy a portable nav and you can get one with Bluetooth within your price range, you can have two devices in one — and less clutter in your car's cockpit. The Magellan Maestro 4250 links to various devices effortlessly and is easy to use. It's also one of the best portable nav systems. But when making a phone call, we had trouble hearing the person on the other end of the line, and they had trouble hearing us. Plus, address book entries have to be loaded one by one. On the other hand, the Magellan navigation system has built-in AAA Tour Book listings, and an instant "Call" button is available for most businesses listed.
Bluetooth Car Stereo — Alpine KCE-300BT ($220)
Pros: Easy Bluetooth add-on, excellent voice quality
Cons: You have to replace your factory radio; not entirely hands-free
Many car stereo head units now incorporate Bluetooth or can connect to an outboard Bluetooth processor to add hands-free capability. Alpine's KCE-300BT falls into the latter category, and we tested it in a vehicle with an IVA-D105 head unit ($1,000) that controls it. (Car stereo companies such as Pioneer and JVC offer head units with built-in Bluetooth for around $300 or less.) With the IVA-D105's 6.5-inch touchscreen, pairing is a snap and we could start making calls right away. However, it required taking a hand off the wheel to do so. Voice quality was exceptional, but the system was unable to access the address book on our phone.
Hang Up and Drive
A few years ago, if you mentioned the word Bluetooth to someone they'd probably give you a blank stare. But today the hands-free technology is almost as much a part of our shared vocabulary and connected lifestyles as Facebook and texting. If you live in a state with a hands-free law — or even if you don't and just want to drive and phone safely — consider one of the Bluetooth options listed here that best fits your needs. And hang up and drive when the situation calls for it — hands-free or not.
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