Car Tech 101: Bluetooth Basics

What You Need to Know to Make Hands-Free Hassle-Free

Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows two compatible devices to communicate. In the car, it lets you operate a mobile phone "hands-free," meaning you don't have to hold the device while making or taking a call or performing such functions as accessing the phone's address book. (Of course, you have to use your hands to operate certain Bluetooth features via the vehicle's controls.)

While Bluetooth has become the auto-industry standard for hands-free phone technology, compatibility varies from phone to phone. To make matters worse, the interface and features vary from vehicle to vehicle. To help ensure that your phone and your car get along, we present a guide that we hope will help everyone from technophobes to technophiles to understand what to look for when shopping for a car with Bluetooth.

We also suggest you check "How To Test-Drive a Bluetooth System" and that you take along this handy Bluetooth Tech Checklist when you start car shopping in earnest.

Compatibility and Interface
You first want to make sure that your phone is compatible with the car you're considering. Most automakers provide an online list of phones that they've tested and are certified to work with their Bluetooth systems. You can find a list of those Web sites here. But don't take an automaker's word for it. Try to pair your phone when you take your test drive. Software updates on phones often can cause incompatibility.

Once you've verified that the phone and car are compatible, you'll next want to find out how easy — or difficult — it is to pair the phone using the car's Bluetooth interface. The good news is that once you've paired a device, it should automatically reconnect each time you start the car. Beyond that, a make-or-break aspect of a Bluetooth system is the interface. If the system is so frustrating to use that it's easier just to pick up the phone and dial — which is illegal in many places and downright dangerous anywhere — you're ultimately going to be disappointed.

The interface will consist of dashboard controls, steering-wheel switches or a touch screen or a combination of these. Since Bluetooth controls will be your main point of contact for the system, make sure they're easy to operate. You'll be using them while driving and don't want to get distracted by complex processes.

The in-dash display for the system shows such information as the numbers and names you're calling, and it's a crucial aspect of the interface. You want to make sure the display is easy to read at a glance, even in bright sunlight, and presents the info you need. Some luxury cars have an additional display for Bluetooth information in the instrument panel.

You should look for the Bluetooth features that are available in the vehicle. Some of the most essential and prevalent include:

Steering-Wheel Buttons: Nearly every Bluetooth system has this feature, which allows you to answer or initiate calls without taking your hands from the wheel. (A few vehicles place these buttons on the rearview mirror or in the vehicle's radio controls.) The buttons will also let you end or reject an incoming call. Some also engage voice activation.

Voice Activation: Many Bluetooth systems let you make a call via voice activation. Rather than having to input numbers using a touch screen, dashboard or center-console controls, you say a number or a name in an address book. This allows you to keep your eyes on the road. Note, however, that few voice-activation systems are 100 percent reliable and accurate, although some can be "trained" to better respond to your voice.

Address Book: Some systems allow you to download your phone's address book, which is convenient. Others have an in-car address book and you have to enter contacts one at a time, which isn't convenient. Additional address-book features include identification of multiple numbers for a single contact (typically those are home, work and mobile). Some assign "voice tags," which are nicknames that can be used with a voice-activation system. You'll want to note how you are supposed to access names in an address book, particularly if you have a large list of contacts. Some systems allow a search or quick-scroll function so that you don't have to go through the whole list.

Redial, Call History, Missed Calls: Like most mobile phones, many Bluetooth systems let you redial a number as well as view a call history and a list of missed calls. Also check to see if the system recognizes your phone's call history or starts from scratch with its own list.

Call Waiting and Three-Way Calling: Some Bluetooth systems support call waiting so that you can answer an incoming call if you already have someone on the line. The three-way calling feature allows the driver to loop two callers into a conversation.

Voicemail and DTMF Tones: A few systems will let you dial your home or work voicemail-access number directly. But even if you need to dial it from your address book or by inputting numbers individually, make sure the system supports Dual Tone Multi Frequency (DTMF) capabilities, also known as dial tones. The dial-tone feature lets you access your voicemail and other DTMF-based telephone menus.

Battery Level and Signal Strength: It's becoming more common to include small icons in a car's in-dash display to show a phone's signal strength and battery level. Some systems will also display the name of the phone's wireless service provider.

Volume and Ringtone: Most systems allow you to adjust the volume of the incoming-call ring. (With almost all systems, the voice of the caller comes through the stereo system's speakers and can be adjusted with the volume control.) Some also let you choose among several different identifying ring tones.

Streaming Audio: A former cutting-edge feature that's becoming more common is Bluetooth audio, which allows streaming music from a compatible device to the car's stereo system. This is great for wirelessly accessing music stored on a device, and it also permits you to stream Internet radio services such as Pandora from a smartphone.

Text Messaging: Some systems now allow you to receive and reply to text messages. The system reads an incoming text aloud via text-to-speech technology. Ford's Sync system can answer text messages with pre-defined responses such as "Can't talk right now" and "Call you later." Hyundai's BlueLink system allows you to dictate text-message responses via voice recognition.

Smartphone Features: The latest Bluetooth features take advantage of the Internet-connected capabilities of smartphones and apps such as Bing Maps for navigation. The systems from BMW and Mini allow you to download Facebook and Twitter feeds that they then read aloud to the driver.

Nearly Ubiquitous Bluetooth
Bluetooth was once found only on high-end cars, but now it's nearly ubiquitous as either a standard or optional feature on all but the most basic entry-level cars. If it's important to you when shopping for a car, check to see if it's standard equipment on the trim level you're interested in or if it's a standalone option or part of an option package. Sometimes, automakers bundle Bluetooth into expensive options packages, but keep in mind you can also add it as a less-expensive aftermarket item. There are many ways to do that. Click here for our test of add-on Bluetooth alternatives.