Microsoft's Sync Sets the Standard
Ford's new entertainment and communication system seamlessly and safely integrates portables into a vehicle.
It may be a bold declaration to claim that Ford's new Microsoft-powered Sync entertainment and communication system could permanently change how people manage their music and communicate while behind the wheel. But actually, it's an understatement. [Note: Microsoft Corporation owns MSN, the publisher of this article.]
The fact that Sync will be available in a wide range of 2008 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles as a low-cost option or standard equipment—and not just on the company's high-end vehicles—is equally groundbreaking. Consumers can find the Sync in dealerships beginning in October.
I recently had the chance to sample the system's capabilities firsthand in two different Ford vehicles. It was one of those rare occasions where a product performs better than promised. The system isn't without its quirks, however, and like any technology, it takes the time to master.
But based on my experience with the system—and on its innovative features, ease of use and value—Sync is by far the best and most forward-thinking system available in the rapidly expanding sphere of in-car "infotainment" technology.
It helps to think of Sync as an onboard computer that manages music and communication devices that drivers or passengers carry into a car (although there's nothing to see since the system is embedded in the vehicle). In place of a mouse, drivers use voice commands and buttons on the steering wheel to control a device such as a portable media player (PMP), mobile phone or PDA.
While vehicles that allow voice control of audio, navigation, a separate mobile phone and other onboard systems aren't new, Sync is the first to allow a driver to control nearly any PMP using voice commands. And it's the first to allow both receiving and replying to text messages without requiring drivers to take their hands off the wheel—or eyes off the road.
PMPs are linked to the Sync with a USB port, while mobile phones and PDAs are connected wirelessly via Bluetooth. Many cars now have auxiliary audio inputs for jacking a PMP into the stereo system, and some even sport USB ports for accessing digital music files stored on a flash-memory drive. Plus, several automakers also offer accessories that allow a driver to control an iPod directly from a factory radio. But with Sync you can connect and control almost any PMP once it's docked into the system.
After hooking up a 30GB iPod loaded with over 3,500 songs, Sync took only a couple minutes to comb through its contents. Then by simply tapping a button on the steering wheel and issuing a couple of voice commands, I could call up any track by artist, song title, album or genre.
I even tried to trick the system by asking for obscure artists (such as jazz trio Bluesiana Triangle) or tricky track names (like the title song from the White Stripes album Icky Thump), but Sync cued them right up. Sync performed the routine just as smoothly when I plugged a thumb drive loaded with tunes into the vehicle's USB port.
The system did get tripped up when I asked for Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," but only because it couldn't decide between the album/song of the same name, and asked me to choose. If Sync can't find a requested track, it'll select the most likely alternative, and the system has a neat "play similar" feature. While listening to Neil Young, I activated this feature and Sync created a playlist of songs from Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and other such artists.