Buying Advice: Take Your Portable Device Along on a Test Drive
Before buying a vehicle, find out how well it works with the electronics you’ll bring onboard every day.
Integration of portable electronic devices is a highly desirable new-car feature for many consumers. Since so many drivers carry a significant chunk of their lives on these devices -- music, contacts, calendars and applications -- automakers realize that they can win over potential customers by successfully integrating portable gadgets into cars.
Since combining smartphones with cars allows Internet connectivity, a whole new World Wide Web of features and conveniences -- streaming music services, live traffic and local search, to name a few -- has become available to drivers.
The weak links in all of this are the connection between device and car, and the user interface. Even if you successfully get your car and your portable to talk to one another through a Bluetooth link or a cable connection, making sure that all features are accessible and easy to use can be a make-or-break proposition. And you don’t want to wait until your newly bought car is sitting in the driveway to find out that connecting device to onboard infotainment is a pain or that using certain features is a hassle.
The key to making sure your car and your electronics get along before you buy is, quite simply, to take your portable devices along on test drives.
You don’t have to take the time to connect your portable devices to every vehicle you test drive, or try every available feature. But you should do this with the one or two vehicles that you zero in on while finalizing your car shopping. If you’re not a technophile or power user, you should at least plan to pair your phone with the Bluetooth system and make a few calls, because hands-free is the law in many places (and, really, the only safe way to make calls while behind the wheel).
First, find out the general process for connecting your phone. Is it streamlined or cumbersome? After you’ve paired your phone once, does the system recognize it and auto-pair each time you get back into the car? After connecting the phone, make a few calls and have someone call you back to find out what’s involved with dialing and answering calls. Do this while driving so that you know how the interface works while you're behind the wheel, and to find out if you can easily hear a caller -- and they can hear you. Also check to see if the system will download your phone’s address book, or if you’ll have to enter contacts one at a time.
For a portable music player, connected it using a USB cord or the special cable that comes with the car. If it is a proprietary cable, find out how much it costs if available as an option and how much it will cost to replace if it’s lost or damaged. Once connected, access your content to determine if the interface is intuitive and helps you find your favorite music quickly, without having to take your eyes off the road and hands off the wheel for too long. If the car has voice recognition for phone and music features, try it while driving to see how well it works with your voice.
Some cars now offer access, on a connected smartphone, to apps such as Pandora Internet radio. Pair your device and become familiar with the interface to find out how convenient it is to operate an app.
Don't take a dealer's word for whether the car will work with your devices. Take the time to try it yourself -- even if you have to get a pushy salesman to back off or if you have to consult the owner's manual. Otherwise, a month or so down the road you may feel buyer’s remorse -- or worse, the temptation to pick up the device and use it while driving in order to access the features you want.
Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for such media outlets as Popular Mechanics, Road & Track, Car Audio and Electronics, Mobile Entertainment, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Edmunds.com and numerous other outlets. In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.
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