Car Shopping? Make Sure You Test-Drive the Bluetooth System
Hands-free phone technology doesn't always play nice. Here's a step-by-step guide on how not to get burned.
Bluetooth is the automotive industry standard for using a phone hands-free, but the technology doesn't always play nice with every device. And if the Bluetooth system in the car you buy isn't compatible with your phone or lacks certain features, you're stuck with it -- unless you decide to spend more to add an aftermarket Bluetooth device.
But there's a surefire way to make sure your car and your phone get along: When you are car shopping, take time to pair your phone, make calls and access the various features of a vehicle's Bluetooth system. This way you'll find out not only whether the system is compatible with your phone but also how easy -- or how difficult -- it is to use.
Begin by pairing the phone. You may need to read the car's owner's manual to do this. You'll need to pair the phone only once, because most systems automatically recognize and reconnect a previously paired phone. So you'll want to disconnect the phone from the car and then reconnect it see how well this feature works.
Make a few calls once the phone is paired, paying attention to the controls, where they're located and whether they're convenient to use. Also determine how easy it is to place a call, end or reject a call and redial a number using the controls. With most systems, you can use voice commands to make calls. Find out how well the feature works with your voice, and do this while driving to see how the system handles background noise.
These are the basics, but other features can make or break a Bluetooth system's effectiveness. For example, does the audio system mute and then return to its previous state after a call has ended? Does the system have caller ID, and, if so, is it easy to read at a glance? Are you able to transfer a call between the vehicle and the phone, and is it easy to do so? Does the system support call waiting and conference calls, and is it simple to toggle between calls?
Every Bluetooth system has an address-book feature that lets you store and call up your contacts. The best systems allow you to simply download a device's address book. Some have their own address book that requires painstakingly adding entries one at a time, and a few have both. Check to see how easy it is to download your phone's address book to the system, and if the information fields for contact are displayed, how easy they are to read. If the system has its own address book, find out what's required to add entries. If you have multiple numbers for the same contact, does the system distinguish between them somehow?
Most systems will also display a phone's call history, such as numbers dialed, calls received and missed calls. Many will also display the battery level and signal strength for the phone. More vehicles now support text messaging, will read a text aloud to the driver and even allow sending an automated response. If the car has this feature, check how a message is displayed, how easy it is to read, whether the vehicle converts the text to voice and how easy it is to understand and respond to a text.
Bluetooth is the only safe way to use your phone while driving, and it's the only legal way to do it in many places. But to make sure you don't get burned on the Bluetooth system in your car, take your phone along on the test drive.
Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to Edmunds.com. 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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