California Autos Examiner

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Bluetooth Hands Free Car Kits

In the middle of 2008 California will begin requiring hands free operation for drivers who want to chat on their cell phones. Since it's the holidays, it might not be a bad time to put a Bluetooth speakerphone on your wish list. What to buy? Well, the good news is that most of the visor mounted Bluetooth devices that I tested worked pretty well. At low speeds they all offered up decent sound quality and progressively got worse as wind and road noise grew louder. I like the visor mount variety because they stay out of your way and yet are close enough to you so that you don't have to shout. Battery life is also quite good with 200 hours of standby time and 8 hours of talk time being the norm.

Nothing is perfect, including these handy gadgets. The initial pairing is usually very straightforward, the issue is how the device connects up each time you get into the car. For example, my Blue Ant Supertooth II does a fairly good job of connecting when you flip up the microphone to turn it on. However, sometimes the Supertooth and my LG phone simply don't want to communicate until they are forced to do so. This means I have to go to the LG's menu, select Bluetooth, trusted devices and then connect: not very "hands free" is it? I only have to do this maybe 20% of the time, but it does get old. Also, sometimes the voice dialing feature of the LG doesn't work so well through the Supertooth. I will be stopped at a light and press the connect button on the Supertooth, then I will be prompted to "Please say a contact name." I clearly say the name and it gets it wrong, way wrong. For example I'll say "Jack" and the phone will ask "Did you say Uncle Ed?" The phone will continue to interrogate me for an excruciating amount of time before giving up and allowing me to start the process over. Don't even try and hang up while the LG is guessing or it will take the "Fine. Be that way" attitude and stop pairing with the Supertooth until I force it to do so. Not nice. Overall though I found the Supertooth II to be a nice device and for around $75 it is a good pick.

What I'd really like is a Caller ID display and a numeric keypad. The good news on that front is that Caller ID is becoming available on portable, Bluetooth speakers. As for the keypad, I've only seen this on one model and the company behind it seemed sketchy, inviting me to "downlode" more information.

You'll have to charge these puppies about once every two weeks or so. Most come with cigarette and house outlet power cables. However, there is a model from Anycom that offers up solar charging. There is a photovoltaic panel on the back of the speaker to allow it to charge when suctioned to the windshield. The downside is that California doesn't allow you to suction devices to the windshield. I would also imagine that being attached to the windshield would give you more wind noise at speed. Leaving the speaker attached to the windshield while parked may also attract a lot of unneeded attention.

If you don't want to mess with charging devices, you can get a Bluetooth unit hardwired into your car. For our Odyssey I bought a Parrot Bluetooth CK3100 and a "no cut" stereo adapter from Crutchfield. The Odyssey's dash opens up easily and the wiring harness adapter was foolproof, but I did find it a bit challenging on where to stuff all the "behind the scenes" equipment. Once I did get everything zip tied and sealed back up the CK3100 works like a champ. I press the call button, it mutes the radio and I can hear my conversation through the van's front speakers. It always pairs to the last phone, offers up a nice Caller ID screen and only once in a while locks up. The downside of course is that it isn't very easy to take with you and even by installing it myself it cost about 3x what a visor mounted unit runs.

I also tried several replacement stereos from Sony and Pioneer that had built-in Bluetooth. However, the stereos didn't always pair with my phones and people I called complained about poor sound quality with both built-in and remote mics. I found these stereos to not be worth the extra dough.

Of course, out of all the options out there the cheapest way to go is to simply "Hang up and drive."

Product Pages:

Supertooth II
Parrot CK3100
Anycom SCK-1

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