TCC Tip: Buyer Beware, Your Bluetooth May Not Pair

October 28, 2009

This week, as we've sifted through TheCarConnection.com's email for your questions, we've found an interesting one concerning Bluetooth connectivity. We're big users of the hands-free frequency, though we do advocate that you make all calls from a parked car, not a moving one.

We're also experienced in setting up difficult and easy Bluetooth connections, from the simple-as-pie 2010 Kia Soul to the occasionally cranky Ford SYNC system. From our hands-on testing of nearly 300 cars a year, we can confirm what a reader from Virginia's found out--that Bluetooth isn't the universal connection it's cracked up to be.

Harris Miller writes:

My wife recently bought a 2009 Audi A4, after being a BMW devotee most of her life. Generally very happy, BUT the her new Verizon Blackberry [a 9630 Tour] is not compatible with the car's Bluetooth.  And when she contacted Audi...she was basically told, "Too bad. We are not going to fix the problem."...Please give them hell publicly.  

In this case, the Millers bought the 2009 A4 in a specific form (with a manual transmission) just a few months prior to the 2010 model-year cars entering showrooms. Miller says he was told the 2010 A4 would in fact connect with the phone, which sounded like a firmware issue on his 2009 A4 to us.

We contacted Audi's U.S. public relations team, to find out more on the situation. Unfortunately for the Millers, an Audi spokesman does confirm that the Blackberry Tour "has not been certified for use with the MMI," Audi's Multi Media Interface, on either the 2G or 3G bands. The Tour model isn't the only one: other Blackberry models have been showing compatibility problems, they add. Audi does point out that the voice connectivity usually is not a problem, since Bluetooth is supposed to be downwardly compatible, but the lack of compatibility would render the MMI's audio and voice functions useless.

Check before you buy--car, or phone

The question is a common one--how can you, the car shopper and owner, make sure the Bluetooth connection in your car and in your phone actually work together? It's become more important recently for new-car buyers, now that states like New York and California are banning the use of any hand-held phones.

Some tips on Bluetooth to follow before you buy or change phones--and cars:

Do a compatibility check. Make sure phone and car work together before you buy, if you can. Take your phone to the dealer; if the phone doesn't work and you're willing to change, you might strike a bargain with the salesman to include the price of a new phone.

Check your phone manufacturer's Web site before you upgrade. Smartphones are particularly complex to associate with any given car audio/information system. So before you spend $500 on the latest 4G device that cooks dinner and has three keyboards (hard, virtual and telepathic), look it up. The Bluetooth Consortium has an excellent Web page full of resources, should you fail to find info from the eBay link where you bought your unlocked bandit device.

Check back with the car company periodically, as they may update the firmware for the car's Bluetooth device.

Reboot your phone before you connect--and make sure you delete old connections in the car and in the phone. This is a common problem among car writers--we get into cars that have been paired with multiple phones. As a practice, I delete all the old setups when I pair my iPhone 3GS--and delete my own info before I return the car.

Finally, if all else fails, and you're happy with both your cell phone and your new vehicle, get a Bluetooth speaker that clips on a car visor. It's not a high-end solution, but devices from Parrot USA and other companies work well enough for $100, or less.

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