Bluetooth Pairing: Getting Better, Still Sometimes Maddening

January 6, 2010

If you drive several different vehicles, or have several cellphone or smartphone handsets to juggle, you're likely familiar with the frustration: Not every phone will pair with every new-vehicle system.

Whether you're shopping for a new handset or a new vehicle, you should keep this in mind, and it's becoming, at least to some busy people who live their lives connected, crawling along in traffic, a deal-breaker.

"In general, Bluetooth pairing is getting better," said Phil Magney, VP of automotive research for iSuppli, a market intelligence firm. But it's offset by issues with new features, Magney explained, such as audio streaming or text messaging, which can add to frustration even though basic hands-free functions work. "Those other capabilities can be finicky," he said."It goes beyond the phone," said Magney, arguing that handset makers aren't completely to blame, and neither are automakers. According to Magney, most of the issues with compatibility are due to issues on the software side, and automakers and suppliers are just now realizing that they're best served by on-board interfaces that can easily be updated on the software side as the vehicle ages and a whole new generation of handsets cycle in. Most Bluetooth handsets should be backward compatible, at least for basic pairing and hands-free conversations, but fussy software looking for full compatibility doesn't always allow it.

New voice activation features should prove invaluable for drivers

New voice activation features should prove invaluable for drivers

Over recent weeks I've been keeping informal tabs on Bluetooth compatibility for calling functionality alone (streaming music is another issue entirely) in a number of vehicles, and it's felt like a roller coaster of acceptance and rejection. A 2010 Kia Soul functioned well with the Nokia but required a button press on the phone to end a call that the vehicle's interface wouldn't end, and a couple of 2010 Mazda vehicles worked just fine with the iPhone for calls. A 2010 Acura TL worked well with both handsets, while a 2010 Honda Civic EX (same automaker, different supplier apparently) provided the most frustrating experience—pairing with the Nokia but then locking up with silence while trying to make a first call, and failing to pair with the iPhone at all.

Because some systems can only handle so many phones in their memory, or get confused looking for previous handsets, typically now what I do first with a new vehicle is go in and delete all phones in a system's history. The pairing process itself varies dramatically from automaker to automaker, as does the calling procedure itself.The smoothest Bluetooth experience recently was with Ford's Sync system, as tested in a 2010 Ford Flex. The iPhone paired easily, and most of Sync's functions worked flawlessly, with good sound quality for calls. Except even this wasn't perfect. Sync has the unusual ability to read text messages and even send brief, pre-programmed replies (the latter when the vehicle isn't moving). But when a text message arrived, Sync didn't read it as it had with previous handsets, and I couldn't figure out how to change the setting to get it to do so.

2010 SYNC screen

2010 SYNC screen

According to Ford, text messaging only works with a handful of handsets, mostly models from Motorola. Ford has an excellent compatibility chart for Sync in general, and even model-by-model compatibility information between vehicles and handsets.

And that's your best bet: Check with the manufacturer first. BMW, for instance, maintains this list of which new phones are compatible with its new vehicles. For instance if your carrier is T Mobile you have just four new phones to pick from. But seeing that phone models change every few months, the offerings are likely to vary even during the time you're car shopping.

We continue to hear stories about car buyers who discover that their new vehicle isn't compatible with their existing handset, or vice versa. Just last fall, tried to step in—to no avail—and help the buyer of an Audi A4 who had discovered their Blackberry Tour wasn't compatible. Turns out it simply wasn't going to be fully compatible, but in most cases that's not justification to return the car or ask for money back.

There are certainly plenty of aftermarket solutions for vehicles, along with a number of dealer-installed systems, but don't expect them to satisfy if you're a frequent user, or to be an all-out substitute for an original-equipment system. We've found the bulk of these add-ons to be disappointing due sometimes to their difficult interfaces but more often for their lack of ability to filter out road noise. OEM systems seem to be much better integrated, and you'll find yourself speaking more naturally, not shouting.

The underlying message here is, don't take anyone's word that your phone is going to pair properly. Bring the phone that you're going to use—at least in your first year or two with the car—out on the test drive and have the salesperson show you how to properly pair it. If he or she can't get it to work, don't count on it.

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