Oprah Winfrey recently launched an all-out assault on distracted driving with her No Phone Zone campaign, which is sponsored by Chevrolet, Sprint and Liberty Mutual. (That’s a car company, a wireless company and an insurance company, if anyone is wondering whether the evidence on distracted driving is inconclusive).
The website for the campaign features a contract that visitors can sign asking for a commitment to refrain from cell phone use while behind the wheel. The contract calls for nearly complete abstinence and asks users to either use a hands-free unit while driving or pull over to a “secure location” before talking on the cell phone.
While I don’t know about complete abstinence, a recent trip to Portland, Ore., where cell phone use behind the wheel is illegal, emphasized for me the importance of hands-free Bluetooth technology going forward. Bluetooth car kits and headsets are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
As an iPhone user, I’m skeptical when it comes to Bluetooth. Apple has a reputation of guarding its APIs when it comes to connectivity with other devices (i.e. iPhone OS 4.0 will be the first version of the OS to allow connection of a Bluetooth keyboard). Nevertheless, I was able to ferret out a few hands-free devices that not only work exceptionally well with my iPhone 3G S, they also keep me at least a little bit safer and in Oprah’s good graces.
Parrot MiniKit Slim
Here’s a sleek-looking hands-free car kit that mounts on your sun visor. The Parrot MiniKit Slim is stylish, simple and features sound quality that even a piano tuner would love. As with most units, set-up was pretty simple and pairing was a breeze. I found the MiniKit Slim’s speaker volume adequate and answering calls was relatively simple.
The MiniKit Slim automatically connects with a unit upon entering the vehicle and uses both voice recognition and a “jog wheel” for audio navigation of contacts and placing calls. The jog wheel, which turns to scroll through menus, offers easy navigation of calling features; just turn the wheel until you’ve found the right contact and then push the wheel to call.
Voice recognition is a thought, but it’s really a troublesome technology (and this applies to all of the units I’ve tried) that in my humble opinion has a long way to go before it’s as accurate as drivers would like. The MiniKit Slim offers a relatively interesting fix to the problem of faulty voice recognition. If the unit doesn’t understand the name of one of your contacts, which are automatically synchronized from the phone on first pairing, then you can record a new voice tag for that contact. This strategy improved voice recognition of contacts about 50 percent of the time.
Making a call via voice recognition was almost more trouble than it was worth, and the ideal of completely hands-free becomes a dream deferred. Nevertheless, pressing a button and turning a dial become pretty rote after awhile, and the entire process becomes even easier than tuning in a radio station.
I found the MiniKit Slim available online from a variety of sources for $75 to $100. If you live in a state like Oregon, where talking on a cell phone will get you a ticket, the price of any of the units mentioned herein is justified.
BlueAnt Supertooth 3 and S1
I’ll focus this review on the Supertooth 3 from BlueAnt because it’s the most feature-rich between the Supertooth 3 and the S1. But I’ll add that the S1 is a competent alternative for about $20 less than the Supertooth 3.
To start, I have to say that the Supertooth 3 offers one of the more natural sounding voices for operation that I’ve heard out of device in a long time. As anyone who has ever suffered a cross-country trip under the guidance of an annoying GPS host, you know that this is an important aspect for any in-car gadgetry.
Voices aside, the Supertooth 3 is one of the more deeply integrated units available for the iPhone. This unit allows voice access to contacts, music and calling features through the iPhone’s native Voice Control system. Again, even with the Supertooth 3, voice recognition is a barely dependable feature.
The battery life of the Supertooth 3 is tremendous, offering 15 hours of talk time and 800 of standby. Pairing was simple and after that the unit notifies the user with a voice that it is connected upon entering the vehicle. I was a little disappointed in the maximum projecting volume of the unit but overall the sound quality on both ends was more than acceptable.
One of the things I like most about this unit is the magnetic clip that attaches it to the sun visor in your car. You can take the unit with you a lot easier than if it were attached by other means.
The price of the Supertooth 3 is in line with others on the market. I found prices online ranging from $65 to $100.
Jawbone ICON Line (The Catch)
I had to include at least one Bluetooth headset in this sampling for those who like to take their conversations from the car to the house. Of course, you can do that with both of the units above, but not quite as seamlessly. And if you have groceries to grab, then you’ll remain hands-free if you’re already on a headset.
What I found most interesting about Jawbone’s execution of the headset was that it integrates a number of different “apps,” through its online MyTalk service. The MyTalk service is free and allows users to customize their headset with any voice they choose. So The Catch headset can actually be personalized with the male “Hero” voice host. The Hero sounds a bit like Sam Elliot and is the personality with whom the user interacts when using the headset.
I also liked that I could hold down the talk button at the back of the headset and enter the Voice Control mode on my iPhone 3GS (I tried this on a 3G and it didn’t work).
But MyTalk doesn’t just allow you to adjust the voices in your head; it also directs users to a number of different downloadable services, such as 411, Dial2Do and Jott, which all make hands-free control of your phone just a little bit easier. For instance, Dial2Do allows users to send and listen to email and texts while driving.
Long story short, Jawbone has done an excellent job of designing this most recent line of headsets. The Icon line is about as cool as Bluetooth gets at the moment from both a technological and aesthetic angle. You could do worse than one of these headsets should your state also ban the use of cell phones while driving.
I found the ICON line of Jawbone headsets online from $70 to $100.
The flap over distracted driving is nothing to dismiss. While multi-tasking may be the must-have quality for smartphones, it’s apparently a deadly one in drivers. According to Oprah’s No Phone Zone website, 16 people are killed per day due to accidents caused by distracted driving. And according to research conducted by Dr. David Strayer of the University of Utah, the risk of causing an accident goes up 400 percent if you are talking on the phone while you are driving. (Similar to driving intoxicated with a blood alcohol level of .08).
We’ll let the politicians and their constituents argue it out from here. But for now, while you’re still able to make the choice, consider one of the units above as a safer alternative to fumbling around for your iPhone while you’re doing 75 mph down the interstate.