Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ford and Microsoft SYNC

While traveling this week, I had the pleasure of driving a new Ford Focus equipped with a Microsoft SYNC stereo system.  This technology has been on the road for a little while, I think a couple of years now, so I thought it would be a good chance to give it a drive, so to speak.  I'll describe the experience, then sum it up with a review of the products.

About Microsoft SYNC
My family has been avid viewers of American Idol for years now.  Of course, there are a plethora of ads for Coca Cola, AT&T, and Ford, the cornerstone sponsors of the show.  (Well, at least we give our money to one of those sponsors.)  I believe that most Ford vehicles now offer Microsoft SYNC as an option.

First, let me explain what SYNC is.  Built into your stereo is technology to integrate with various communications and entertainment devices.  I've had my iPhone 3G for most of a year now, and am a huge fan.  With SYNC, there are plugs in the dashboard that allow you to plug in a device like my
iPhone, an iPod or media player, and it also supports Bluetooth wireless technology.

So, what can you do?  There are 2 plugs of interest: the Line In, which is a normal 1/8 inch audio jack, and the USB plug (a standard Type B flat connector).  The first thing you can do, is to plug your device in.  If it does not support USB (or SYNC doesn't support it via USB), then you can simply plug the Line In and listen to your music over the stereo.  And boy, those speakers ROCK in the Ford Premium Sound System!  Excellent reproduction, fantastic full-bodied
sound from bass to the high end.

Using the USB plug (which also charges the iPod/iPhone/iPad), you get even better integration.  SYNC reads your music library, and "indexes" it.  Then, while playing, you can see information about the track displayed in the digital readout on the stereo, your choice any two lines of song title, artist, genre, album, etc.  And, oh yes, you can still use all your other apps while the music is playing.

Controls built into the steering wheel allow you to adjust volume, skip forward and backward tracks in the playlist, and push a button to make it listen to voice commands.  Now, if only they have such a button for the kids, they would really make a mint!

However, the really cool feature of SYNC is the voice commands.  Push the Listen button on the steering wheel, and you just talk.  A few simple commands like "Play Track", "Play Artist", "USB", or "Play All" have it switch to USB, or play specific music from your library without taking your eyes off the road.

With the Bluetooth wireless, you can connect any Bluetooth phone, and have hands-free phone conversations (that of course mute the stereo, and pause your music if it is playing from your iPod).
Alternatively, you don't have to connect your toy with a plug - you can  listen to the sound by pairing the Bluetooth to the stereo, and hear it from a Bluetooth stream.  However, you don't get the track info
displayed on the display, and you can't push the pause button on the stereo and have it pause the music.

About My Experiences
Let me say right off, it is a cool idea - and a good use of technology.  However, I have to say I was sorely disappointed.  First, about the car.  The Fusion is more my style, but the Focus is a very good car.  Nice comfy leather seats (the car rental company didn't skimp on this one!), handles great, and the trunk is unbelievably gigantic for a small car.  This is really nice - there's a good reason why Ford is paying down their debts now.  I like the Taurus, Focus, and Fusion, I can get the appeal of the Lincolns and the newly redesigned Fiesta is cool.  Another big thing for me is turning radius, Focus has that.  Good fuel economy, and decent power in the engine (Fusion is better, and Taurus is best).

On Monday I got into the car from the car rental lot, and hooked my iPhone up with glee.  The stereo spoke to me, said it recognized a new device, the iPhone, and that 911 enhanced assistance was not
configured.  OK, I can live with that.

Then, the display said "Indexing", with the infamous progress bar.  Not the one that creeps to the right and is done, no, the one that keeps starting over, indefinitely scrolling from left to right and over again.

So, I pushed the iPod app on my phone, and it said it was connected to an external device, and had no controls to start the music.  OK, how about the stereo?  I pushed the Play button, and nothing happened.  Ah!  Voice commands.

Push the button, the little lady says "Please speak your command."  Of course I can speak "Help" and it takes me through a spoken menu.  I notice that the stereo says "Line In" and not USB.  So, I say "USB" and it switches to USB.  No problem.  (I also tried going through the menu system with the buttons on the stereo - no, not while driving, honey - still in the parking lot.  I found I could do it through there too, but the buttons are really confusing and not ergonomically placed.)

Now I'm getting somewhere, right?  "Please speak your command."  "Play All."  I get a gut-wrenching low-tone beep that probably indicates some kind of error, and "Indexing" is all the lady says.  All the screen says too.  I can't get music!

OK, so I have over an hour drive, and about 1,000 songs, perhaps it will take a little bit.  With repeated attempts to listen to my music over the next 20 minutes, I finally got so frustrated I yanked the USB cord, plugged in my 1/8" headset cord, and voila!  I had music the old fashioned way.  Simple, but effective.  The next time I plugged the USB cord in, the stereo was again switched to "Line In" - so I had to repeat the "Listen" button, say "USB", and then it began playing.  Ah!  Bliss.  I can see the track info in the display, sound is awesome, I can skip forward and backward a track.  So, push the command button, "Please speak your command."  "Play Steely Dan."  Error, not understood.  "Help."  Ah, OK, I need to say "Play Artist Steely Dan."  "Indexing."  What?  I can't say the words and have it go?  OK, it's still indexing.  Over the next 2 days!!  Come on.

Finally, Tuesday evening, my repeated attempts to speak a command works!  "Play Artist The Smashing Pumpkins."  Voila!  "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" comes on - fantastic!  "Play Artist The Cure" - Oh, I'm in heaven.  This is cool.  "Play Artist Boston."  Wow.  "Play Track You Give Love A Bad Name."  Neat.

Now, I wonder how it does with partial names?  "Play Artist Beethoven."  It says to say the number after the matching artist, and comes up with a list of 3 or 4 artists that don't quite sound like Beethoven, none of them Ludwig.  "Play Artist Ludwig Van Beethoven."  Same list.  "Play Artist Prokofiev." "Tchaikovsky."  "Mozart."  "Play Album Amadeus."  I guess SYNC doesn't like classical music!

OK, now that it's "working," it's time for me to upgrade my iPhone to OS 4, get all the new features.  Hmm, this is taking a while, almost 2 hours. Next day, I plug my phone in, it says it is recognizing a new device.  Indexing...  Nooooooo!!!!!

This time, it only took 1 day to index, with local driving (not the 1.25 hour freeway drive), so not too bad.  Throughout this, I tried various different ways of hooking it up.  Connecting the USB cord is great for music, but not for phone calls.  If I want to make hands-free calls, I have to mate the phone to the stereo via Bluetooth.  Now, I don't want to listen to my music that way, just make phone calls.  So, I mate it via Bluetooth, and it switches the media input to Bluetooth Stream.

Not what I wanted - I have to hit Play in the iPod app.  Push the button, "Speak your command,"  "USB", OK I'm in business.  Since this is a rental car, I chose not to sync my contacts with the car.  But, I dialed from my phone, and voila - music stops, sound is crystal clear, we can all hear each other great.  Fantastic.  Next time I get into the car, yes, it's back to Line In.  Then the phone hooks up over Bluetooth, and it changes to Bluetooth Stream.  No, I want USB, so I say "USB" and it says "No USB device detected."  Come on - the phone says it is plugged in.  I found that having both Bluetooth and USB connected, at least with an iPhone, is really buggy.  Several times when I finally did get it to recognize USB by unplugging and plugging it back in several times, it acted like it was playing, timer kept counting up, but no sound.  I finally gave up and turned Bluetooth off, and it worked great - a couple of times.  Then, I get "USB not connected" again.  Finally, I arrived at a combination that works every time, without hassle:  Hook up the headphone jack to "Line In" and mate the Bluetooth to the Hands Free system.  Yes, I discovered there are 2 Bluetooth subsystems, one for media input, one for phone.  Just mate the phone.  The Bluetooth media stream input is subject to static every now and then with radio interference.

So, I'm using an analog line in jack, and Bluetooth hands free (there are tons of non-SYNC stereos that do that).  What's the point of getting SYNC?

All in all, it is a very buggy system.  I don't know if it would be any better with another phone, such as a Windows Mobile phone or some other OS.  I don't know what phone OS's it supports - possibly Palm, possibly Android, maybe Blackberry.  However, with almost 50 million devices out there, the Apple seems like it should be the most supported.

The voice recognition worked pretty well with my Midwestern White Guy "no accent" American English, this really made me wonder what would happen if I were from another country?  What if the artist, track, or album name were from another language?  Just trying to play music from the classical Baroque composers gave me a hint of that - it didn't know who Hector Berliosz was.

The Pluses and the Minuses

    * Way cool idea
    * Voice recognition on commands was quite good, it was just on the names from my music library that it had problems
    * The sound is absolutely fantastic, perhaps the best I've heard in a vehicle without going into some pimped out stereo system and dangling fuzzy balls around the windshield, black light underneath, and custom rims
    * When it works, it works well - that is, when I can get the Bluetooth working for the phone at the same time the USB cord is plugged in - but don't turn off the car or unplug, or it'll reboot
    * You are less likely to be pulled over for texting if you are playing with your stereo instead of your phone - now isn't that a hoot!  It's just as distracting!

    * It takes a while to "boot up" the stereo - well, what do you expect, it's Windows!
    * Really buggy, had to unplug & plug it back in.  It even totally froze my phone just unplugging it so I can get out of the car, I had to hard power it down.
    * The indexing took way too long, and that damn progress bar - give me a percentage number so I can see how long it's going to take.  Doesn't Microsoft learn anything after over 20 years of Windows?
    * It doesn't remember basic settings, like the USB input (Line In wasn't even connected, but it kept defaulting to that when I start the car).
    * The integration is spotty - it takes a few seconds of playing the music before the text info comes up, there was no (obvious) way to fast forward or rewind within a track (I tried holding the arrow buttons down, didn't work), and the whole Bluetooth thing was a major annoyance, not worth even using it.
    * The 2-line text display made it actually pretty difficult to navigate the menus.
    * The button placement and button labeling on the car stereo unit were confusing, distracting, and not at all clear (this from a tech guru who can figure out how to stop the 12:00 from flashing on any device in about 30 seconds!).

Bottom line, it's pretty cool and works kind of well, but I wouldn't spend money on the thing, at least not based on performance with the iPhone.  Folks, it needs work.  It seems most of the GM and Chrysler vehicles just have a line in jack, that works great.  (What's that?  What about other makes?  What other car makes are there?  Hey, I'm from Detroit, dammit!  The only make I drive that ends in a vowel would be Dodge, and that's silent.)