Mr. Gadget’s® In-Vehicle Hands Free Phoning Tech and Product Guide

Get used to it.  In many states (with more to follow) hands-free speaking on your mobile phone while driving is the law.  What’s a driver to do? The law says you must be hands-free during calls, so comply you must.

Of course, in many states you may legally hold and operate your phone to locate contacts and to input numbers to call.  You may even send text messages and do your email, though I beg you please to NOT do either while driving.  As for speaking during your calls, this must be hands-free.  Who thought up these laws?    What were they thinking by not outlawing these other, arguably even more dangerous practices?  And, frankly, the jury’s still out as to whether these hands free laws will really prevent collisions, injuries and deaths.

Simply put, you have options!

Many mobile phones have built-in speakerphone capability. Before deciding that this method is your best solution, take a ride with a cooperative passenger holding your phone at about dashboard height in front of you in the middle of the dash and see how effective your phone is at being your hands-free option.  Make a call at freeway speeds, with the A/C on and let the other party tell you if the sound is acceptable.  As well, determine if you can hear their sound well enough for this method to be a good solution, even with the certainty that some days you will be driving in heavy rain, adding significantly to the cabin noise.  If it works, you’ll need to find a way to secure your handset in the best position for maximum audio effectiveness.  The dashboard in front of you is probably the best location to secure your phone, but it will most certainly not stay put on its own.  Get an inexpensive sticky pad made for this purpose.  Sometimes known as dashboard non-slip pads, they range in price from just a few dollars to nearly $10 for a two-pack.  They are washable and reusable and do not adhere to the dash with an adhesive.  It is the pads’ gel-like consistency that creates its sticktoitiveness to the dash.

Choose from these availability options:

Duluth Trading Little Gripper non-slip pads, set of two for $7.50

Sticky Zone  non-slip pad, $3.99

Overstock.com$5.99

Original Sticky Pad$5.99

Visit your local mobile phone retailer – what you need may be there!

Use a plug-in wired headset.  You know, the law does not dictate that you must use a wireless headset if a headset is what you need.  If your choice is for a simple, wired headset, one may have been provided with your phone.  You’ve seen them, maybe even used one.  The little earbud with a dangling microphone is what first comes to mind, similar to what you see below.

 

Many of these also have a button on the dangling microphone that can be used to answer an incoming call or disconnect from a completed call.  If you wish to purchase this type, visit a nearby mobile phone retailer for their selection and be certain it will work with your mobile phone.  Retail prices range from about $25 to $50 for most of these simple designs.

How about a FREE wired headset for your mobile phone of the same type above? The place to check these out is http://www.freeheadset.org, for FREE wired headsets that fit many of the popular mobile phones. Yes, they are really FREE, with a small shipping and handling charge of about $4, though I favor a different solution, below.

A downside to this or any wired headset is that the user must be careful to not become entangled while driving.  In addition, these simple designs do not usually afford any noise cancellation. There can be a variety of intrusive sounds within a vehicle, from the car itself, to air conditioning and road noises. The other party may find it difficult to hold a conversation under these circumstances.  In my experience, I’ve had to move the dangling microphone as close to my open mouth as possible to create the best environment for the best sound.  This is not practical, especially while driving.  Outside of the car, these can be fine, but they are not the best while driving, in my experience, but they are an inexpensive solution that may work for you.

On the other hand, there are some wired headsets that provide superior performance from within a noisy vehicle.  Many household and office cordless phones can use over-the-head style headsets that cover one ear and have a boom mic extending toward the mouth from the earpiece. You may have one already.  Prices start at less than $10 for the most basic models, though these are not going to perform well in your noisy mobile environment.  Some better, slightly more costly models are equipped with a degree of noise cancellation.  The trick is to use one with a plug that also matches the connection requirements of your mobile phone.  Some brands of mobile phones use what we will call a “standard” headphone/microphone plug, while others, including Sony Ericsson and Nokia, among others, use a proprietary configuration.  For most, adapters are available to enable the use of a standard headset.

Others wired headsets, starting at about $20 and up, begin to possess the qualities needed to perform better in the hostile in-vehicle environment.  Look into the Shure QuietSpot headset and Plantronics models.

For those of you who are only occasional in-vehicle callers or callees, the above no-cost to low-cost solutions may work just fine.

However, for those who want better sound and whose needs require better performance as well as a product that should last for many years, there are easy solutions for you, as well. By better performance I mean the ability to hear incoming sound better, to be heard clearly and distinctly and to be able to speak in truly soft tones, even if it is your choice to drive at freeway speeds in an open convertible. Yes, it’s true. Keep your voice down and still be heard easily.

Wired solutions include a couple of headsets I’ve tested from a trusted resource I’ve known and admired for several years – UmeVoice.  This is the company that makes headsets in use by traders on the noisy floor of the New York Stock Exchange.  The headset HAS to work in that environment and these do.  For my evaluations, I tried theBoom “O”, which is priced at $100 and the upscale model, theBoom “E”, which is priced at $300.  Without doubt, these products produce the finest sound that can be experienced in the most hostile situations – even in that convertible mentioned above.  The party on the receiving end will not hear much, if any noise. Your voice will be heard, clearly and without artifacts. There is nothing like these products.  The difference between the two is slight but noticeable.

Remember, both products immediately above as well as the less expensive over-the-head models further up the page should also work well with home cordless phones and many compatible office phones.  The expense of any of these is more easily justified with the additional usefulness of these products.

TheBoom “O” (seen below) is the one in use on the floor of the NY Stock Exchange.  I tried mine not only in the car, but also in a room with a table radio blasting nearby and with TWO large room fans, both on the highest setting, aimed squarely at my face from different angles.  I was able to hear and be heard and I was able to speak in near hushed tones, heard perfectly by the other party.  This was a remarkable demonstration unmatched in performance when using lesser products.

With theBoom “E” (seen below) the other party reported that my voice was more natural sounding and that it was distinctly better, though I will leave it to my readers to determine if “the best” is what is needed. Notice the behind-the-head design.  Also notice the little earbud that comes from the headband.  Looks can be deceiving.  What you are actually seeing is the same as what we in the TV biz call an IFB.  You’ve seen TV news people (and perhaps Secret Service agents!) with that little thing in their ear and the little curly clear tube coming out and back over the top of the ear, then trailing back and away either to a clip on the back of the shirt or jacket collar, or with a wire trailing off into oblivion.  Actually, the piece in the ear is a plug to block outside sound and the tube is hollow, leading to where the little speaker is located and from which the sound is delivered.  In this way, theBoom “E” offers superior in-ear sound as compared with any of the over-the-ear models.  It is akin to the fully in-ear earbuds for your iPod as compared with the inferior little barely-in-the-outer-ear earbuds that are supplied with the iPod and other digital music players.

 

Think about this when considering what is best for your needs. In the most difficult audio environment, performance on these models will shine above all. Do you really want to get something that is inadequate when you need it most to do its job well?

Simply put, these two “theBoom” models are the best we have ever tested.  Period. And remember that either one is also a fine choice in the home or office for use with cordless phones and on the computer (with an extra cost adapter from the company).  Also remember that with any wired solution there is NEVER a battery to drain or recharge!  Remember that and think about it.  Do you really need another device that requires charging?  And if your battery-operated device is not charged, will you make that call in an illegal manner – with the phone held low and out of sight so an officer will not likely see that you are really not in hands-free mode????

Next up is the plethora of Bluetooth (BT) solutions, both in the ear headsets and the type that clips to the vehicle’s sun visor.  All require battery charging.  The primary requirement is that your phone has built-in Bluetooth technology, which most new phones do have.

I think of BT headsets as “geek beacons,” most with their blinking blue LEDs announcing to the world, “I’m a geek!” with each flash of the LED.  Have you noticed that many wired as well as BT headset users are loud and obnoxious while on their calls?  In a car, that may not be a problem, but I find the loudness of many of these users to be offensive in the general public.  But, I digress.  In the car, a BT headset can work very well.  Most users keep the headset on throughout the day.  If this is your style, then following are my recommendations.

All have long talk and standby times.  Many now come with home as well as car chargers.  Some are more comfortable in the ear than others, but that is a personal thing as some folks have ears that are tough to fit, so be guided accordingly and be sure the device can be returned for little to no charge. My advice is to check them out at a retailer where the fit and operation can be sampled. Fit is key, as is the amount of sound coming into the ear.  This is a personal choice that has to be experienced to be certain it’s right for the user.

Many of these headsets as well as visor-mounted BT devices include internal electronics that allow some type of placing calls by voice – so-called VOICE DIALING.  Certain button presses can call up this feature whereby the user can speak the pre-practiced and pre-set name associated with a phone number, and then command that this name entry be called, such as “call home.”  Ah, but it is not so simple.  In most cases, the phone has to compatible with this feature and each voice entry has to be loaded and trained.  I’ve tried and mostly failed with this.  I’ve heard users scream names in frustration in attempts to get the device to call the desired party.  It’s the stuff of comedy routines!  Imagine the hilarity, unless, of course, it is you who is at the wrong end of the routine.

I’ll leave this feature alone with the expectation that some of you will try it and succeed, some will fail and most casual users will not bother.

First up, the BT headsets. Tops in overall performance is new Aliph Jawbone, retailing for about $130, but shop online for better pricing.  It does everything well, with very good noise cancellation, it’s tiny and it looks cool (to some of you and you know who you are).  It’s just that it is a bit pricey.

Next and about the same in basic performance is the BlueAnt Z9 series, costing about $120, also found for less when searching online.

 

And there are more, a seemingly never-ending parade of products.  Others I have tried and find to be just fine include Motorola’s H680, similar to the two above in overall performance, but not as good in the area of noise cancellation.  Our testers thought this one represented very good value at a retail price of $80, commonly found for as little as $35.

 

Another standout is the Cardo S-800.  With noise cancellation not as good as Jawbone (which excels here), I like this one for its small size with BIG performance and excellent sound, as well as a long feature list, lost on anyone looking for simplicity.  Yes, it can be simple to use, even if users don’t use all it can do.  It’s lightweight and can be worn in an over-the-ear style or in the ear, either ear, though the in-ear method may be tough for those with small outer ears.  Not shown is the supplied simple over-the-ear hook.  Of all the above BT headsets this is the most feature-rich and the overall best performance/value combined.  Not as sexy or with the same name recognition as the Jawbone, but it’s a fine performer in its own right.  Commonly found online for as little as $33.  This is a steal!

And then there are still more, from popular brands including Plantronics and Jabra, none of which I can recommend as much as those above.

There is another Bluetooth choice while in the vehicle.  These are Bluetooth speakerphones that clip to the visor.  At their best, they are simple to use – press to answer, press to disconnect, simple up and down volume controls.  (I like simplicity, but not when performance suffers.)  HOWEVER, they all have batteries and need to be recharged, though all have long usage cycles between charges.  Most casual users will get at least a week of use between charges.  This means it is a good idea to get into the routine of once weekly charging on the same day each week.

Some are louder than others so you hear your calls in the vehicle at sufficient volume levels.  When choosing what’s best for you, make the volume test a priority.  Regardless of other benefits or features, if you cannot hear the other party well, pass on that product.  Similarly, even with enough in-cabin volume, if the other party cannot hear you well due to issues of general poor quality or the lack of background noise cancellation, that unit is not for you.

Some are more complex with loads of extra features I did not use nor dwell upon. I looked at simplicity and ease of set-up as well as ease-of-use.

Bear in mind that, as a speakerphone, there is no in-vehicle privacy while on a call in the presence of others, so this solution may not be your ideal.

Several lesser-known brands are on retail shelves that appear to be bargains.  In my view, all I have seen lack the most important feature – a loud enough sound output to be useful in all driving circumstances.  Some are also very poor at transmitting clear sound from within the vehicle to the other party.  If you want to experiment with a “cheap” brand, be certain it can be returned without penalty if it proves to be less than adequate.  Then, put it through its paces in the worst circumstances available – freeway speeds, windows open at least slightly and with windows up, and with the A/C on.  Find an unpaved road if you can and try that, too. These varied conditions should provide enough difficult circumstances to determine if it’s a go or no go. Remember, it also has to perform well in the midst of a heavy downpour while on the freeway.

The clear winner in our tests is Motorola’s MOTOROKR T505, retailing for $140 and worth every penny, though shrewd online shoppers will find it for as little as around $90.  So superior is its performance and ease of use that other makers should take lessons. Motorola figured out what it is the in-vehicle user needs and delivers it on a silver platter.  Compact and powerful, the T505 pairs effortlessly and with a female British-accented voice guiding the user at every step, it speaks the pairing code to enter on the phone. Long talk time, long standby and excellent loudness (2 watts!) along with decent noise cancellation for the other party are also built into this excellent unit.  Another useful feature is Audio Caller ID. You’ll hear the caller’s phone number announced as the call comes in while you hear the ring tone sounding.  I like it.  This next feature is a real plus.

 Even though there is plenty of power from the internal speaker, the T505 also can send the sound through your vehicle’s car radio to an FM station.  How’s that? Press the assigned button on the unit and it instantly searches for a weak spot on the FM band, usually at the lower end.  It announces the frequency selected.  The user tunes to that FM station on the car radio and calls are routed through the radio’s system instead of through the internal speaker.  Now, users can control the volume to whatever level is needed.  BRILLIANT!

Here’s how the typical BT speakerphone (including the Motorola T505) works in practice.  With a fully charged BT speakerphone in hand, press the power button and perform the pairing with the user’s mobile phone.  Once performed, it’s never needed again.  Once paired, clip the BT speakerphone to the visor.  Incoming call ringing can be heard via the BT speakerphone and answered via a button push.  Usually that same button ends the call.  That’s it.

In the case of the T505, the only added step is to establish the desired FM station (or don’t use this feature, but it’s this outstanding feature that cinches this unit’s top spot).  Once the station is selected by the T505, I set a button on the radio for it (tune, press and hold whichever button I assign on the radio to that function and that’s it).  For that driving session, I’m done.

If the driver exits the car and goes beyond its about 30-foot range of any BT speakerphone, it will disconnect and go into sleep mode after about 15 minutes.  Once within range again, either after work, after shopping or eating, or sometime later when the driver re-enters the vehicle, the BT speakerphones require a tap of a button, usually the start call button or power button, to re-establish the handshake with the phone.  In the case of the T505, it also will need to re-find the right FM station to use, and the driver will need to re-tune the radio.  It may sound cumbersome, but I find it about a 30-second exercise that is easily adapted as part of my vehicle startup routine, necessitated by the fact that it’s the law.

Moving forward in this scenario, remember that these BT speakerphones have long battery life per charge, so it should not be uncommon to get at least a week’s worth of driving for most users per charge. Re-charging is accomplished with the supplied car charging cord.  This may create “issues” for some users.  I would prefer that manufacturers of these devices include a home AND in-vehicle charger, but most do not, including Motorola.  Fully charging the units may take up to three hours, or more.  This can be inconvenient for users, myself included, who are not generally in the car for three hours at a clip.  Power to the in-vehicle power socket is cut with the key off in late-model vehicles.  There is the choice of getting a home charger or, as many of us now have, using another devices’ USB-based charger, where the device end is a mini-USB connector and the other end is standard USB. In this way, I can charge my T505 while it is plugged in at my computer or other USB connection.  So, to me, this is not a problem.  In a pinch, I can still connect the supplied car charging cord.  Motorola was more thoughtful than most competitive models here, too.  The cord length is generous enough to easily span the distance from the unit clipped to the visor to the power socket in my car.  Other makes didn’t think as intelligently as did Motorola and their cords are too short to span this normal distance without significant cord strain.

My bottom line?  Get this one!

Others tested included the Parrot MINIKIT, retailing for $90 and routinely found online for less than $60.  This otherwise worthy contender shot itself in the foot with its cumbersome setup procedure due to its multi-language capabilities.  If only it would be more difficult to find and set language, a once done setting.  Alas, this is not the way it is.  It is too easily switched to another language, as this choice is first up in the menu tree.  However, once past this gaffe in setup, performance was quite good.  Volume is easy to adjust and there is plenty to be had through its own generous 2-watt speaker, the same as in the leading Motorola unit above.  If the user can get past the basics and let the unit’s built-in voice recognition feature take hold, it can be very nice, indeed.  With this built-in capability, it is not the phone that handles voice commands, but, rather, the BT speakerphone.  How’s that?

Using the unit’s built-invoice recognition, calling favorite parties as well as voice dialing can be accomplished, making this unit truly a hands-free accessory to your mobile phone, even if you have the most basic of BT mobile phones otherwise lacking any voice command capabilities.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the procedure that brings in the paired phone’s contacts to the memory of the MINIKIT and then what the user has to go through to assign keywords and then voiceprints as they are called in order to make calls using voice recognition, well, my eyes glazed over just reading about it in their manual as yours must now be glazing over just reading about it here. It’s not for the layperson! It’s not for me. It’s just not that important to me.  On the other hand, with perseverance and determination, and lots of time, I am sure it can work well.

Parrot supplies this device with both an in-vehicle charger as well as a charger to use in the home or office.  Nice touch, Parrot!

Basic operation though not as elegantly simple as is the Motorola, is adequate on the Parrot MINIKIT.  The MINIKIT also lacks the T505’s FM link, but it is also quite a bit less expensive. In basic use, it performs well and our testers liked it, though all preferred the T505 were they to choose one to purchase, regardless of the price.

We have seen numerous other BT speakerphones on the market and also like the very basic Motorola T305, previously reviewedIt’s still available through numerous online retailers for about $45.  Its one-watt speaker now seems a bit anemic compared to the two powerhouses above, and had I not had the experience with these superior performers, I would still accept the T305 as adequate, but I think, for most users, though the others are more expensive, they are also more satisfying and prove to be so for the long haul.  Don’t compromise on safety.  You really need that extra loudness to hear clearly at freeway speeds and to comfortably use your mobile phones if a BT speakerphone is what you want.

We also tested the Jabra SP5050, retailing for $100 but routinely selling online for about $70.  This sleek and simple unit is not as loud as we like, but it otherwise was adequate and certainly easy to set up and use.  Our testers reported it did not have the best noise cancellation but they all liked its simplicity. It was none of the testers’ favorite nor did anyone find it particularly objectionable in features or in use.  The Jabra comes with a car charger that has a proprietary end for the device.  It’s wide and skinny, similar in appearance to the connector on many Samsung phones.  This means the Jabra must be charged with its own charger, unlike the models that can take the standard Mini-USB connector as described on the Parrot and Motorola units above.

 

The only other reasonable method of going BT, other than the possibility that your vehicle came with its own built-in Bluetooth connectivity is through some of the portable GPS systems.  I have yet to find any which are adequate to the task.  There are some with the ability to send all the sound from the GPS through the radio, and this may include the phone’s BT signals, but these rely on choosing one particular station and then this effectively defeats normal radio use any time the GPS is on, even if just to be ready to receive a phone call, so I cannot recommend any as THE way to go.

Now, it is up to you to decide which way to go, but go you must. It’s hands free or no way, so get used to use in most states.  As for me, I’ll stick with the Motorola T305 as my favorite BT solution, while others in my test group were satisfied to choose the Parrot MINIKIT, once they got past the set-up issues.  The Jabra SP5050 is simple to use and easy to set up, but its lack of audio clarity due in part to its relatively low volume capability dropped it from our testers’ list of faves.  Had the volume been there, this would have come out on top due to its lower price!

On a daily basis, I’m going with theBoom “O” and for the ultimate in-vehicle experience, theBoom “E”.  I like that neither requires batteries, charging, pairing or anything other than plug in and go.  I can easily live with any headset-related issues and appreciate the performance over vanity.  I can unplug the headset whenever I leave the vehicle and take it inside to plug in to my cordless phone during the day when I expect to be on the phone for extended periods.  It easily plugs in and works just great with all my cordless phones, plus my computer voice recognition software and audio/video chat capabilities, so I feel I’ll get my moneys worth out of even the most expensive theBoom “E” headset.