Walt Mossberg

Ford, Microsoft Create Car System That Lets You Ask for a Song

Under the hood, modern cars are packed with computers. But in the passenger cabin, they remain analog islands in a digital world. For some, this may be a blessed relief. But others want to bring their digital music and digital messaging into the place where they spend hours every week. Unfortunately, that’s still too clumsy a process.

Yes, more cars are making it easy to connect wirelessly with Bluetooth-equipped cellphones so drivers can make hands-free phone calls — but not hands-free text messaging. And that results in the dangerous practice of texting while behind the wheel.

And, yes, you can pipe the sound from your portable music player into the car’s speakers. But you usually have to control the song selection and skipping by handling the player itself, and that’s another dangerous distraction.

Some car makers solve this music problem with integration kits that transfer control of the music player to the dashboard or steering-wheel controls and display song information on a dashboard screen. But this option is most common in luxury cars and is typically designed only for Apple’s iPods.

Now, Ford Motor, working with Microsoft, has come up with a system that’s a big step forward in integrating cellphones and portable music players into cars. It’s highly versatile and works with numerous devices on a wide range of Ford models.

I’ve been testing the $395 option, called SYNC, with multiple cellphones and music players. It’s quite good and indicates that the digitally backward auto industry finally may be getting it.

SYNC combines the often separate cellphone and music-player functions into one unified interface that can be controlled by a voice-recognition system that works well. You can command it by voice to play a single song out of thousands on your iPod or other music player. With some phones, it will even read your incoming cellphone text messages to you, and properly pronounce text-message shortcuts such as LOL (Laughing Out Loud.)

Ford isn’t limiting this system to luxury cars. It’s available on a dozen models — including the company’s least-expensive car, the Ford Focus. I tested SYNC on a Focus.

SYNC simultaneously handles multiple cellphones and music players from a variety of companies. It imports and remembers the address books and song information for up to 12 phones and four players, so that as you connect and reconnect a remembered device, wired or wirelessly, it is ready to go. It doesn’t have a hard disk and doesn’t store your music.

Unlike other approaches, the Ford system doesn’t require a special cable or proprietary connector. It uses a standard USB port and the cable that came with your player. SYNC will even play music directly from a USB thumb drive. There’s also an audio-in jack for players that don’t support USB, or which require both.

SYNC can even stream music wirelessly, over Bluetooth, from the cellphones that support this feature. However, due to limitations in Bluetooth, it doesn’t transfer song selection controls, or the song information display, to the dashboard in this scenario. The same limitation applies if your player can be connected only with the audio-in jack.

I tested SYNC with two music players and four cellphones and the system handled them all effortlessly. I used a year-old iPod and a new Samsung P2 as my test music players, and SYNC quickly transferred their song information and allowed me to select playlists, artists, albums, genres and individual songs by voice command.

I tried the cellphone functions with an Apple iPhone, a Motorola RAZR, a RIM BlackBerry and a new HTC Shadow phone and, again, all worked properly. While phone calls and address-book imports were handled easily on all the phones, some of SYNC’s advanced functions, like the reading of text messages and the streaming of music, aren’t widely supported on all phones. For example, only the RAZR worked with the text-message feature.

The iPhone test was especially interesting because it is both a Bluetooth-equipped phone and a full-fledged iPod. The SYNC treated it as both, simultaneously.

I found the voice-command system surprisingly reliable. In four days of testing, I encountered only a few instances in which my commands were misunderstood.

SYNC has some limitations. While it can read text messages on compatible phones, Ford didn’t build in the ability to dictate and send text messages. You can send only canned messages, like “Be there in 20 minutes.”

But there are a lot of advanced features — too many to list here. And Ford plans to add others, which owners will be able to install at home. Detailed information on the system is available at syncmyride.com.

Alas, I did discover one glitch. Twice during my testing, SYNC mistakenly declared that a music player had been unplugged when it hadn’t been. The system recovered with a little fiddling, but Ford needs to fix this.

Still, SYNC is a very well done method for integrating digital devices into a car, and in a model that most people can afford.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com. Find all my columns and videos online free at the new All Things Digital web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.

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