Bonnie Cha

In-Car Bluetooth Speakerphones That Let You Wheel and Deal

Eating, putting on makeup, talking on the phone — these are all things you shouldn’t do while driving. The first two items can certainly wait until you’re out of the car. But there may be situations where you have no other choice except to take a call on the road. In those cases, using some kind of hands-free calling system is a good idea, and required by law in many states.

Bluetooth headsets are one solution, but the earpieces can be uncomfortable. Integrated Bluetooth technology in cars is another, but that’s expensive. So this week I test-drove two in-car Bluetooth speakerphone systems — the $130 Jabra Freeway and the $100 Motorola Roadster 2 — and found that they make a nice compromise between headsets and integrated systems.

Both devices wirelessly connect to Bluetooth-enabled handsets, so you can talk on the phone while keeping your hands on the wheel. They also understand various voice commands, and can even stream music and GPS directions from your phone to your car’s FM radio. Of the two, the Jabra had better sound quality.

I tested both systems in San Francisco and Los Angeles with the iPhone 4 and Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD. As soon as I turned on the Jabra, a friendly female voice walked me through the set-up process. It was as simple as turning on Bluetooth on the phones, and selecting the Jabra from a list of supported devices.

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It attaches to your sun visor, much like a garage-door opener. There are various buttons — volume, mute, voice, phone and FM — along the top and bottom of the speakerphone system, and you can initiate calls a couple of different ways.

You can press the Voice button and say “redial” or “last call” to dial the last outgoing or incoming call. To dial a specific contact in your address book, you have to say “Phone Commands,” which initiates your smartphone’s voice-recognition system (such as the iPhone’s Siri app), and then you can say, “Call John.” For incoming calls, you can simply say “answer” or “ignore” without having to touch any buttons.

The Jabra understood all my commands, but I found I had to speak very slowly and clearly when trying to dial by name. Still, it allowed me to keep my eyes on the road and my hands on the wheel, whereas before I would be fumbling through my phone and only half-concentrating on the road.

The sound quality was impressive. Whether I was driving on city streets or on the highway, my friends sounded clear and loud. The volume was almost piercing when set to the highest level, so I had to turn it down a couple of notches. Calls were also still audible even when I had the air conditioning on. (It was quite warm in L.A., in case you’re wondering why I had my AC on in January.)

My friends said they could hear me fine, but could tell I was on a speakerphone. Only a couple of people heard some road noise.

One extra feature I liked about the Jabra was the ability to stream songs and GPS directions from my phone to my car’s stereo. You can do so by pressing the FM button, and the Jabra will then scan for an open FM channel. Once it has found one, you can then tune your car radio to the same station and the Jabra will pipe in the audio.

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It came in handy when I was using Google Maps to navigate my way to Disneyland this past weekend, and I didn’t have to struggle to hear the directions, like I usually do when I’m just using my iPhone.

The Jabra has an estimated battery life of up to 14 hours. The speakerphone has a motion sensor that detects when you leave or enter the car, so it will automatically power down when you’re gone and reconnect once you’re back in. A car charger is also included in the box.

The Motorola Roadster 2 offers many of the same features as the Jabra, including the FM transmitter and voice commands. It’s also equipped with motion sensors to help conserve battery life, which is estimated at up to 20 hours. All functions worked well in my testing, though I had the same issue with voice dialing: I had to speak slowly and clearly in order to get it right.

There is also a free Motospeak app that you can download to your smartphone. It allows you to listen to and dictate text messages through the speakerphone, but it’s currently only available for Android devices.

I installed it on the Droid Razr Maxx HD, and when a new text message arrived, the Motorola Roadster 2 announced who sent the message and asked me if I wanted to listen it now. After I replied “yes,” it read the message in a somewhat robotic — but still understandable — voice.

You can dictate a reply, but the results were never 100 percent accurate. In one case, I said, “Sure, let’s meet at 5 at Roam Burgers” and the Motorola wrote, “Sure, let’s meet at 5 at Wilburger.”

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I think the app is fine for listening to text messages, but writing one was almost as distracting as doing it right from your phone.

My biggest issue with the Motorola was sound quality. It has a smaller speaker than the Jabra and, as a result, the audio doesn’t sound as full or rich as the Jabra. Instead, voices sounded tinny or as if they were coming through a cardboard tube. Turning up the volume made voices sound muffled. My friends on the other line noticed some background road noise, but it wasn’t a major issue.

If you need to make calls from the road, an in-car Bluetooth speakerphone can help make the task easier. The Jabra Freeway and Motorola Roadster 2 are two solid systems, but the Jabra drives away with the win, thanks to its excellent sound quality.


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