Carbon fiber background provided by Ricardo GlockIn Europe, talking on a mobile phone while driving has been a big no-no for several years. Use a hands-free kit or get a big fine - they're even talking about jail time for it in the UK!
The United States has slowly caught on to a similar way of thinking. This year California and Washington joined New York, New Jersey and Connecticut by passing hands-free only laws. And you can expect others to join in the next few years.
In these five states, you will be pulled over if caught holding a phone while driving. In California, a paltry $20 fine is levied for the first offense and $50 for the second. But, once additional penalties are assessed, you could shell out more than three times the base fine. In NY, NJ and CT, you'd get smacked by a $100 ticket.
The solution for anybody who wants to keep talking while driving is a hands-free kit, either an aftermarket solution or a factory-installed one. The majority of hands-free kits today rely on Bluetooth. For those of you who've been living in a cave, Bluetooth is the wireless technology used in phones, headsets and PlayStation 3 controllers. It gives them the ability to communicate with each other through an easy-syncing procedure.
The aftermarket Bluetooth solutions start with simple headsets, which can be put to work both in and out of your ride. Expect to drop between $25-100 for such a device. Stepping up to automotive-specific options, plug 'n play devices usually clip onto your sun visor. Calls come through the speakerphone or through your car speakers via FM modulation.
These gadgets usually cost around a $100 and work decently.
The best, but most expensive, solutions are aftermarket head units with built-in Bluetooth, or installed hands-free kits that wire directly to your car's speakers. Both will mute music as calls come in and announce the caller ID. If your phone is compatible, they will also download your phone book and make calls using voice dialing. Depending on features, a new head unit can cost as little as $200, not including installation. Kits that work with your current radio usually cost up to $300 installed.
Most automakers offer some sort of hands-free solution, either as an option or a standard feature. This is partly in response to the increased legislation around the world outlawing the use of handheld phones in cars, but also to keep pace with the latest technology.
As with the aftermarket solutions, the hands-free feature will mute the radio as a call comes in. The screen on the radio generally provides a caller ID if one is available. They usually provide a way to dial by name, if your phone has such a feature. You can also make calls by accessing the phone book or inputting the number directly.
For example, BMW's iDrive offers a way to punch in a telephone number (not recommended if you're driving). A safer option is accessing your phone book using the steering wheel controls. The automaker offers Bluetooth technology a standard feature on 5-, 6- and 7-Series models, while it comes with Premium Packages or BMW Assist on the 1- and 3-Series models.
Mercedes offers Bluetooth technology standard in 2008/09 C-Class, 2009 CLS, SL and SLK, while Audi offers it as standard in the A5, A6, and A8 models. It's also an option in other models.
The odd one out is Volkswagen, which hasn't offered anything to date, although '09 cars can get the new $1990 touchscreen nav system with MP3 and phone controls.
Is Hands-Free Worth It?
If you live in a state that limits cell phone use in the car, you don't have much choice about it. And for the remainder of the US, hands-free laws may be just around the bend since, according to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California, California will have 300 fewer fatalities per year thanks to the new law.
On the other hand, the act of talking on the phone, hands-free or not, can be a distraction. Seventeen US states currently outlaw phone use all together for drivers under 18 for this very reason. Other states have blanket driver distraction laws (Utah and New Hampshire) that will issue tickets if you're not paying attention behind the wheel, regardless of cause.
A study by Carnegie Mellon University shows that just listening to a mobile phone reduces 37% of the brain activity associated with driving. Another study published in the British Medical Journal showed that drivers holding a phone or using a hands-free kit have an equal chance of getting into an accident - four times more than an undistracted driver. So somewhere down the road, it may be against the law to use a phone in the car at all in the US. But for now, you should definitely consider picking up a hands-free kit for increased safety.
To help you, we've tested a number of different options to guide you through what's out there from simple ear-pieces to replacement head units.
Installed Kit: Nokia CK-15W ($259)
Hands-free kits requiring professional installation generally outperform plug 'n play units, and the Nokia CK-15W car kit follows the trend. The kit consists of a small 2.2" display, a separate navi wheel control device, a microphone that can be positioned anywhere, a brain that hides beneath the dash and a hidden speaker (or you can hook it to your vehicle speakers).
The CK-15W works wonderfully with any Bluetooth-capable device, but it won't indicate signal strength or battery life unless you're using a Nokia phone. Syncing with any phone went smoothly and quickly. It gives you an option to download your contacts but you can skip it and come back to that later.
The navi wheel, similar to BMW's iDrive, makes punching in phone numbers or scrolling through the easy-to-navigate menu a breeze. By making the menus shallow, the CK-15W couldn't be easier to use, although scrolling while driving isn't advised - we recommend using the voice dial button to make calls via vocal command on compatible phones.Overall, the CK-15W works beautifully with no complaints about reception or user-friendliness (www.nokia.com).-Brook
OEM: BMW Assist ($750)
Our project BMW 135i has the optional Bluetooth hands-free system. It's a $750 extra as part of the BMW Assist option that came with the car's $3400 Premium Package including power seats, garage door opener, auto dimming mirrors, etc.
It operates through the radio, using the radio display and/or steering wheel controls to navigate through it.
Having used many aftermarket systems, the OEM option is a delight to use. Simply pair your phone to the car and it downloads your phone book. It will also store the last calls and favorite calls made in the car. You can dial numbers with the in-car controls or access your phone book.
When making or receiving a call the music source fades down and the call is heard over the car's speakers. The sound is clear and distinct, with a signal strength meter in the display to show if the call is breaking up.
The BMW hands-free system is incredibly intuitive to use and works superbly. It's only fault is the purchase price and that it can't be transported to other cars like a mobile device. However, it's money well-spent if you're keeping the car for several years (www.bmwusa.com). -Greg
Clip-On Kit: BlueAnt Supertooth 3 ($129.95)
A plug 'n play device, the Supertooth 3 clips onto your sunvisor. Before using it in the car, you must first charge it at home or through the cigarette lighter. Once charged, it boasts 800 hours standby and up to 15 hours of talk time.
Pairing is simple and intuitive. Just push the sleek device's green button and follow the voice prompts. Our phone book wasn't compatible, so we had to send address cards of key contacts to the device one by one.
To make a call, use the voice dialing option on your phone if so equipped. To redial, simply push the green button.
Incoming calls reveal a cool feature. The text-to-speech will announce the caller's name as given by the caller ID or your address book. Activate the voice answer function and you can answer calls with your voice.
Calls were relatively clear, although the active DSP (digital signal processing) may adjust the volume on you. If it's too loud or soft, the volume buttons are within easy reach. Despite a couple of hitches, the Supertooth 3 gets the job done at a good price (www.blueantwireless.com). -Brook
Clip-On Kit: Motorola T305 (around $60)
Another plug 'n play device, we sampled the T305 over a year ago and while it's easy to sync and operate, we were disappointed by its call quality. When clipped to the sunvisor, it was possible to hear the caller but they couldn't hear you because of all the background noise. We persevered for several weeks before consigning it to the garbage. These are expensive, with an MSRP of $79, so always research before you buy (www.motorola.com).-Greg
Headset: Plantronics Explorer 330 (around $25)
Sleek and lightweight, the rubberized ear-piece is relatively comfortable for long periods and battery life is good. The manufacturer claims up to 8 hours talk time and we've not been able to disprove it.
Everything works with a single button and bi-color LED. You press and hold the button for 2sec to turn it on, and for 3sec to turn it off. You then push the same button up or down for volume.
To pair with a phone, hold the button down for 10sec and it blinks blue and red. Once your phone has located it, enter the code and away you go.
Because it's in your ear, the sound is clear and callers don't seem to have a problem hearing you. Prices vary online, where we found them from $19-35 (www.plantronics.com). -Greg
Alternatives: Ego Cup ($111)
Another plug 'n play device, the Funkwerk Ego Cup puts a spin on hands-free. Rather than clipping onto the visor, it sits in your cupholder. The benefit is you don't have to reach up to push the call buttons and most cupholders are within easy reach. On the other hand, beverage lovers may not want to give up a cupholder so you have the option of sticking it to your dash.
That aside, the Ego Cup is a solid performer. It synced easily with our phone and was immediately able to receive calls. Our first hesitation was the microphone's location in the center console. Despite being so low, the noise-canceling mic picked up our dialogue easily and we had no complaints from the other end of the line.
For compatible cell phones, Ego Cup allows voice-dialing. And while calls weren't always perfectly clear, the Ego Cup's performance was on par with other plug 'n play devices we've tried but at a slightly lower price.
More recently, the Ego Cup FM was released. Retailing at $149, it has an FM transmitter to route your calls through the car stereo and your speakers to improve the reception without the need to hardwire it (www.egohandsfree.com). -Brook
Navigation: Alpine Blackbird (around $500)
With satellite navigation systems being another essential vehicle accessory, it's possible to combine technology with a device like our PMD-B200 Blackbird from Alpine Electronics.
We got one because BMW's OEM navigation is $2100 and includes the slightly annoying iDrive system. Whereas the Blackbird gives you a significant saving at around $500 online.
However, the Blackbird does more than simply get you home using its Microsoft Windows CE platform with built-in flash hard-drive for pre-loaded NAVTEQ map data of the US and Canada plus 6 million points of interest (POI). It may have four different map views on its 4" wide LCD touchscreen but it's also stacked with features including storage and playback of MP3s and Bluetooth. The latter allows you to sync your phone to the Blackbird and operate it hands-free through the onscreen touch menus.
Connecting the phone was easy, although reconnecting proved surprisingly tricky (but we should have read the manual more thoroughly). When you receive a call, the onscreen menu invites you to answer it and the caller can be heard through the built-in speaker. It's slightly crackly but was clear enough if positioned properly. Fortunately, when used in the supplied windshield cradle, the Blackbird allows music, driving directions and your phone call to be transferred to the car's stereo through the built-in FM modulator, making the reception considerably better.
The Blackbird will also download your phone book (where compatible) and allow you to access it onscreen. Another nice touch is where a POI phone number is listed, the unit allows you to call that number. (www.alpine-usa.com). -Brook