Quick Take: Ford SYNC by Microsoft
I'm in Loveland, Colorado this week for a week of meetings at my company's home office. Nothing notable, I guess, except that my car--an otherwise unexceptional Ford Focus--has Microsoft's SYNC system built-in. And it is awesome.
If you're not familiar, Ford provides the SYNC system in its Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles sold in North America. SYNC allows you to integrate a phone or MP3 player with the car's stereo and speaker hardware, providing such features as hands-free dialing, voice-based access to your media libraries, and more. You can do so via Bluetooth or USB, and it includes a standard line-in port for more manual device attachment. I've been testing with an iPhone over Bluetooth and an iPhone and Zune 120 over USB, and the results have impressed me greatly. I would love to have this system in my car. (I currently use an iPod-specific Alpine solution in my VW New Beetle.)
If all you want to do is play an MP3 player's music library through the car's stereo system, SYNC is pure simplicity: Simply queue up the playlist you want, plug the device into the car via the USB or line-in port, and select the appropriate input from the stereo's normal controls. From then on, you can control playback via the car's console- and steering wheel-based controls. This worked similarly on the iPhone and Zune, and in both cases, the onscreen controls were no longer available once the device was connected.
In the Ford Focus, the SYNC USB and line-in ports are at the bottom of the center console.
For a Bluetooth-based connection, which is what you'd want for hands-free dialing, a bit of set up is in order. You'll need to establish a Bluetooth connection between SYNC and the device, which basically involves telling SYNC to start a connection and then typing in the provided 6-digit PIN on the device. Once that's done, SYNC will recognize and connect to your device every time you get in the car.
SYNC indicates it is connected to the iPhone and can play back music or make phone calls.
Unlike with a USB-based connection, you retain onscreen controls when connected via Bluetooth. In the case of media playback, this means you can navigate to new playlists, artists, albums, or whatever, and trigger playback, through SYNC, to the car's audio system. It works as you'd expect, though I did experience occasional sound dropouts which I attribute to a performance issue I've been having with the iPhone lately.
When playing back media over Bluetooth, you can use the onscreen controls on the device.
Hands-free phone functionality is particularly excellent. Once you've uploaded your contacts list to the car (yes, seriously), you can dial phone numbers and perform other similar actions with your voice. So, for example, I could call my wife by clicking the Phone button on the Ford's steering wheel and then say "Call Stephanie Thurrott at home." SYNC asks, "Call Stephanie Thurrott at home. Is that correct?" Answer with a yes and the phone starts dialing.
SYNC steering wheel controls.
After a voice command, SYNC dials the iPhone via Bluetooth.
The default phone screen when connected via SYNC (left) and the audio source screen (right).
Connection quality is excellent and, according to my wife, actually superior to the experience of my calling directly with the iPhone. She could occasionally hear road noise, but normally it was pretty silent. On my end, the voice of the other person seems to rise out of the center of the dash, and you can use the stereo system's volume dial to control the volume. There was no apparent microphone, but it appeared to work fine from a normal sitting position. (At first, I had to resist the temptation to lean into the center console while speaking.)
I've probably only touched on the surface of what's possible with SYNC, but as noted previously, I'm quite impressed with the system, and aside from some audio drop-outs on Bluetooth-based media playback, I experienced no notable issues at all. This is an excellent reason to choose a Ford, in my opinion, though I'm not ready to sign off on the Focus specifically. :)