After I wrote my recent article about Bluetooth integration with car audio, Ford contacted me about the Microsoft SYNC functions built into the Ford Fiesta and asked if I knew about the the AppLink functions. I took it for a test drive (literally) and and surprisingly, I found that a new Ford may just be about the best (and probably most expensive) iPhone accessory out there.
What is SYNC?
SYNC is a Microsoft Windows-based embedded automotive system found in a variety of Ford cars. Go ahead and get the Blue Screen of Death and “crash” jokes out of your system, because SYNC actually worked quite well in my testing, and is smartly integrated with iOS devices.
SYNC is a suite of functions that combines Bluetooth audio and phone functions, USB audio, and extended “services” via a yearly subscription. Pressing a button on the steering column activates voice recognition and allows a driver to issue commands. In select Ford models, AppLink allows software developers to interact with SYNC via APIs and a software development (SDK), allowing for the creation of apps specifically for Ford cars.
For my test drives, I used my iPhone 4 and Ford provided both the vehicles and the complimentary SYNC services account.
Bluetooth phone functions
Similar to many factory or add-on car stereos, SYNC supports standard phone functions such as dialing by name, and answering phone calls via the SYNC button on the steering column. Calls were crisp, clear and understandable, so no complaints in this regard.
Bluetooth audio functions
SYNC supports AD2P audio which allowed me to stream iPod, Pandora and Audible content via Bluetooth from my phone to the stereo. While audio paused when a call came in via the iPhone, when SYNC was announcing directions, the audio did not pause. This is completely consistent with my Bluetooth experiences with other integrated car systems, but still not ideal.
USB audio functions
Now things get interesting. The car comes with a USB port that is treated by the iPhone as a standard dock connector. Using it, you can control your iPhone’s audio functions via the steering wheel controls, and when SYNC gave directions, the audio did not drop out. In fact, when SYNC detected I was playing music, it simply showed the directions as text on the radio display and didn’t interrupt playback.
An API for your car? That’s what AppLink is all about. Currently only Pandora and Stitcher for the iPhone support the AppLink APIs (BlackBerry has more). I tested the system with Pandora. When I open the app and instruct SYNC to take control, a Microsoft SYNC logo shows up on my iPhone screen and SYNC assumes control.
There’s nothing to download as the SYNC support is already baked into recent versions of the the Pandora app. Once SYNC’ed, I could then issue voice commands to switch stations, mark items with thumbs up or thumbs down, and skip songs.
The experience is a bit clunky. The app must be open and in the foreground and the iPhone must be directly connected to the car’s USB audio port. Hopefully, changes which occur to what developers can access in iOS in later versions of Apple’s mobile platform should make this process more natural.
The potential of AppLink is amazing. Theoretically any iOS app could be made to use SYNC, it’s just a question of iOS developers adding SYNC functionality to their apps.
SYNC Services vs. Siri
A yearly subscription (three years free are included with a new car purchase) includes access to a “Services” call center that extends the function of SYNC to the realm of a virtual assistant. When you click the SYNC button on the steering column and request services, your phone will dial a special toll free number that recognizes your iPhone and provides you access. This allows you to take your account from vehicle to vehicle, as it’s tied to the phone and not your car.
SYNC services provide a range of information, such as weather forecasts, news, and phone number lookups. These requests, unlike with Apple’s own Siri, had to be issued in a rigid structure as opposed to using natural language. Additionally, you have to wait for Services to dial a phone number, while Siri is more or less instant.
Navigation is where SYNC shined. The first vehicle I used could not determine my current location. Apparently its GPS sensor needed a reboot, but the second vehicle had flawless navigation. Instead of requiring downloaded maps or updates like a standard GPS, Services downloaded the directions directly to the car and provided turn-by-turn instructions via audio and visual signals on the car stereo. This relies on the car’s own GPS sensor, and currently cannot use the iPhone’s built-in location services. The download process took about a minute. If you go “off-route,” SYNC offers to dial and get new directions.
Both Siri and SYNC can search for destinations either by business or category (for example “Computer Repair in Lawrence, Kansas”). SYNC also offers a downloadable app for bookmarking destinations, however. You can use nicknames like “hotel” or “conference venue” and then call services and ask for the destination. This is something Siri can’t do. If you have a set of destinations you’d like navigation for, you can’t easily pre-plan and give it a complete route. Having navigated with only the iPhone, and then having SYNC services grab GPS turn-by-turn directions for comparison, I was extremely impressed. Plus, SYNC services works with any phone.
Similar to Siri, SYNC services requires a carrier signal to make a phone call. If you’re lost and can’t make a call, you are out of luck. A standard GPS doesn’t suffer from this flaw, but Siri also needs the ability to access data to complete queries, which SYNC does not.
Another function of SYNC is the ability to contact 911 after an accident. Unlike GM’s OnStar system, SYNC uses your mobile phone to call 911 directly on your behalf and provide your location. This “911 Assist” function relies on your mobile phone not being damaged during the crash.
But how did it drive?
I’m by no means a car reviewer, but having recently test-driven a number of cars, I was impressed. What’s surprising is the Fiesta is a very affordable car, and these type of tech features I’d expect on a higher-end model. When I was on my last car search, built-in navigation, Bluetooth audio and hands-free cost several thousand more as add-ons.
Overall, I was extremely impressed with the iPhone integration via SYNC. If more iOS developers use the SYNC APIs, Siri’s virtual assistant will seem rather limited by comparison, at least when you’re driving. While Siri is stuck inside my iPhone, SYNC has the ability to directly talk and interface with my car itself, which can come in very handy on the road.
Special thanks to Thoroughbred Ford of Kansas City for the initial demo and training.