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Smarter, smoother Bluetooth tools for the road

Bluetooth headsets are commonplace, but only some products perform well in the unique environment of a vehicle, where wind and road noise can play havoc with call quality. 
Image: Bluetooth speakerphone for car
Parrot's MINIKIT Slim car speakerphone ($100, retail), which clips onto a vehicle's sun visor, uses voice recognition for making calls.Parrot
/ Source: contributor

Bluetooth headsets are commonplace, but only some products perform well in the unique environment of a vehicle, where wind and road noise can play havoc with call quality.

And many Bluetooth devices, with small buttons to push or slide, require the kind of concentration that driving does, so they don’t necessarily ensure that going hands-free is worry-free.

Six states — California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah, Washington — and the District of Columbia – now ban driving while talking on a handheld phone, and some cities, including as Chicago, Detroit and Phoenix, also have such laws in place.

A majority of drivers in the United States do use their cell phone while they’re behind the wheel. A 2007 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that 58 percent of respondents had used their cell phone while driving during the previous year. Recently, Nationwide Insurance estimated the figure at 73 percent.

For sure, Bluetooth, the wireless technology that is used to route calls from those blinking earpieces to the phone, is getting easier for users to set up.

Even if you already have a headset, you may want to consider these Bluetooth options for road trips. They're not the only choices, but they're among those that will help you keep your eyes on the road, and not fiddling with a device:

Aliph New Jawbone
Aliph’s New Jawbone ($130, retail) headset is a master at noise control. The company’s “Noise Assassin” technology, military-grade stuff originally developed for the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, virtually eliminates even extreme background noise during calls.

The New Jawbone by Aliph ($130, retail) uses noise-reduction technology that makes it well-suited for dealing with highway and vehicle noise.

Zipping along the expressway with the windows down, someone on the other end of your call will swear you’re in a cone of silence. Earpiece volume is also automatically adjusted depending on ambient noise levels.

The New Jawbone, available in black and blingy gold, is an update of the 2006 original Jawbone. Thankfully, the device has been slimmed down and is much less conspicuous than the mini-cheese grater look of the first model.

If you live in an area where hands-free calling is required and get a ticket for not obeying, Aliph has an incentive program of sorts for buyers.

On the Web, check Aliph’s “Ticket Processor,” where you can enter your ticket details to receive a $20 discount on a headset.

BlueAnt V1
Distractions are at the root of phone-related crashes and even a Bluetooth headset can break your concentration if you have to jab at its tiny buttons to operate it. The V1 from BlueAnt ($130, retail) has voice-activated controls so you can keep both hands on the wheel.

A Bluetooth earpiece by BlueAnt is photographed in New York, Monday Aug. 25, 2008. Tuesday marked the launch of the first headset that speaks our language, literally. The $130 V1 from BlueAnt Wireless recognizes spoken English commands, and responds, also in English. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)Richard Drew / AP

The tiny, comfortable earpiece requires the press of one button to start voice activation. The voice interface features simple commands for answering and ending calls, phone pairing, checking the battery level and more.

The V1 doesn’t use a phone’s voice dialing, handling the task internally with speed-dial settings for Home, Office, Voice Mail, Google’s free 411 service and several assignable shortcuts.

Voice commands work impressively using a normal speaking voice, even with excessive road and wind noise.

BlueAnt’s two levels of voice isolation technology, another name for noise reduction, are nearly as good as the New Jawbone’s “Noise Assassin.”

There is a learning curve, steepened by minor quirks like having to wait until an incoming call’s entire phone number is announced before accepting or rejecting, but the end result is a sublime car Bluetooth solution.

Parrot MINIKIT Slim
For those of us who would rather not have something stuck in our ear, Bluetooth car speakerphones are the answer.

The Parrot MINIKIT Slim ($100, retail) is a svelte, cleanly designed unit that clips onto the sun visor. Its dimensions are 4-1/4 inches-by-2-1/2 inches-by-1 inch.

The device’s low profile is made possible by a flat-panel speaker using NXT’s SurfaceSound technology, which transforms flat surfaces into speakers. Almost the entire face of the device becomes a speaker that produces clearly audible sound.

Once your phone is paired with the MINIKIT, your contacts are automatically transferred. Making a call is as simple as rotating the unit’s dial. The device reads out the first letter of the contact’s names, followed by the individual names. Just press the dial in and the call is initiated.

Calling is further simplified by hitting the call button. “Who would you like to call?” says the unit. Just speak the name and MINIKIT does the rest. Simple names are processed quickly while some others may take two tries.

Motorola MotoROKR T505
Motorola’s MotoROKR T505 ($140, retail) shakes up the notion of car speakerphones as merely a phone call accessory. Burke

The steep price tag may be justified by the unit’s double-duty as an FM transmitter, depending on your cell phone habits.

If you stow music on your phone and it supports stereo, or A2DP, Bluetooth, the MotoROKR will stream music over your car’s audio system.

The T505 cleverly scans the FM spectrum and announces available frequencies in your area. Tune the FM radio in to the suggested frequency and control playback with the buttons on the front of the T505.

Prior versions of FM transmitters from other companies often sounded terrible, but the MotoROKR’s FM fidelity is a major jump ahead. It’s certainly not CD quality, but is perfectly acceptable.

Should you decide to route your calls through the car audio system, the T505 will considerately mute the music while a call takes place.

The MotoROKR T505 performs well as a straight Bluetooth hands-free device; incoming call phone numbers are announced with a reassuringly competent-sounding British accent. But, unlike the MINIKIT, voice-activated calling must be supported through your phone