This week my car was in the shop, and as a loaner vehicle I had a 2008 Ford Focus, with Ford and Microsoft’s new Sync system.

The car itself is OK. I normally drive a Ford Taurus, so the Focus is a little smaller, but I used to drive a Renault Clio back in the Netherlands, so I’ve got no problems with a smaller car. Actually, in about the 3 days I was driving it, I managed to get the average MPG up from 25 something to around 31.6. Not amazing, but better than the 19+ MPG we get out of the Freestar, and the 22-24 MPG for the Taurus.

You can tell the Focus is the low-end model of the Ford line-up. The sun visor feels a little cheap, there are some other things that make the car feel less sturdy, and whoever designed the cupholder inserts has never put a cup in one - and tried to remove it (hint: I think the rubber insert should stay in the cupholder, not around the cup as a misformed bottle warmer.

On to the tech part - the Sync system. Sync is a voice-controlled system to control phone and audio. A wide range of phones and audio devices (read: portable MP3 players and the likes) are supposed to work with it. I have a BlackBerry Pearl 8130 and a 3rd gen iPod, pretty standard equipment, so I didn’t expect any problems.

The pairing of the phone over Bluetooth went smooth. And every time I started the car, it connected to the phone quickly and without intervention. The only time I had an issue was when I got in the car around 11:15PM, and Sync didn’t connect to my phone. It took me a minute to remember that the phone turns itself off after 11PM… 🙂

Hooking up the iPod to the Sync system was a little more complicated. The steps in the Sync manual describing how to connect your music player through a USB cable - didn’t work. The system maintained there was no music player. After a little bit of fiddling in the menus I managed to tell Sync it really had a music player. After that, I was able to select songs, artists, albums, genres etc., but my play lists were completely missing. At least I was able to play music and the likes! But my confidence in the manual was pretty much gone.

And then the issues started:

  • I like listening to podcasts. Some of them are pretty long. And I don’t like leaving my iPod in the car. However, when you stop the engine and the Sync system, or disconnect the iPod, it loses track of where it was in the “song”. The only option you have is to fast-forward to the point where you left off - a fast-forward that only skips 5 seconds at a time, at a speed of roughly 10 seconds skipped per real time second. To get back to 1 hour and 15 minutes into the podcast, I had to press the fast forward button for about 8 minutes. On top of that, roughly after every 20 minutes of the “song”, the fast-forward stops, like it thinks you can’t be serious about skipping that much of the “song”.
  • While I was listening to some music, I received a phone call. I was able to answer the phone call, and talk to the person on the other side. The music had stopped. After terminating the call, I was still in the phone menu. The voice commands were now focused on the phone, not on the media. It took me roughly 3 minutes of yelling at the voice system and pushing buttons to get my music to play again. At least it continued where I left off.
  • The “Help” command in the voice system can be handy, but at times is completely useless. I use voice recognition because I’m driving. The system knows I’m driving, because I’m not allowed to do certain setup options. Then why, pray tell, does it tell me after asking for “Help” 2 options, one of which is to “see the manual”??? Should I whip it out and read it while I’m doing 65MPH? Not a very safe suggestion.
  • To this day I cannot ask the system to play an artist or album. I can play genres, but only if I select it through the button menu. The voice system claims no knowledge of any music on my system, be it an artist or a genre. Apparently it is supposed to index your music files, after which these voice commands work. But: “Indexing” doesn’t appear in the Sync manual index, and neither does “Factory defaults” and some other useful options.
The Sync system is a very useful idea. It aims to keep your hands on the wheel, and the heads-up display helps keep an eye on the road. But it misses its goal when I have to fumble around on the dashboard because the voice recognition can't switch from phone to media, or recognize half of the commands. My phone is equipped with voice dialing, and does a great job of understanding me (I can even call my wife, who has the same unpronounceable last name as me - and the Pearl understands who I want). I can't believe the Sync system has such a hard time.
All in all, it feels like a Microsoft Windows product. It looks OK, but not very intuitive. It halfway works, but I'm waiting for version 2.0. At least it didn't blue screen on me....