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It's exactly a year since Ford unveiled its completely redesigned 2008 Focus at the 2007 Detroit auto show, and for a company desperately in need of a successful vehicle--especially in the newly fashionable compact segment--Ford needs its entry-level model to be a hit. The revamped Focus represents something of a radical styling departure from its predecessors. Out go the hatchback and wagon body styles of the previous generation, replaced with a more bulbous and curvaceous European design reminiscent of a squished Ford Mondeo. It is on the inside, however, that the game really changes for the 2008 Focus, with the availability of another product that headlined in Detroit last year: Ford Sync. Designed by Microsoft, and exclusive to Ford Motor products, Sync represents a quantum leap forward for Ford (and the auto industry in general) in terms of controlling in-car media and communications. Our 2008 Ford Focus tester was the review car we have seen with Sync (it comes as standard equipment on the SES), and, after testing it to its breaking point, we can report that despite a few niggles, we're impressed. Very impressed.
Test the tech 1: The telephone game
The two standout functions that Sync offers are control of Bluetooth hands-free calling and control of digital music via a combination of voice command and a hard-button control interface on the car's central column. (There are several additional features, which we cover below: See the In the cabin section.) So what's so different with Sync? We have seen more than our fair share of Bluetooth hands-free calling systems in the past, some of which were voice-activated; many of which are best forgotten. The problem with many Bluetooth systems is that they are often more trouble than they're worth. With the notable exception of Acura and Honda systems--and some recent Infiniti systems--hands-free calling is often far from "hands-free," requiring drivers to physically punch in numbers (either to their cell phone or an in-car keypad) to make a call; to remember specific numbers for voice dialing; or to go through the lengthy process of voice-tagging entries in an address book to dial by name. Even with the few high-end factory systems that copy over cell phone address books, drivers have to use some kind of interface (Audi's MMI, COMAND, iDrive, etc.) to scroll through names before making a call. With Sync, the whole process is a lot more straightforward and intuitive.
The setup process for the Bluetooth hands-free link on Sync is similar to that on many other systems: set the car and the Bluetooth phone to search for each other, and then enter a passcode on the phone when the connection is made. In fact, we actually had more problems pairing our Samsung SGH-T619 to the Sync system than to others we've tried, but we had more luck with a Motorola Z6C. With the connection made, the simple dash-mounted display asks whether the user would like to transfer the phone's address book to the system. The transfer process took about 1 minute for us, but may take longer if you have more friends. With the contacts transferred, users can access the names on the display using the menu button and the scroll wheel, and make a call by pressing the Enter button.
Big deal, you might think--up to here, the process is no different from any other advanced Bluetooth system. It is with the voice-command system, however, that Sync stands head and shoulders above the competition. With the phonebook transferred, Sync automatically indexes all of the contact names, which are then accessible to dial by voice command. Where other systems require voice tagging or a dodgy connection between the car system and the (equally dodgy) voice recognition system on the phone itself, Sync indexes the text names of phonebook entries and makes them all accessible by voice command. And it is accurate.
For our test of the voice-dialing feature, we decided to enter into our cell phone six names with similar spellings and pronunciations to try to catch the system out. Our test names were: Andrew, Andrea, Andreas, Andre, Andy, and Anthony. For each one, we attempted to call the contact by voice command (saying "call Andrew," for example). With one exception, Sync managed to understand our requests the first time. On the occasion that it did struggle (calling Andrea instead of Andreas), we enunciated more deliberately the second time, and the system dialed the correct contact.
Test the tech 2: Play it again, Sync
We usually do just one tech test with our review cars, but seeing as this was our first review of Sync, we awarded ourselves another challenge, this time based on the system's music playback ability. As with phone calls, Sync can be used to control music using either hard button controls or via voice command. While we generally like the hard button interface for searching and selecting music from connected iPods, Zunes, and other MP3 players and USB devices, we did have some minor issues with them (see In the cabin). For our test, however, we once more opted to use the voice-command system.
Ford has made much of its partnership with Microsoft as its partner on the Sync project, so we thought that an interesting evaluation of the system would involve pitting Microsoft's very own Zune MP3 player against the Apple iPod. Would there be any advantage, we wondered, in the ability of the Sync to play music from the Zune versus its ability to find tracks on the iPod. Sync's voice-command interface for music selection is much the same as it is for the phone, although the initial data download process is obviously longer. For our Zune loaded with 30GB of music, the system took nearly 3 minutes to index all the tracks--a one-time process, thankfully. In the interests of impartiality, we loaded the same test tracks onto both our Zune and our iPod. We would use voice commands to select music by artist name, album name, and track name for both players and record the results. For artist, we chose Badly Drawn Boy; for album, Ultra Chilled; and for track name, "Come back loaded roady." Pressing the voice-command button, we tried each in succession on both players (we felt a little silly saying "play track come back loaded roady" to our car's steering wheel, but it actually worked!).