With legislation on the horizon banning the use of cell phones while driving, we decided to take a look at the options for those drivers with too much self respect to wear Bluetooth headsets. With an increasing number of hands-free speakerphones on the market, Parrot's CK3100 still manages to hold its own when it comes to features and usability.
The CK3100 is a characteristically simply-designed device from Parrot. Like the more basic CK3000 Evolution, it features the usual call, answer, and hang-up buttons as well as a push button rotary dial for navigating menus. The big difference between the CK3100 and its baby brother is the former's three-line monochromatic LCD display, which adds another layer of functionality to what is already a very easy to use hands-free calling system. With a cell phone connected to the CK3100, the display shows a range of useful information, including signal strength, battery life, and current call volume. In our experience, installation of the CK3100 is best left to Parrot-approved dealers as the connectors needed are car-specific ISO harnesses, which are difficult to find in the aftermarket. With the device installed its two visible components (the screen module and the external microphone) take up very little room and can be easily mounted almost anywhere within sight of the driver.
Features and performance
As with the CK3000, the CK3100's simple design disguises an impressive number of features. With the hard work of installation done by someone else, connecting a cell phone to the CK3100 is a breeze: Simply search for the device using your cell phone and enter a passcode. The first time that a phone is connected to the CK3100, the entire phonebook as well as all call records (missed calls, outgoing calls, etc.) are transferred to the Parrot device giving drivers all the relevant information they need to use the device as a proxy for their phone. Those who so wish can still dial out using the phone handset, after which the call is routed through the Parrot device and the car's speakers.
One thing that we noticed was that the system will copy contacts only from a connected phone's SIM card and not those stored on the phone's internal phonebook. On our Samsung SGH-T619 test phone, it was a simple procedure to move all the phone contacts to the SIM card in one go and then transfer all contacts at once. With the contacts transferred, to the CK3100, they are then searchable on the Parrot device either by browsing entries by name or by scrolling through a useful alphabetized letter list.
The CK3100 also gives drivers the option of making calls by entering numerical digits via the "Dial Number" menu. For safety purposes, the CK3100 has a spoken menu option that reads out numbers and other menu entries at the same time that they appear on the display. This can lead to the device being a little too chatty at times (it can, thankfully, be turned off) but the feature is useful when dialing by number while maintaining focus on the road. As the CK3100 has voice-recognition capabilities, we are a little disappointed that there is no way to dial numbers by voice command (as is the case with many high-end factory-installed Bluetooth hands-free calling systems)--perhaps this is something that Parrot can look into for future iterations in the CK series.
We found the available features of the CK3100's voice-command system to be easy to use. To activate the voice-command system, drivers must first go through the one-time set-up process of recording keywords ("phone," "hang-up," etc.) into the device's memory, as well as the more laborious process of voice-tagging all the contacts in their phone book. Each contact needs requires two voice tags--one to enter, one to confirm--to be stored in the system. This process is easier on the CK3100 than on the CK3000 thanks to the presence of the display, which lets drivers select individual contacts for voice tagging on the device itself rather than sending them one at a time from the phone as .vcf files, but it still takes a long time to transfer all the phonebook's contacts. The CK3100 also provides the option of storing up to three numbers (cellular, home, office) for each contact. With all the requisite information entered, the CK3100 is at its most useful, as drivers can place calls without even pressing a button. (Calling John at home, for example, simply requires the following commands: Phone > John > Home.) While we were consistently impressed with the CK3100's ability to understand our voice commands to place calls, we were less impressed with its ability to end them (via the "Hang up" command), especially when driving along at freeway speeds. Instead we often found ourselves having to the end the call manually by pressing the red button.
When new contacts are added to the cell phone's phonebook, they are automatically copied over to the CK3100's phonebook each time the Bluetooth connection is renewed. In our testing, however, we found one occasion in which this automatic transfer did not happen. When the number entered in our cell phone's phonebook was tagged as a home number, the CK3100 failed to recognize it. It was only after entering a cell phone number that the contact was copied over to the Parrot device (bizarrely, both the cell and the home phone numbers were then available on the CK3100).
One of our favorite functions of the CK3100 is its caller ID feature that calls out the name of an incoming caller if the contact has already been voice tagged. When an incoming call comes in, the CK3100 mutes the stereo and resumes playback after the call is finished. Audio quality for calls through our test car's stock speakers was generally clear and echo-free, and from the other end of the line we sounded comprehensible, albeit with some noticeable background noise when driving along.
The Parrot CK3100 is a functional and feature-rich option for those who want to make hands-free calls on the road. Its LCD display differentiates it from the CK3000, making contacts and calling options more accessible, and Parrot's voice-command function sets it apart from many other stand-alone speakerphones. While the setup and responsiveness of its voice recognition function could do with some tweaking, the CK3100 still presents a cost-effective alternative to factory-installed Bluetooth calling systems.