Ford Sync 3 drops Microsoft, puts MyFord Touch out to pasture

Ford's Sync in-car infotainment is about to turn eight, making it one of the most well-established on the market. With version three, it's been completely rebuilt from the ground up.

Sync 3.0 in a mock Mustang cockpit. Tim Stevens/CNET

Over the past few years, the world of in-vehicle entertainment has changed drastically, new systems launched and relaunched, upgraded and augmented in a continual churn, trying to catch up with the mobile devices industry. None has really succeeded.

That's at least in part why there's such excitement around Apple and Google wading into the game with their own products: CarPlay and Android Auto, respectively. That's put the auto industry on notice: raise your game or lose control of your own dashboards. With Sync 3, Ford is raising its game.

Yes, Ford will support Android Auto and CarPlay eventually, but for now it's hoping to stem the tide by introducing a completely new version of its venerable Sync system. Introduced way back in 2007 in partnership with Microsoft, Sync was intended to make cars smarter. Microsoft's Windows Embedded provided the foundation for that first version of Sync, something that continued through the product's evolution. Now, however, BlackBerry's low-level QNX operating system provides the foundation of the new Sync 3.

The concept for Sync remains the same, however: Smart functionality in all cars, not just the expensive ones. "We've really focused on Sync always being a mainstream product," said Raj Nair, Ford's new CTO. Indeed, 95 percent of all Fords sold in the US this year had a Sync system of some sort onboard, and more than 10 million Sync-equipped cars have been sold.

None of them, sadly, will be able to run the new version of Sync, which will debut in 2015 on 2016 model year cars. But sometimes you need to cut the cord to properly move forward, and Sync 3 is indeed a big step forward.

The biggest improvement? Performance. Ford software engineers benchmarked popular smartphones and tablets and set out to reproduce the same level of responsiveness from the new touch interface in Sync. And based on my time spent poking and prodding Sync 3 at a briefing in Detroit, I'd say they succeeded. Switching between modes, opening menus, launching apps, all executed quite promptly.

3D buildings will appear if you zoom in far enough. Tim Stevens/CNET

Indeed, the only place where anything was slightly sluggish was on pinch-zooming in the new navigation interface, but the fact that pinch-zooming is even possible is a big step forward. Indeed, that's provided by a new, capacitive-touch display that's much like those found in modern tablets and phones. (That said, these don't tend to work well with gloves on, something we'll need to test with the new Sync.)

Driving that responsiveness is a new system-on-a-chip, a Texas Instruments OMAP 5. It's hard to compare the performance of that SoC to what Sync was running on before, a Freescale i.MX51, but the respective maximum clock speeds of the two systems (600MHz for the Freescale, 1.7GHz for the new OMAP 5) should give you an idea.

This performance not only offers more speed but also more capability, one of the biggest being voice recognition. You can now ask for directions to a business category, like "coffee shop," or say full addresses without speaking each and every number of the address individually. Basic stuff compared to Google or Apple Maps, but sadly still something of a rarity in the infotainment scene.

The overall interface looks completely different, much lighter than before and with larger, simpler buttons. "Simple" is a bit of a euphemism for an interface that lacks visual charm, but remember this is something you're supposed to use while driving. Simplicity is key. The software also supports Wi-Fi connectivity, meaning your car can connect to your home network and automatically update itself at night.

Sync 3 takes over the HVAC controls for the car and some other settings too, effectively obviating MyFord Touch. And, as expected, it's all based on BlackBerry's QNX foundations, moving away from the Microsoft partnership that launched Sync.

HVAC controls in the new Sync. Tim Stevens/CNET

Again, the new interface will hit Ford cars next year and should be rolled out across the entire lineup before too long. And, yes, it'll still support AppLink apps on both Android and iOS. CTO Raj Nair: "We want it to be what we call 'device agnostic.' We've always said we don't want you to be making a purchase decision about your $30,000 automobile based on a $200 smartphone."

Of course, the question is whether the new Sync can truly deliver a better overall experience than Google and Apple will be offering through their own in-dash offerings. For that, we'll just have to wait and see.

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