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TextBuster review:

Text- and app-blocker helps keep eyes on the road

Review Sections

Web management and alerts
When the app is installed on the smartphone, I was surprised that it prompted me, the user, to create an account with a username and password. It turns out this is partially to keep a conniving teen from temporarily disabling the app, but it also gives the account holder access to a Web interface through which all of the information gathered and uploaded by the TextBuster hardware can be managed.

Here users -- most likely concerned parents -- can view what trips TextBuster has logged and learn the last known location of the TextBuster hardware or the phone running the app. Users can also set up alerts, allowing them to receive an SMS notification when the TextBuster app has been tampered with. screenshot
Users can set virtual boundaries and receive notifications when those are crossed. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Account managers can also set up geofences, virtual boundaries on a map that mark safe or unsafe zones, and be notified thanks to the phone's GPS antenna when it enters or leaves one of those zones. Alerts can also be sent if the car exceeds a preset speed or if it's driven during forbidden hours.

The TextBuster hardware feels a bit chintzy and rattles a bit when shaken. In fact, I was able to pop its black plastic chassis apart with just my fingers to reveal the rather simple internals. (No worries, the whole thing just snaps back together.)

The casing pops open without the aid of tools to reveal the simple components. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

While we're on the subject of hardware, installing this version of the TextBuster is relatively simple, but is probably a bit too involved for many drivers I know -- these are the sort of people who'd want to keep tabs on their teen's driving, but maybe don't feel comfortable poking around with their vehicle's electrical system. TextBuster offers an optional OBD-II connection that allows the hardware to draw its power from the vehicle's diagnostics port, simplifying the installation to a plug-n-play affair, but that's a $49 accessory purchase.

On the app side, TextBuster requires that Bluetooth be active on the host phone so that it can know when the hardware comes alive, and it must constantly keep the Bluetooth receiver alive, even when you're not in the car, which can be a drag for users obsessed with power management.

I'd also like to see the app not block voice command pop-ups and the voice-dialer app. In fact, TextBuster could go a step further and add a shortcut on the lockout screen that triggers the host phone's voice dialer. Being able to customize which apps are on TextBuster's safe list would allow Android users -- who are used to having a choice of apps -- to take advantage of alternative navigation apps (like Waze or Scout) or voice-command apps (such as Vlingo InCar) that in many ways may be better suited for use on the road than Google's defaults.

I don't understand why TextBuster's only two buttons are so small and hard to tap. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

I also take issue with the way that TextBuster handles phone calls. An app of which the sole function is to encourage safer driving should, first, feature larger buttons for its two functions (phone and navigation) and then shouldn't just dump users into the stock dialer (with its small, fiddly contact list) when the Phone button is pressed. I'd like to see an update to this app that presents the driver with just a few speed-dial presets with large, easy-to-hit buttons on the lockout screen.

Finally, the app can be pretty easily disabled by a tech-savvy teen, either by simply uninstalling the software or by freezing its operation with an app like Titanium Backup. The Web-connected aspect of the application, the online interface, and the notification system somewhat mitigate this, but still leave some gaps in the system's armor. To expect 100 percent reliability against a teen truly determined to circumvent the system is unreasonable, but I feel that it's important to point out the weaknesses.

In sum
The TextBuster system is a good idea, but its execution is perhaps a bit too extreme. On the positive side, it does exactly what it claims to do. In its native state, the hardware and app combination create a nearly impermeable shield between drivers and the various apps on their phone that are inappropriate for use in a moving vehicle. Drawing on the host phone's data connection for location tracking, geofences, and notifications as well is a clever use of available resources without incurring additional costs for monitoring.

However, there is much room for improvement. I've already outlined how I'd like to see the TextBuster app tweaked to be both safer and easier to use. All of these changes could be easily fixed with an update, making for a less annoying experience for the driver being blocked without compromising the system's goal of circumventing driving-inappropriate apps.

However, cost is the biggest issue to consider for this system. Even at the discounted price of $179 at the time of this review (down from the regular MSRP of $199.95) the TextBuster is a hard pill to swallow, especially when you consider that what you're really buying here is the app -- the TextBuster hardware's sole function, it seems, is to trigger the app's "driving" state and likely costs relatively little to manufacture -- and the online-monitoring and alerts system.

Drop the price significantly by making the online-monitoring portion an optional, premium feature or offer a less expensive, hardware-free version that lets account managers assign the host car's OEM Bluetooth system to be used as the "driving" trigger and TextBuster will have made a believer out of me.

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