V3.co.uk has had some precious hands-on time with Ford's in-car hands-free Sync technology ahead of its release in 2012.
The latest version of Sync was announced at CeBIT in March and the software will make its debut in the forthcoming Ford Focus.
The main aim of Sync is to allow drivers to plug a smartphone or MP3 player into the car and control them using voice commands. However, Sync is more than a one-trick pony, and is set to come bundled with other features including hands-free navigation, climate control and an emergency assistance service.
During our hands-on, the voice commands were the stand-out feature. Sync supports up to 10,000 phrases so we could pretty much tell the car to do anything, except pick up our laundry.
Giving voice commands was intuitive and it was a matter of seconds before we were confortable with the system. To start playing a song from an iPod, we simply hit the paddle on the steering wheel, waited for the beep and then said "play song" followed by the name of the song or artist. The software was also capable of recognising playlists and genres.
Our favourite bit, however, was the playback of text messages. Although not as nasal as the female droid from Google Maps Navigation, the first lady of Ford Sync did sound a little creepy when reading text messages, especially those that ended with her saying "smiley face" or "LOL".
Another handy feature is the ability to connect devices via the USB ports, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or old-fashioned RCA cables. Files can also be read from SD cards, which will be quite handy for many people. The Wi-Fi connectivity also means that users can plug in a mobile dongle and turn their Focus into a mobile internet hotspot, useful on long trips.
The plug-and-play nature of the software means there is no hefty installation, aside from the need to import contacts from a mobile phonebook or tracks from an MP3 player on first sync.
Although it was impressive, Sync is not perfect. When sitting in the driver's seat, we did find it very difficult not to be distracted by the 8in touchscreen located in the centre console. Even though the car was stationary during our tests, it remains to be seen how off-putting this will be when driving.
We also found the touch-screen main menu a little too cluttered at times. The main screen shows too much information and some simplification would go down well. Its resistive panel also means that it is not the most responsive to touch.
The software is powered by an ARM Cortex A8 processor running at 600MHz along with 512MB of RAM. Making this car far less powerful, in computing terms, than most new mobile phones.
Some might be put off by the Microsoft back-end, although we can confirm that it works fine and is far from a disaster. In fact, the interface resembles the somewhat old-school Windows 3.1, giving it a retro feel.
Jason Johnson, lead user interface design engineer at Ford, told V3.co.uk that the company is working hard to bring all the features of Sync to Europe in 2012.
"Work needs to done on converting 19 languages, as we have to test dialects. We're also adapting the navigation for Europe and adding support for the Emergency Assistance feature," he said.
Being a software man, Johnson was able to dodge the question of how much the service will cost. It has been available for around $395 in the US as an optional extra. Some models will see it included as a standard feature, though, but firm UK pricing has yet to be announced.
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