BUYER’S GUIDE: Understanding Your Bluetooth Options

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If it’s been a few years since you’ve purchased a new car, Bluetooth technology might be foreign to you. It’s now available — if not standard — in just about every car on the market. Here’s what it is, how it works and how it can help keep you a bit less distracted on the road.

There’s a lot of technology in modern cars that doesn’t offer as many benefits as promised (we’re looking at you, voice activation). But Bluetooth is a mature technology that works exactly the way it is supposed to.  In cars, it is a valuable tool you will enjoy using once you understand what it does.

What Is It?

Bluetooth is a wireless technology standard developed by Ericsson in 1994 that allows data exchange over short distances. The name comes from the 10th century Scandinavian king Harald Bluetooth, who united disparate Danish tribes into a single kingdom. The Bluetooth logo is a combination of the early Scandinavian letters for his initials.

A master Bluetooth device can connect with a number of devices (usually five, but some up to seven). In the car, the audio system acts as the master, and the devices act as slaves. In this arrangement, the master device can communicate with a family’s worth of Bluetooth enabled devices.

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Prior to Bluetooth, if you wanted to connect a phone to your audio system — which allowed for features like voice activation or iPod controls — you had to utilize a USB (or Universal Serial Bus) outlet and a wire that connected the device to the audio system. It offered the advantage of charging the device at the same time, but meant you had to dig the device out of a pocket or purse to connect it.

Bluetooth allowed the connection without the actual physical connection. Even better, once you have it set up, Bluetooth remembers the “pairing” as a connection is called.  So when you hop in your car and start it up, it automatically connects.  The Bluetooth connection is a very local, temporary pairing of the device to the car.  When you shut the car off, the pairing ends.  Get out of the car and walk away (with the car running) and it ends.

The benefits are pretty obvious.   You can leave your phone in a backpack or purse and while driving and accept an incoming call hands-free, meaning the sound of the call comes to you over the vehicle’s audio system.  You simply tap a button on the steering wheel or the infotainment screen to accept it.  To hang up you tap another button.  You can also make calls using the car’s controls, including the voice controls because the Bluetooth connection also has access to your phone’s contact list and call history.  This frees up your hands for other things like applying makeup, eating, shaving, or reaching into the back seat to deliver a dope-slap to a pal.  Or you could keep your hands at 10 and 2, depending upon your mood.

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Music and video can also be streamed via Bluetooth to your car from the smartphone or other device (iPod for example).  That music may be stored on your phone old-school in an MP3 file (iTunes), or you may be using a music streaming service like Pandora, or via any app that allows audio streaming (such as podcasting apps like Stitcher, or bespoke apps from podcasters or NPR stations).

Depending on how sophisticated the car’s infotainment system is, it will either integrate controls at a basic level, just playing the music and providing some basic information about the track or the podcast you’re listening to, or it may have an app integration program that lets you see the Pandora station listings, album art, and other info and interactions.

For step-by-step instructions on how to integrate a smart phone to your car using Bluetooth, visit our connectivity Buyer’s Guide.