As we found in a past review, "hands-free" Bluetooth units have not typically been entirely "hands-free." Most units involve pressing a button or turning a dial to navigate menus and trigger the device. With the launch of the BlueAnt S4, a stand-alone Bluetooth car kit, BlueAnt finally makes good on the promise of keeping a driver's hands at two and ten 100 percent of the time.
The S4 is about as easy to use as car kits get. You simply charge it, pair it, clip it to the attached magnetic visor clip and away you go. There's almost no need for the user to touch the device at all once it's been set up.
Talking to Yourself
I suppose we're getting used to talking to gadgets these days, which makes talking to the S4 feel a little more humorous and a lot less frustrating. Of course frustration is also eased by tremendous advances in speech recognition over the past couple of years.
The S4 device employs a trigger phrase, "Blue Ant Speak to Me," which when spoken makes it known that you want to interact with either the S4 or the in-built commands on your smartphone. My kids like trying to trigger the S4 by using the trigger phrase, but the S4's built-in sensitivity controls were able to filter out the peanut gallery in the back seat.
After using other hands-free units, the S4 takes some getting used to, as total voice control really is quite different than initiating a call with the press of a button. In the end, I feel a little like Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise. The trigger phrase works well and allows users to make outgoing calls and answer incoming calls using just their voice and will also read out the caller's name or number when the phone rings.
The S4 manages to keep it simple, with just a couple of learned commands, while allowing the user a breadth of options via spoken menus, which provide access to everything from volume control to checking the device's battery level.
But that's just the tip of the ice berg. Perhaps one of my favorite extras provided with the S4 is the device's "favorites" option, which allows real-time access to various types of information provided by Bing 411. Once you've activated the "favorites" menu, you can say things like information, movies navigate, news, sports, stock quotes, traffic and weather.
The service isn't perfect, and usage depends on your location and carrier, but it's yet another step towards giving drivers more information in a way that doesn't involve tapping a smartphone screen while doing 65 mph.
Alas, nothing is perfect, at least not when it comes to using Apple products with anything provided by a third-party. I tested the S4 using an iPhone 4, in conjunction with an FM transmitter/charger that puts my iPhone's audio through the car stereo. Unfortunately, the device supports A2DP audio streaming, which in some cases, is a good thing but in this one, not so much.
What's unfortunate is that A2DP interferes with how I listen to my music and audiobooks while driving. Once you're connected to the S4, there's no going back, at least not as far as I could tell, which means that all your audio comes through the S4 until you touch the home button on the device, which kind of returns us to the non-hands-free experience.
I'm not sure if the same thing happens with BlackBerry or Android devices, but it's kind of a bummer. While listening to audiobooks through the S4’s tiny speaker wasn’t bad, Pandora sounds a lot better coming through my car stereo.
The S4's support of multipoint technology allows users to pair more than one phone with the device, as well as designate a primary phone for the unit. When you have two phones connected to the S4 at the same time, you can always answer an incoming call on
either phone, but if you initiate a call through the S4, then the call takes place on the primary phone or the one that connected to the S4 first.
Overall the S4 is a strong entrant to the hands-free car kit market. It's about as easy to use as a device can get, and if you're not into using the manual, the voice-guided menus will allow users to stumble into a working relationship in short order.
I should mention that having experienced the completely hands-free experience, I'm not sure I felt a whole lot less distracted by the device while behind the wheel. Perhaps it was the learning curve, but having to conjure the right words to interact with the device still puts the driver's mind in another place. This isn't a comment on the S4 but rather a lingering doubt about the safety of using mobile devices at all behind the wheel. That said, the S4 is as safe as a device can be without throwing your smartphone in the glove box before pulling out of the driveway.
The BlueAnt S4 retails for $129.99 and given that other units hover right around $75 to $100, it's a good value.