If you want to make mobile calls while you're in a car, a Bluetooth hands-free speakerphone kit is an essential. But is it possible to get one that doesn't sound like you're driving on the bottom of the ocean? Road Worrier tests out the Jabra Freeway to find out.
Longstanding Lifehacker readers are presumably muttering under their breath at this point: "How on earth is Angus going to test a hands-free speakerphone? We all know that he can't drive and spends all his time on trains and planes. If he tries to use a Bluetooth kit in either of those contexts, he'll end up getting lynched."
This is, on the whole, a fair observation. So when I got offered the Jabra Freeway as a test device, I took the obvious course: I passed it on to my mate Arthur, a long-time user of various Bluetooth kits and a perennial in-car caller. I was in the vehicle when he made his first test run so I could check out the general operation and sound quality, but after that I left him with it to test over a few weeks.
The $149 Freeway has three main selling points: it offers better-than-average audio quality courtesy of its virtual surround sound, it automatically pairs and unpairs with your phone courtesy of motion sensing, and it can be controlled via voice. How well does it perform on each of these three fronts?
Having experienced low-quality audio when travelling as a passenger in the past, I was impressed with how clear the Freeway sounded when I used it to make test calls. Arthur was even more impressed, noting that once the volume controls were suitably set, it was better than any of the other models he'd tried and had noticeably less echo. The automatic pairing and unpairing also worked pretty well, though Arthur was left with the distinct impression that it made more use of Bluetooth proximity rather than motion sensing as such.
The unit itself offers voice commands for checking battery level and volume, and can convey commands to your phone if it supports voice-controlled dialling. As is often the case with voice recognition, alas, the built-in systems didn't cope at all well with Australian accents. The only way I managed to get it to respond was by using an American accent -- not impossible, but definitely a nuisance.
The Freeway clips to the sun visor in the car, which keeps it pretty neatly out of the way (though you might want to put it on the passenger side when charging in-car, to avoid cables in the wrong place). All-in (and despite the mild nuisance of the US-centric voice recognition), it's a neat little unit if you're regularly stuck in a car and want to make calls in a safe, legal way.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman still thinks Bluetooth as a name has unfortunate overtones of a potentially unpleasant dental experience. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.