Ask LH: How Can I Integrate My Smartphone Into My Car On The Cheap?

Ask LH: How Can I Integrate My Smartphone Into My Car On The Cheap?

Dear Lifehacker, I’d like to integrate my smartphone into my car, but it’s a pretty basic vehicle. What can I do without paying a fortune to make my car and smartphone work well together? Sincerely, Driving in the Past

Photo by DaLee_pl.

Dear DitP,

I know how you feel. My previous car had virtually nothing in the way of technology. It was as basic as you could get. I didn’t even have an auxiliary port to hook up my smartphone and play music through its terrible speakers. I’ve since upgraded, but for three years I had to seek out alternatives. Nothing is going to be as good as an integrated system, but there’s a lot you can do to make your smartphone work better with your vehicle. Let’s look at your options, step by step.

Step One: Mount And Power Your Smartphone


The good news is that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a vehicle that doesn’t offer charging via the cigarette lighter. All you really need is a cheap USB adapter and a charging cable for your device to get started.

That will power your phone, but to keep it from floating around in the vehicle, you’ll need to mount it. While there are plenty of options you can buy, we’ve found that the one you can make out of office supplies is actually the best. Many of us at Lifehacker have made this mount ourselves and use it regularly. I’ve been using mine for over a year now and it’s still going strong. It takes about 20 minutes to create, and it mounts to your car in any location that can accommodate a binder clip.

For some people that means the vent of an air conditioner, but I don’t like that option because it means a USB cable is going to be swinging around. Instead, I’ve mounted mine to the side of the cup holders. This may not be an option for everyone, but experiment with the spaces you’ve got and you’re likely to find something that works. Once you’ve got everything in place, be sure to keep it organised. (Bear in mind that in Victoria you’re only supposed to use a commercial mount if you’re using your phone as a GPS; if your mount is near the windscreen, you might encounter a snarky copper.)

Step Two: Connect Your Smartphone To Speakers


If your car does have an auxiliary port and you’re happy with the quality of its sound system, all you have to do to hook up your smartphone and you’re good to go. If you don’t have an auxiliary port, you have a few other options that will require some sacrifices or a bit of work.

First, the simplest solution is purchasing an FM transmitter, which will weakly broadcast your smartphone’s audio signal as an FM radio station. The problem is that these devices don’t provide the best audio quality and often suffer from interference from other radio stations.

One possible solution to this problem is removing your car’s antenna so it doesn’t actually pick up any other stations and cause issues. This isn’t ideal, but if you don’t listen to the radio (or your smartphone has its own tuner) it won’t cause much of a problem for you.

Second, you can install computer speakers and use those instead. Chances are your audio will be a bit better and the hack won’t cost you too much.

Step Three: Set Up Voice Control


Using your smartphone in your car often means taking your attention off the road. While you’re always going to be a little distracted no matter how you’re interacting with the device, if you don’t have to look at it your eyes will at least be where they ought to be. Voice control is currently the best available solution, and there are plenty of options even if your phone doesn’t offer one out of the box.

Most Android users have good built-in voice control, and those with Android 4.1 have an even better solution. That said, if you’re on Android and looking for something more assistant-like (such as what you’d find with iOS’ Siri), there are plenty of apps for the job. iPhone users without Siri will want to check out an app called Vokul, which is voice control designed to for use in the car. If you do have Siri but want to control it hands-free, there’s a jailbreak hack that can help you out.

Regardless of how much work you have to do to integrate your smartphone into your car, the important thing is that you remain focused on staying safe while driving. It’s great to be able to use your phone’s conveniences during your trip, but only so long as you’re keeping yourself (and others) out of harm’s way. Driving should be your main task.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • Buying an after-market radio with USB / SD / Line-in ports is pretty much cheap as chips these days. I bought a good Sony one 6 years ago for less than $100, and my current one (slotted into an old used vehicle) cost about $80 installed and acts as an iPod head-unit.

    FM transmitters are a complete waste of money in my experience, especially in areas of high signal density.

  • Problem with after market radios is that while they are cheap, many new cars have radios built into the dashboard, which makes installing these difficult.

  • I recently went through this dilemma, after going from 5 years in late model cars back to a 15 year old jobbie. I managed to get everything I wanted – answer/talk hands-free and play music through the ancient stereo (cassette player only) – and I could easily have done it for around $35, but decided to spend a bit more for reasons I’ll explain below.
    First up I bought a Bluetooth headset. You can get them on eBay for around $20 but I decided to spend a bit more to get a few extra features. I spent $100 on a Jabra Stone 2 because it has a neat dock that recharges the tiny headset up to 10 times between recharges and the headset itself has limited voice control, so I don’t have to fiddle with tiny buttons to answer calls.
    Then I bought one of those FM transmitter things from eBay for $13.99 delivered. The sound quality is not as bad as you first think it will be. Once a song kicks in, the signal gets stronger and the annoying hiss you get between songs is supressed. It is very rare that other signals interfere with it (two-way radios in trucks, taxis, etc. seem to be the worst culprits) and it also takes USB Flash drives and SD cards, as well as having an aux input. I’m completely happy with this set-up now, it works really well.

  • I had this problem – solution far easier… Yes to USB ciggy adaptor. Then I bought $40.00 Bluetooth blueAnt. Built in voice control. It makes hands free calls and plays all my tunes wirelessly 🙂 happy days 🙂

  • I co-opted the pre-smartphone phone kit input on the car stereo to get my smartphone connected. Granted, it’s mono only, but it works quite well, I don’t lose the steering wheel controls or the on board display in the dash.

    The system I have is quite simple: One cable carries the sound from a 3.5mm plug for the phone’s headphone outlet, another runs to a switch in the centre console I use to throw the car stereo into external input mode.

    I made the input cable by modifying an adaptor cable – a little “persuasion” of the plug freed the spade connectors, the other end was a RCA plug. I then ran an 3.5mm to RCA cable from there. The spade connectors slip straight onto the phone kit input pins on the back of the stereo.

    It’s been a couple of years now, but I seem to remember it was less than $20, half of that being the adaptor cable, which I bought at an audio installer’s after going in with some photos on my phone of the back of my stereo unit.

    I don’t claim credit for the idea – I found something online describing something like this, and I just prettied it up slightly.

    Power from cigarette lighter -> USB socket adaptor and a cheap vent dock from eBay to hold the phone. I’ve actually gone through three vent docks now – sold the first with the iPhone, the others have been cheapies from eBay. At under $5 I didn’t get too upset when I knocked one cleaning the car one day and snapped something.

  • Belkin bluetooth Aircast:

    It’s $130 on the Apple store which is $40 more than I paid and probably over three times what it’s worth, but it’s an elegant little design and very unobtrusive. Only requirement is an auxiliary audio jack into the car stereo, and a car power outlet (the power plug allows usb piggybacking for other devices). Everything is played through the car speakers. As Mike noted above reasonable stereos with aux in jacks are less than $100 now.

    For hands free use it allows iPhone voice control using bluetooth and activated by the Belkin mike/button, so I can make calls and listen to music (including selecting what to play etc) with my phone in my pocket. It allows me to access my phonebook directly and not have to enter numbers into another device for voice control. I don’t have Siri but I’m pretty sure this would work as well. I haven’t seen it tried with Android.

    Only downside I’ve found (apart from overpricing) is that the mike/button flashes for an incoming call but doesn’t make a sound. This means that if I’m listening to the radio I have to either feel/hear my phone ring from my pocket or notice the (not extremely noticeable) light flashing on the mike/button.

    A great little unit, highly recommended. If it’s on sale.

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