*** Updated January 6, 2013 – scroll to the bottom of the page for my thoughts after 10 months of use, including impressions of the Belkin AirCast Auto HandsFree and the iPhone 5 ***
[No duh] Music technology moves fast. [/No duh] Depending on the product, a reasonable upgrade cycle can be anywhere from a two to four years. Any piece of high-tech gadgetry more than five years old, even if it’s still working, is in danger of becoming a paperweight. Most people, however, upgrade their cars a lot less frequently than they do their music players. (In the past fifteen years, I’ve owned a Walkman, two or three portable CD players, a MiniDisk player, thee iPods and three smart phones with music capabilities.) The result is a car / music technology gap that fuels a whole industry for quick-fix products.
The first such “gap product” I owned was the infamous tape-deck adapter. You probably had one, too. I used it in my ten-year-old Honda Accord hatchback in the CD era. I remember popping the fake cassette into the dashboard, plugging the trailing wire into my DiscMan, and then trying not to hit any bumps on the way to school, to minimize skipping. My next car had an in-dash CD player (hurrah!), but before long, I had to buy an FM transmitter so I could listen to my iPod while cruising for honeys.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. Today my car has an AUX input, but now I want Bluetooth, so I can play my music, sans annoying wires, and make hands-free phone calls. Some modern / luxury cars come with Bluetooth capabilities, and you can buy after-market in-dash stereos with this functionality, but those solutions are too involved for me. To again cheaply and easily bridge the car / technology gap, I began searching for an add-on Bluetooth solution.
THE SOLUTION – THE BELKIN AIRCAST AUTO HANDSFREE
When I started poking around, I assumed there would be many established automotive Bluetooth devices on the market. Strangely, I found only a handful of items. Further, the available information (reviews, product specs) was thin. I Googled, and read, and Googled some more, eventually landing on the Belkin AirCast Auto HandsFree.
The AirCast Auto product video, although cheesy, was relatively clear. The AirCast seemed to offer the functionality I was looking for. With it, I would be able to:
- Play music from my phone wirelessly, via Bluetooth, through my car stereo
- Control my phone wirelessly — play and pause music and skip songs, plus initiate voice dialing
- Conduct in-car, hands-free phone calls via built-in microphone
- Keep my phone charged on long rides via a powered USB port
I went to BustBuy to pick one up, but the sales guy knew of no such device. He checked the system and found they didn’t have any in stock, so I went home and logged on to the Internet, where I was able to order one no problem. It cost $57 before shipping.
The Belkin AirCast Auto, via Belkin’s webpage
When the AirCast Auto arrived at my door three days later, the box was so light, I thought they’d forgotten to enclose the product. On opening, however, I found the device. Simple and cleanly designed, the AirCast is composed of a round, half-dollar-sized button/microphone; a mounting plate for the button/mic, which is simply a disk with stick-um on one side and a magnet on the other; a thin wire connecting the button/mic to a 12-volt plug, which goes into what used to be known as the cigarette lighter port; and another cable terminating in a 3.5mm headphone plug that goes into the AUX port.
I glanced at the minimal instructions and then ran giddily to my car to set up the AirCast.
SETTING UP AND USING THE AIRCAST AUTO
The first thing you should do is plug in the AUX cable and the 12-volt plug. Then, find a flat spot on your dashboard facing you and as close as possible to your head, making sure the cable will reach and not get in the way of any important stuff, like your gear shifter. Once you have a good spot for the button/mic selected, un-peel the backing on the sticky mounting disk and press it firmly down. When you hold the button/mic to the mounting plate, it should attach itself via the mysterious force known as magnetism.
The Belkin AirCast Auto HandsFree button/mic mounted on the dash. Via the Belkin website.
Finally, you’ll need to pair the AirCast with your phone, which takes a little doing. I won’t go into it here, but refer to the instructions. Also be aware that the AirCast isn’t necessarily compatible with all Bluetooth phones. My phone, the HTC Inspire, wasn’t listed on the packaging as one of the compatible devices. It works anyway, so I’m not sure how Belkin came up with the list.
Once you’ve successfully paired your phone to the AirCast, every time you get in your car, you should be able to push the AirCast’s single button to re-establish the connection. The lighted ring on the button’s face will go from red to blue when the pairing is made. Wait a few seconds and then press the button again to begin playing your music. When music is playing, a single press will pause the song. Press again to resume. Two presses in quick succession will skip to the next track. Hold and press for two or three seconds to activate your phone’s voice dialing (“Call: Kings of Grillz,” for example). When making a call, simply speak into the air as if you were talking to a passenger and the mic will pick up your voice.
The Belkin AirCast does a great job of adding very basic Bluetooth functionality to a vehicle for a reasonable price. I’d definitely recommend it, with the caveat that it’s not fancy. It lets you play music, make calls, and charge your phone. You cannot switch between playlists or otherwise control your phone.
I love being able to get into my car, phone in pocket, push the dashboard-mounted button, and have my whole MP3 library rolling on shuffle, loud and clear through the car stereo. When I get a call, I just press the button to answer. After the caller hangs up, my music kicks back in where it left off. Sweet.
The sound quality is actually better than when I used a 3.5mm audio cable to plug my phone directly into the AUX port. My theory on this is that there is one less connection for the signal to travel through, as the Bluetooth stream is digital and, therefore, without interference or quality degradation. Someone who knows better than I do should correct me in the comments, below, if this doesn’t make sense…
The quality of the calls is pretty solid, too. I have been told by the folks on the other end that I sound a little faint, but relatively clear. I think things would probably be even clearer and louder if I had a better place to mount the mic. Right now, it’s pretty far down and to the right of me when I’m seated behind the wheel. (See update, below, for my new take on this topic.)
The biggest problem I have encountered with the Belkin AirCast Auto is the interface with my phone’s various music player apps. I have three apps for playing music — a Android stock player, Poweramp, and doubleTwist. I’m not sure how to dictate which of these the Bluetooth music connection automatically activates. When I’m using Power Amp, and I do the long press to initiate a voice call, for some reason the music starts to play through my phone speakers and not the car speakers. At the same time, the voice dialer kicks in, but the phone is no longer connected to the AirCast, so I can’t hear what’s going on. I have to manually cancel the voice dial on the phone and reconnect with the AirCast. If your phone was in your bag or pocket, this would be very inconvenient, and you might have to wait until you pull over to get the music playing again. I think this issue is more with my phone than with the player, but it’s still an issue. Maybe when I replace my Inspire with an iPhone, things will work a bit more smoothly.
Anybody else out there try this thing? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts…
*** UPDATE January 6, 2013 ***
I have been using the Belkin AirCast Auto HandsFree for about 10 months now. For most of that time, I was using it with an Android phone, the HTC Inspire (which, on the whole, was a crappy phone). The combo worked tolerably well, but it had a few problems: First, it took a while (10-15 seconds) to pair whenever I go in my car (I know, big deal, right?). Worse, I couldn’t find a way to set the default music player app that my phone used with the device. When using anything other than the stock Android music app, the voice dialing capability of the phone didn’t work. In addition, I couldn’t figure out how to use Android’s voice command functionality to do things like play a particular song or playlist. All I could do was play, pause, and skip songs. Basic, but still a nice set up.
But about two months ago I got an iPhone 5 and it’s been a major improvement.
The iPhone 5 seems to work better with the AirCast Auto HandsFree in every regard. It pairs almost instantly and it works like a charm with Siri, allowing me to verbally initiate phone calls, select songs, albums, artists, or playlists to play, and more. Unfortunately, it does not let me do things like request turn-by-turn driving directions, which would be an excellent addition. “Siri, give me directions to the Johnny Kolache’s, Salt Lake City, Utah,” yields the following response: “Sorry, Justin, I can’t help you with that.” Ah well, maybe in the next update…
A note on call quality through the Belkin AirCast Auto HandsFree: After using the device to make calls from the road for several months, I’ve decided it’s not worth the convenience. The quality on both ends is just a little too low. When talking to my parents, they’ll often remark that it sounds like I’m calling from a tin can, and the road noise (I drive a Honda Element — maybe your Lexus would be better in this department) is overpowering. Instead, I plug in the headphones with in-line mic that came with my iPhone and chat that way. It’s easier for both parties to hear the conversation.
So, after 10 months, my verdict remains the same: for a low-cost Bluetooth add-on solution, the Belkin AirCast Auto HandsFree is great, especially with the iPhone 5 (and, I’m assuming, the 4 and 4s, too). If you want something that will allow you to visually control your phone’s music player, you’ll probably need to pony up for an in-dash system with LCD display, but that’s a whole other ball of wax. If all you want is to play your tunes through your car stereo system sans wires, this is a killer little solution.