Mobility

How I get the most from my smartphone in the car

A smartphone offers many uses in the car; navigation, communication and entertainment. Learn how the author set up his smartphone with a new car for maximum benefit.

I recently upgraded my car (IT guys always think in technology terms) to a 2014 Toyota Venza and was pretty excited by the Bluetooth possibilities provided by the new vehicle. My previous car didn't have much in the way of user-based technology (the cassette player was last played when President Bush was still in office, I believe) and I was used to lugging around a big folder of CDs.

I wrote an article last April on the benefits of Google Play Music which allows you to upload your entire music library and play titles wirelessly or through your mobile data connection (you can also download them to local storage). At the time I could connect my smartphone to my stereo in the old vehicle using an aux cable to play MP3s or streaming radio, but I quickly found out this was an awkward situation; I had to unlock the screen on the smartphone to change songs and then tap here and there to get at what I wanted. CDs were more convenient to me since I could just pop them in and take them out while driving down the road at 55 mph (or thereabouts). However, with the new car I decided it was finally time to get off CDs and take advantage of new opportunities. While I appreciate classic rock, I find "classic tech" such as optical media too old-school to bother with.

The Venza offers Bluetooth connectivity to link up my Samsung Galaxy Smartphone so I can use the phone and music functions directly through my car speakers, which I wanted to talk about today since I find it interesting how this works from a mobility perspective.

Now, I want to state up front these features are not brand new - Bluetooth functionality of this nature has benefited drivers and passengers for years - but it's a good benchmark of the capability of some current vehicles as well as an opportunity to describe some additional techniques I utilized to meet my objectives and make my smartphone my second engine while I'm in transit.

Retiring my CDs

Some of my CDs kicked around since my college days, and I backed up many of them to my hard drive in the form of MP3 files. I did this using Audiograbber which works amazingly well. By the time I bought the new car I'd say about ¾ of my CDs also existed as MP3 files. I audiograbbed the rest to consolidate the entire collection on my hard drive, then copied them to the 64 Gb micro-SD card on my Android. Yes, I also use Google Play music for streaming where convenient, but I like the idea of having all my files stored locally in case my network connection is having issues or something funky happens.

Hooking up the phone

Getting the Samsung connected via Bluetooth was child's play; I made sure Bluetooth was activated on the phone then used the console screen in the car to connect the audio player:

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After setting up the passcode I could then access Samsung phone and music functions via the car console.

First I checked out the phone, which was easy to use by pressing the "phone" button (see above screenshot) next to the console screen.

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The handy options here allow me to dial numbers, access contacts, speed dials and call history. It's possible to use voice commands via the phone as well... but there is a snag there which I'll discuss below. Incoming calls allow me the option to accept or reject from the console. Since there's a law against texting while driving in my state, Massachusetts, this helps me tremendously since I can use the phone instead.

Playing the music

I took a look at the console-based music settings for my Bluetooth-linked device and found them to be similar to other standard sound options; treble and bass selections, for instance, as well as speaker orientation:

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Then I tested the connection by playing music via the default music player on the Samsung.

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Note the music app lets you organize items by Songs, Playlists, Albums, Artists and Years. I chose a suitable song and it began playing through the car speakers, with the following screen displayed on the console:

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Now, I had hoped the console screen would provide full access to all of the music on my smartphone; the ability to choose and play any items directly from the touch interface rather than control it from the Samsung. That's not the case, unfortunately. While I can play, pause, specify repeat/random songs and use the upper right dial to flip through songs within this particular album/folder/genre (depending on how I organized my music in the second-to-last screenshot), I have to select the music I want to hear via the Samsung - though I can pick albums, playlists and other options so I'm not just playing music on a song-by-song basis. In other words, the console screen and controls only let me manage my current selection or group thereof.

This was a bit of a damper since I didn't want to fish the Samsung out of the cupholder every time I wanted to hear a different batch of music. However, I worked around the problem with a Bracketron windshield-mounted smartphone holder (I mounted it on the center console just fine). This allows me more visibility and control over the Samsung while using it for music or maps - though I don't directly access it while driving unless I'm stopped or someone else is at the wheel.

The handy steering wheel controls let me easily toggle between radio/auxiliary/Bluetooth functionality which is reflected on the console screen (which you can tap to access the option you want):

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I found a few quirks when playing music through the phone:

Voice control had to be turned off since songs would frequently stop playing halfway through. It seemed evident the Samsung was interpreting some sort of background noise as a "stop playing" command, so I had to disable it - though I plan to revisit this issue to see why. Voice control over the phone would be ideal since as I said I don't consider it safe to juggle through music while driving.

The play/pause buttons on the console don't always work, generally if the phone screen is locked. In fact, if I try to resume playing a song on my Samsung via the console it'll seem to try to do so - the time counter begins incrementing - but nothing happens. I then have to use the play function on the Samsung itself.

If you turn off the car in the middle of a song then turn it back on it will sometimes reconnect to the phone (as long as it has Bluetooth turned on) and start the song from the beginning. Probably not a quirk so much as the fact the audio track can't pick up where it left off.

Overall, I'm quite pleased with the capabilities between my Android and my car. I get enough red lights driving around town (more than enough, actually) so I can switch albums if need be, or I can use playlists with plenty of material to keep me entertained. There are other services I can use as well such as Pandora or Spotify to expand my musical tastes.

The controls on the steering wheel and console screen make it easy to quickly navigate about the interface, and the smartphone holder puts my Samsung on center-stage, so to speak, letting me use Google Maps to plan my commute or quickly check alerts. If I receive a text message or other notification it plays through my car speakers (as will any sound generated by my smartphone) and with the text messaging preview function turned on I can quickly determine if I need to call someone back or pull over to communicate.

It's pretty amazing even as a tech guy to think that every album I've ever owned (some of which got lugged up to my dorm room in crates) sits on a micro-SD card on my smartphone. Now my collection of old Doors, U2 and Cure CDs is up for grabs - any takers?

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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