Taking your smartphone for a car ride

If you ever use your smartphone in a car, learn about accessories, software, phone features, and best practices that can make it safer and more productive to talk or search the web while you're on the go.

We really shouldn't use our smartphones while driving (in some places, it's even illegal), but many of us do it anyway, especially when our business depends on constant communication. If you use your smartphone when you're behind the wheel, we hope it's only when you're stopped or have pulled over to a safe spot.

The good news is there are accessories, software, phone features, and best practices that can make it safer and more productive to use your smartphone when you're on the road. We'll take a look at some of these options and provide tips for in-vehicle smartphone use.

Car docks and holders

When you fumble with your phone when you're driving, it uses up at least one hand that ought to be on the wheel. Even when you're not driving, it's much easier to deal with your phone in the car if it's securely mounted and not able to slip out of your hand.

If you think you'll ever use your smartphone in the car, the first accessory you should look at is a car dock, also called a car mount or a holder. The one I use, the Macally mCup, is shown in Figure A. Figure A

This car dock fits into the vehicle's cup holder.

There are many brands and styles of car docks and holders to choose from, all of which will have some sort of cradle or arms to grip your phone. There are a variety of ways that the car docks and holders can be attached to your vehicle, which include: windshield mount, dash mount, bean bag/sand mount, cup holder mount, and vent mount.

  • Windshield mount: This type of mount usually uses a suction cup to stick to your windshield and has an arm that drops down to hold the phone. The advantage is that you have a lot of flexibility in where to place it. A disadvantage is that some windshield mounts don't stick well and fall off, especially if the smartphone is a heavier-than-normal model. Another disadvantage is that it might block your vision through the windshield, and some jurisdictions have laws prohibiting placing things in the front windshield that obstruct the driver's view.
  • Dash mount: Most dash mounts work the same way as the windshield mounts (i.e., via suction) except that they stick to the dashboard, and the arm holding the phone goes up instead of down. With gravity on its side, this mounting configuration may not come "unstuck" as easily as a windshield mount. Depending on how your car's dash is designed, you may be limited in mounting locations. Since the dash is sometimes more textured and doesn't create suction as well as the glass windshield, you might need to use adhesive tape to stick a slick-surfaced disc to the dash and mount the suction cup on it. Sometimes the adhesives that come with these mounts leave residue on the dash when removed that is hard to get off.
  • Bean bag/sand mount: These types of holders fit into a bag filled with a heavy, flexible material such as sand or rice in a broad base that keeps the holder on the dash (many portable GPS units also use this type of mount). The advantage is that it's very portable and easy to move from one car to another, so you might want to consider this option if you use a lot of rental cars or switch vehicles often.
  • Cup holder mount: These mounts have a base that fits into the car's cup holder and usually have a wheel you turn to expand the size of the base slightly after placing it into the cup holder to tighten it in place. The only problem with this type of mount is that it may place the phone too low for optimum viewing, and depending on how the cup holders are positioned, the phone might end up obstructing your access to the radio, air conditioning, or other controls that are built into the console.
  • Vent mount: These holders have attachments that are designed to slip into the vent grille of the car's air conditioning/heating vents and are held in place by clips. This mounting option limits you to mounting the phone wherever the vents are located. Also, some vent mounts are more stable than others. As with the cup holder mount, the phone may get in the way of other controls.

Some car docks come with attachments so you can choose from several of these mounting methods. Another desirable feature is interchangeable arms or grips, which you can swap out to fit smartphones of different sizes; this means you won't have to buy a new holder if you upgrade to a larger or a smaller phone. Something to watch for on these "universal" docks is where the side arms or clips fall in relation to your phone's mini-USB connector. You'll probably want to be able to plug your phone into a car charger while it's in the holder, so make sure the connector isn't blocked by one of its parts.

Headsets and speakerphone kits

Once your smartphone is mounted, you need a way to make phone calls without removing it from the mount. That means you must be able to speak into it and hear what the person on the other end is saying without holding the phone up to your face. Almost all modern smartphones have a speakerphone feature, and some work better than others. If yours works well, you can simply set the phone to speakerphone when you're on a call.

Sometimes that feature doesn't work so well, though, especially with the noise of the road in the background. In that case, there are a number of options. Most smartphones now support Bluetooth, so you can get a Bluetooth headset (an earpiece with a built-in microphone) and pair it with your phone. Follow the instructions in your phone's documentation and the headset's instruction manual. Setup is pretty simple on most modern smartphones, as shown in Figure B.

If you don't like wearing a headset, an alternative is to buy a hands-free speaker/microphone system made for cell phones. These car kits usually mount on the sun visor or dash and communicate with your phone via Bluetooth.

Figure B

Pairing your smartphone with a Bluetooth headset or a speakerphone kit is simple on most phones.

A wireless headset or speakerphone kit is most convenient, but if your smartphone has a standard 3.5mm audio jack (as most today do), you can use wired earphones to listen to the phone's sound output. This can be especially desirable if you're using the phone as an MP3 player and there are others in the car who don't share your taste in music, podcasts, or audiobooks. Remember, though, that when you're driving you should never wear earpieces in both ears, as it might prevent you from hearing sirens or other sounds that you need to be aware of.

It's also possible to run the smartphone's audio output through your car stereo system and listen to it on the car's built-in speakers. If your vehicle has an auxiliary input jack, just find an audio cable with the appropriate connectors on each end (the AUX jack is often 2.5mm mini-RCA, and the phone is probably 3.5mm) and plug it in. You won't be able to use your car's CD player or listen to the radio when the phone is plugged in. To solve that problem, some dedicated portable GPS units have auxiliary input jacks or Bluetooth connectivity, too. You can run the phone's audio through the GPS, and you're still able to use your car's stereo system at the same time.

Voice command features and apps

One of the most dangerous things you can do when using your smartphone in the car is type in data, whether it's the name of a contact you want to call, a web search, or a destination to which you want to navigate using the GPS app. If you're going to use your phone in the car, setting up and learning its voice features is a must.

Many smartphones have the following features; if your phone doesn't come with them, you can download apps that have voice command features:

  • Voice dialer: This feature lets you speak the name of someone in your contact list to dial the person's phone number.
  • Voice search: This feature lets you search the web by speaking the keywords on which you want to search.
  • Voice recorder: This is a feature or downloadable app with which you can make recorded notes instead of trying to jot down notes on paper or type them into your phone. There are many downloadable apps that do this.
  • Voice command: This included feature or downloadable app lets you control many aspects of your phone's operation. An example is VoicePOD for Android, with which you can give voice commands such as "copy text," "read news," "turn Wi-Fi on," and many more.

Other handy features and apps

Many smartphones come with a "car panel" or "car dock" app provided by the phone vendor. Some of these apps are more functional or more aesthetically pleasing than others. For examples, see those on the original HTC Incredible (left) and the Motorola Droid 2 Global (right) in Figure C. Figure C

Many smartphones come with a Car Panel app, but all of the apps aren't created equal.

The idea of the car panel is to provide links to features and apps most used in the car in a graphical interface that is more car-friendly (for instance, larger icons to make it easier to touch the right one without the need for precision). Some phones will automatically detect when they're in a car dock and put themselves into "car mode."

Some phones don't come with a car panel feature. For example, that feature is included in the HTC Incredible but, for some reason, has been removed in the HTC Incredible 2. If your phone lacks this feature, you can download an app such as Car Dock Home v3, which provides up to seven screens on which you can have apps and widgets for easy access in the car, with large 2x3 cell icons. When the phone enters or exits car mode, it changes settings automatically to enable/disable GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, set all volumes to max in car mode, and more.

Another option is to create a car panel on one of your customizable home screens. You just put all the apps you would normally use in the car, such as Navigation, Places, links to your most frequently called phone numbers, etc., on that screen (Figure D). Figure D

You can create your own car panel on one of your customizable home screens.

There are many other smartphone apps available for Android, iPhone, and other popular platforms that pertain to your car in some way. For example, there are a number of apps designed to help you find your car when you park it in a large lot or a garage, such as Car Locator for Android and Find My Car for iOS and Windows Phone 7. SpeedView is an Android app that uses the phone's GPS to show your current, maximum, and average speed with more accuracy than your vehicle's speedometer. AutoGuard Blackbox records your speed, acceleration levels, latitude, altitude, and other information that could be useful in proving your innocence (or guilt) if you're accused of being at fault in an accident.


In today's busy, mobile world, it's almost inevitable that we'll end up using our phones in the car. Having the right tools -- hardware and software -- makes it easier and safer.

What are your favorite in-car accessories and apps? What car-related add-ons have you wished for, and not been able to find? How do you make your smartphone work for you, without putting you at risk, when you're on the go?

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