• Review: TomTom Car Kit for Smartphone

    Obviously that's an Android handset, but I assure you this review is about using it with an iPhone.

    I've always been a huge fan of the original hands free car kit that TomTom released for the iPhone 3GS and 4/4S and it's one of the accessories that I've missed the most since making the switch to the iPhone 5. It's also become my benchmark for handsfree car kits and as such there'll be more than one comparison to it in this review.

    While there is as yet no official TomTom Hands-free Car Kit for the iPhone 5, with a Lightning to micro USB adapter the TomTom Hands Free Car Kit for Smartphone can fill that gap.

    The ProClip version (left) set to hold a phone with a side
    charging port and the standard version (right) set to hold
    phones with a bottom/top charging port.

    The car kit is designed (as the name implies) to be a universal handsfree car kit for smartphones and will suit phones which are 100mm tall or 54mm wide and phablets which are up to 127mm tall or 80mm wide. It accomplishes this with the, by now, standard adjustable arm that slides in and out to accommodate the dimensions of the phone. Where it gets clever, though, is by allowing you to adjust the position of the arms; the stationary arm pivots 90 degrees allowing you to use the removable adjustable on the left or top of the unit. This means that it can hold phones with the charging port on the bottom or top on the left and right or by the top and bottom for phones with the charging port on the side. Obviously, when using it with an iPhone you'd want to have it hold the phone on the left and right to free up the Lightning/Dock Connector port.

    On the front of the car kit you'll find an Answer and End button which allow you to answer and end/reject a call when your phone is in your pocket or handbag. With a phone mounted in the car kit, you lose access to these buttons which was initially quite frustrating due to the way that the iPhone decides which audio device to use based on how you answer the call.

    By default, when you slide or press to answer, the iPhone will use the microphone and earpiece on the phone itself even when connected to a bluetooth headset or car kit. This means that when sliding/pressing to answer you'd need to then change audio sources to get the iPhone to use the bluetooth headset or car kit. The only other way to get the iPhone to use the bluetooth device is to answer with a button on the device itself, which in the case of the car kits, would mean never actually having the iPhone mounted.

    After an hour of fruitless googling I ended up stumbling across a solution purely by accident while looking for something else. Buried in General -> Settings -> Accessibility is the option to choose a route for incoming calls. The first is default, which behaves as described above, the second is headset, which always answers on a connected bluetooth headset or car kit and is the option we want, and the third is speaker which forces the phone to always answer on speakerphone.

    Once I changed the setting to headset I could happily mount the iPhone and slide/press to answer without then needing to switch audio sources. I'm probably revealing my own ignorance here (or at the very least my inability to google things), but I really wish that I'd know about this setting years ago! It would also be nice if it was a setting under Phone and not buried in the Accessibility settings.

    On the left hand side there are volume controls and on the right you'll find a single voice control button which invokes Siri/Voice control or, with a long press, provides access to the car kits voice based menu (more on that later).

    The units microphone comes mounted to the stationary arm but is easily detachable and, thanks to an extension cable and some nifty included mounts and cable management accessories, can be mounted to on the A pillar or sun visor to better pick up your voice. This is a huge improvement over the microphone of the original Car Kit for iPhone which was built into the unit. In fact, it's probably my favourite feature of the car kit.

    The speaker (top) and multiple mounting options for the mic (bottom).

    Round the back you'll find a 2 watt speaker as well as the microphone port. Unfortunately the micro USB cable for the phone and the USB cable that powers the entire unit aren't detachable. Both are a decent enough length for their intended uses so that shouldn't pose a problem for most users.

    The speaker on the CarKit for Smartphone is surprisingly good. It works best when mounted in a position where it can bounce audio off your windscreen, but is still quite loud and clear when mounted on the dashboard or centre console. The unit also supports A2DP audio streaming and while I wouldn't use it to listen to music, it works really well for anything that is predominantly spoken word, like podcasts or audio books.

    Unfortunately, unlike the original TomTom Hands-free Car Kit for iPhone it doesn't include a 3.5mm audio out port, which is quite disappointing as that was on of my favourite features of the original. You can, however, still connect a 3.5mm audio cable directly to your iPhones headphone socket to play music and podcasts through your cars audio system. When you make or receive a call though, all audio will go through the car kit's speaker.

    Another feature of the original Car Kit for iPhone that's missing is the additional antenna which boosted GPS performance. In practice, with the improvements that we've seen in antennae design and smart phone GPS performance over the last few years, this will probably be a non-issue for most people.

    When you start the car kit up you're greeted by the sound of someone tapping out a short beat on a tom tom drum, it's dorky but I've actually become quite fond of it. It then automatically connects to any phone/phones that have been paired. If no phones have been found, the car kit informs you with an audio prompt.

    If no phones are paired, the car kit automatically goes into pairing mode and talks you through the process. In my experience it was quick and simple to pair the iPhone and I wasn't prompted for a pin.

    The car kit supports pairing with and simultaneous connection to two phones. I don't have much cause to use this feature, but in my limited experience with both mine and my fiancÚ's iPhone connected it worked pretty seamlessly.

    Pairing a second phone, as well as changing the audio language and a few other settings, is accomplished by long pressing on the menu/voice control button to activate the simple but functional voice menu.

    While I've looked at it purely from the point of view of an iPhone 5 user, it would work equally well with an iPhone 3GS, 4 or 4S using a micro USB to Dock Connector adapter or, of course, with any Android, Windows Phone or BlackBerry provided they charge via micro USB.

    There is a refreshed Car Kit for iPhone 3GS, 4 and 4S which sports many of the same features as the car kit. As well as a passive Charger and Mount Kit which doesn't include bluetooth for those who aren't looking for an included car kit.

    There's also a version of both the Car Kit for Smartphone and refreshed Car Kit for iPhone that is compatible with ProClip mounts.

    Since upgrading to an iPhone 5 late last year, I've been searching for the perfect in car mount and bluetooth car kit combo. I've tried both the Steelie and the Just Mobile Xtand Go in conjunction with a Belkin Air Cast Auto. While the TomTom Hands-free Car Kit for Smartphone isn't perfect, it comes pretty damn close and is a much better car kit than the Air Cast Auto. So much so that I picked one up for myself just before returning the review unit to TomTom.

    The TomTom Hands-free Car Kit for Smartphone retails for $149 and seems to be a little tricky to find at the moment. I bought mine from Harvey Norman but have seen it advertised in some Dick Smith and JB Hifi stores.

    By day Alec is a Cisco certified network engineer who deploys IP Telephony infrastructure from his trusty 2011 unibody MacBook Pro. By night he's an amateur technology pundit with an addiction to mobile phones who plays far too many video games. You can normally find him lurking on the forums (formerly thatfilthyspringbok), follow him on Twitter, Google+ or on his blog, Inane Geekery.

    His opinions are all his own and do not reflect those of MacTalk or his employer.
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