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Driving in the UK is fraught with dangers and penalties, where every little thing you do behind the wheel can potentially land you in hot water, get you a fine or have penalty points added to your license. There have even been cases quoted in the press where innocent motorists eating chocolate bars while waiting at a red traffic light have been prosecuted for driving without due care and attention.
At the end of 2003 it became illegal for a motorist to hold their mobile phone while driving, the penalty for being caught doing so a thirty pound fine and three points on your driving license. With motorists already struggling to keep their license clean and free of points and their wallets free of fines, mobile phone manufacturers swiftly released a plethora of handsfree devices for their phones, ranging from headsets that make you look like the Borg (sorry for the Star Trek reference) to in-car units that make you look as if you're talking to yourself, a crime almost akin to singing along to the radio.
However, I must admit I'd go for looking like a nutter any day than being stopped by PC Plod and finding my already burgeoning license heaped with yet more points and so when I brought my new Jeep I headed out to get myself a new handsfree solution. Not wanting to look like an alien from a science fiction series and not keen on headsets that involve wires being draped across your torso while driving along, I opted to go for a full handsfree kit, where callers would happily be heard by my passengers but nothing would interfere with me keeping both hands on the steering wheel.
I contemplated the manufacturer's own fixed handsfree system for my Sony Ericsson T610, a unit that both charges the handset as well as acts as the handsfree device, but ultimately found such a system restrictive. My T610 is already looking battered and bruised and my contract is coming up for renewal; having the dedicated kit installed would mean I would be forced to stay with Sony Ericsson and much as I like the phone I'd like to have flexibility in the future. Bluetooth, then, is the answer.
Bluetooth is a communication protocol that allows like-minded devices to 'talk' to each other wirelessly, meaning files, data and audio can be transferred seamlessly in a local environment across a secure channel. The most common uses for Bluetooth are currently audio (handsfree and headset systems) and sharing files/games from one device to another, usually mobile phones.
This protocol is also extremely flexible, and implementing a bluetooth handsfree kit in my car meant that as long as I replace my T610 with another bluetooth handset, regardless of manufacturer, I will continue to enjoy penalty-free motoring while talking to my friends and colleagues.
There are a vast range of bluetooth systems out there, but I chose the Sony Ericsson HCB-30 because of its functionality and appearance ahead of the competition. The HCB-30 is by no means the cheapest option available but having looked at offerings by Nokia and Motorola it was certainly the best. Nokia often have issues surrounding Bluetooth, and I was advised that at least one of their handsfree systems was not compatible with any other mobile phone manufacturer than themselves, and Motorola's offering was £50 more expensive than the Sony Ericsson device, not to mention larger and more untidy in appearance.
I paid £239 including installation for the HCB-30, but for the amount I use my telephone while driving this is certainly a figure I was happy to pay. If you don't do much in the way of driving then there are cheaper alternatives or manufacturers headsets you can investigate instead.
The other advantage of Bluetooth is that a connection is made to your phone as long as it is within ten meters of the receiving device. Hopping into the car and starting the engine makes the connection, so even if you've forgotten to take your phone out of your product you are able to receive and answer calls straight away.
So what do you get for your £200+? The HCB-30 comes with a dashboard-mountable controller, speaker, microphone, bluetooth receiver and all the appropriate cabling. In the box, it all looks a little daunting and I would seriously recommend that unless you are very adept at installing electronics in cars you get a specialist to do it for you; this is what I did and the job was done professionally and quickly and my car looks neat & tidy - I know full well that if I'd tried to do the job I would have blown several fuses and the controller would soon have fallen off the dashboard anyway.
The device is compatible with many car stereos and if your unit is also compatible then the provided external speaker is not necessary - the device will mute the stereo upon receiving or making a call and you will hear the person on the other end of the line via the car's speakers; if, like my car, your stereo is not compatible then the supplied speaker is used instead. The only downside to this is that you have to mute the stereo manually, but I've heard many people say that they would recommend the use of the separate external speaker rather than the stereo's anyway as this provides less echo.
Once installed, the bluetooth receiver is discreetly mounted behind dashboard panels, as is the speaker if needed, and the only visible component is the five-button controller placed appropriately on the dashboard. This is all you need to see or use in order to make and receive calls.
The five-button controller allows you to pick up (or make) calls, end calls, adjust the volume up or down, and mute calls or transfer them to a headset unit; this latter function is dependent on the phone you have, however, as some don't support the function. Above the buttons are two LED lamps, one green one red. Red means the phone doesn't have a signal, green means it does, allowing you to see at a glance whether you can make and receive calls or not.
Receiving a call is easy - upon a call coming in the speaker will announce the call by sounding a ringer tone and you simply press the top button, or 'answer', wait for a short beep to announce the connection and then talk away. The microphone, usually mounted high up near the rear view mirror, is powerful enough to hear most voices above the average wind noise of a car so your caller can hear you clearly, and the speaker is very crisp and clear. Even mounted beneath the panels of my central console I can hear the person I am talking to clearly. Once the call is finished simply press the bottom button, or 'disconnect', and another short beep announces the end of the call.
Making a call depends a little on your phone and the functions set up on it. My T610, for example, supports voice dialling for the names I have configured this against. To use this feature, simply push and hold the top button until a long beep announces the connection - speak the name of the person you are calling, the phone you wish to connect to (home, work etc.) and the call will be dialled automatically by the phone for you. If, however, you don't have voice dialling then you need to select the number from your phone's menu and press dial on the phone - the HCB-30 will then pick up the call for you. Ending the call is done in the same way as above.
Volume controls allow you to increase or decrease the speaker volume as deemed necessary and if you wish the call to be private the middle button will allow you to transfer the call to the handset, but only if your phone supports this particular function; if not, you will need to use the phone's menu to transfer the call. At the next call, the HCB-30 will automatically reconnect meaning no further fiddling with the menu is necessary.
Overall, the look, feel and ease of use of this device is exceptional and of all the handsfree bluetooth systems availalbe on the market this has to be the most stylish and best value.
It is worth remembering, however, that the holding of a mobile phone is illegal and the phone should be mounted securely somewhere on the dashboard; kits can be purchased from just £4.99 from many mobile phone outlets around the country - guidelines state that touching the keys to operate the functions of your mobile phone is absolutely fine as long as the phone itself is securely mounted.
So staring at the screen sending and receiving text messages while driving along is absolutely fine, then...