Ford Sync and the iPhone


Ford F-150 Lariat

On Black Friday I bought a big, expensive, mobile iPhone docking station called a Ford F-150 pickup. Ford, in an effort to compete with GM's OnStar system, co-developed a system called Sync with Microsoft. Sync is available as an option in most Ford vehicles and is standard in certain models (like my Lariat). My vehicle has the optional Sony music system as well, but not the $2500 touch-screen navigation system. That just seemed like something else to break.

Sync provides phone integration, support for external music players, vehical status reporting, and navigation (turn-by-turn directions). The whole thing has an excellent voice interface that I prefer to the buttons. In fact there are some things (like directions) I don't even know how to do with the buttons. The voice recognition is on target and almost always gets things right. I was skeptical of it and thought I'd never use it, but it's very useful.

Pairing my iPhone with the truck was dirt simple. Tell it to pair, type in the code, and it's done. The subsequent pairing with my phone when I get in and out of the truck has always worked.

Once you've paired the iPhone, calling is easy and the system provides good audio and people say my calls are nice and clear. The first time you pair the phone it downloads the address book and so the truck understands commands like "call joe jackson on cell" and then uses my phone book to complete the call. You can also just dial numbers, if you like.

Sync supports texting from the vehicle--including canned responses--and will read your incoming texts to you, but this doesn't seem to work with the iPhone. That's disappointing because I'd love the ability to hear my text messages while I'm driving. The system won't let you send off a text--even a canned response--if the vehicle is moving.

There are three ways to listen to music: using the line-in, Bluetooth, or the USB port. The line-in is just what it sounds like, a traditional eighth-inch audio port into which you can plug anything that generates analog audio. With this option, Sync has no control over the music player at all.

Since iPhone 3.0, the iPhone has supported Bluetooth audio streaming via the A2DP profile. This works great--almost too well. I haven't figured out how to turn off auto-play and so every time I get in my truck, the phone pairs and music starts streaming from my iPhone. Of course, this is hard on the battery, but for short trips, its absolutely the easiest option since it's mostly automatic. Note that the iPhone doesn't (yet?) support the Audio/Videio Remote Control profile, so Sync can't control the playback of the audio other than pause/play. That means you still have to use the iPhone to select playlists, skip songs, etc.

The USB option treats the iPhone like any other dock connector would. Using the USB port and an iPhone cable, you can dock the iPhone, play music, and control it using the command system built into the vehicle--including voice and textual display of the song information. For this to work well, Sync needs to index the songs on the iPhone. This is one place I ran into problems.

Audio integration functions on Ford Sync display

For whatever reason, Sync won't index anything if there are any songs that don't have complete artist, album, and genre information. If you're a Windows user, Ford offers a piece of software call "Sync My iTunes" that will fix your library. I'm not a Windows user. I tried using a Windows VM to do this, but the software kept complaining that iTunes was busy and failed. Ugh. What I ended up doing was just filling them in by hand. This wasn't as big a job as a feared. I used the column headers to sort the songs and find ones with empty fields and just filled them in as best I could. Took less time than trying to get "Sync My iTunes" to work in a VM. Sync could be more forgiving here, it seems and reduce a lot of owner frustration.

After I'd fixed the library, I plugged the iPhone into the truck and it started indexing...and indexing...and indexing. And it kept indexing for about the next 30 minutes. This is not a speedy process--something to do with the squirrels that run the processor I think. It seems that this indexing needs to happen anytime my library has changed (for shorter intervals, thankfully) and so usually happens each time I plug the phone into the USB port. That means it's mostly useful for longer term trips and I stick to Bluetooth audio streaming for most trips.

Sound source bar at the bottom of the iPod screen Selecting the audio source

One other problem you might run into is that at times the iPhone gets confused about where to send the audio stream. If you open the iPod app, you'll notice a "audio source" bar at the bottom and if you touch it, you can choose between the dock and Bluetooth when they're both active. This wasn't apparent to me at first.

The direction service doesn't have anything to do with directions on the iPhone--unfortunately. Still it works fine. When you activate it, you're actually making a phone call that let's you select from places you've entered online at SyncMyRide.com or just say and address. Once you do that, it calculates the directions and downloads something to the Sync system in the vehicle. Then you get turn-by-turn directions from the vehicle itself based on the information that got downloaded. If you need an update, it calls back automatically and updates. Think of it as a modem-based cloud service. All in all, it's usable and works fine. I think I'll stick to my iPhone for directions though since I'm a map guy.

Speaking of SyncMyRide.com, that's where you go to set up the system, look at vehicle status reports and so on. There's a pretty good help section and an "owner-to-owner" forum that I found to be quite helpful.

The first time I logged into SyncMyRide, it told me (based on my VIN, which I registered with) that my Sync system needed to be updated. The process is pretty easy. I downloaded the update file to a thumb drive and the plugged that into the USB port on the truck and selected the update function from the "advanced" menu. The system ran through an update process and told me when it was done. Afterwards you take the thumb drive back to your computer and log into SyncMyRide again to let it know how things went.

I went into this whole experience expecting lots of warts because of incompatibilities between the iPhone and Sync, but I've been plesantly surprised. The system works well and I enjoy having it. What incompatibilities there have been have largely been on Apple's side. For example, I wish Apple would support more of the Bluetooth profiles. Combined with the premium sound of the Sony stereo, I've got a great way to listen to music from my iPhone and make calls from the road.