Monday, September 16, 2013

Living with Ford Sync

Having had Ford Sync in my long-term rental (while my car gets repaired - and yes - it IS a long time because a chunk of the parts were on back-order), I've grown to hate it in the same way that it seems most Ford owners hate it. It seems to offer so much but it is very poorly implemented.
Let's start with something simple : bluetooth audio. In the car I'm in, a 2013 Focus, you cannot default the Sync system to bluetooth audio. It always reverts to Line-In each time you start the ignition. My two previous cars have been able to do this - why can't Sync? So to choose bluetooth, I have to either navigate through 8 key presses (Sync->menu->play options->media options->source select->line-in->Bluetooth audio->enter) or I have to speak to the car. Which leads me to item #2:
Sync can't understand a damn thing I say. And it's not just me - I have an English accent so I always have trouble with voice controls (my iPhone has to be on 'Australia' before Siri can understand even the most basic command). If I have a car full of American friends, it can't understand any of them either. Not even simple commands. "Radio" - "I don't understand. Please speak a command". "RADIO!" - "Bluetooth audio, please speak a command." Ok let's try something else. "FM Radio" - "Phone - do you want to dial?". Erm. "No" - "Which number?"
And so on and so on. My natural bias against all things Microsoft would normally lead me to conclude that it's simply because it's Microsoft's Auto OS underneath that it has so many problems. But I'm not really sure. The bluetooth audio is sketchy at the best of times, so instead I tried a hardwired line-in instead, via the USB connector. At this point, I thought I was a genius. Hey - if it always defaults to Sync Line In, why not just use that? Aha. The Microsoft and Ford engineers are one step ahead of me, it seems, because when I do that, the system then defaults to CD, and it's the same 8 button presses to try to get the line-in to work.
There are other problems too. Sync is the first in-car system I've used where it can't or won't use the phone unless you upload all your contacts (the address book) into Sync. I've no idea why this is necessary - no other car I've owned or driven needs this. VW, Chevy, Audi, Fiat, Renault, Mercedes - all these can simply access the phone book via the bluetooth connection. But Ford Sync insists that your address book must be in it's system before you can use it. So for the most part, phone-syncing appears to be a hobbled system.
Then there's the display. My rental didn't have the full up 'touch' version but instead the version with the little LCD screen in the dash and the second one at the top of the radio stack. What's weird is that the cutout at the top of the radio stack could easily fit a screen the size of a modern smartphone - a Galaxy S4 fits in that hole just nicely. But instead it's a monochrome blue-and white display that is about 3 inches diagonal. This makes it awkward to get info off at a glance, and I find myself looking at it far longer than I should when driving to try to figure out what Sync is doing. Unlike a lot of other cars, these two displays are independent of each other, so for example you can't see the current audio or phone settings on the screen in front of you in the dash - only on the center screen.
I get the impression that Sync is one of those rushed projects that was pushed out the door to meet a deadline, rather than when it was ready. Driven by SAP or process flow, or some other management buzzword, it appears that Ford sacrificed usability in favour of ticking a box that read "project completed".
All this is a very great shame because the Focus is a pretty damn good car, even in neutered rental car form.