Review: BlueAnt Commute Voice Activated Handsfree Car Kit
In the middle of 2011, BlueAnt's S4 car speakerphone impressed us with its combination of impressive performance, clean design, and reasonable pricing. Around a year and a half later, the company released Commute ($99), a sequel with virtually identical specifications and a somewhat different industrial design. We're reviewing Commute today, though it's so similar to S4 that we're primarily focusing on the differences between models; our prior review may have additional details of interest to some readers.
Just like S4, Commute is a plastic and metal car visor-mounted speakerphone, bundled with the necessary accessories to mount in your vehicle and recharge there. A micro-USB cable and simple 0.5-Amp car charging bulb are included in the package, as is a single metal visor mounting clip, down from two clips bundled with S4. Commute’s sole clip uses physical pressure rather than magnets to attach, another seemingly modest downgrade that resulted in some scuffing to the speakerphone’s back side after multiple attachments and detachments. Thankfully, you’re unlikely to notice the blemishes, given the correct orientation of the unit on either a visor or tabletop.
Apart from the pack-in changes, the biggest tweaks to Commute are in its enclosure. Relatively little has changed in size: Commute is 4.87” tall (versus 4.88” in S4), with 2.35” width (versus 2.38” in S4) and a 0.84” thickness, the latter up just a little from 0.62” in S4. S4’s body consisted of a mix of four primary colors—a black chrome top, a silver metallic center bar, a black mesh speaker grille, and a gunmetal rear shell. Commute is instead dominated by a glossy black plastic top with four small slits to expose a silver mesh speaker grille, and the rest of the unit is an almost black dark gray plastic. Unlike S4, which felt iPhone-inspired, Commute’s design is very certainly BlackBerry-like, which isn’t a bad thing at all; it actually wears its colors and all-but-flat curves at least as well as the phones do. The only unfortunate element of the new design is its scratchability; like the back, the front will be easily tarnished if it’s taken in and out of bags, developing a patina of surface scratches. There was considerably less glossy surface area on S4, due to its more prominent speaker grille.
Functionally, Commute and S4 are virtually identical, with the exact same specifications—Bluetooth 2.1 support, 20 hours of talk time, and 700 hours of standby time. We won’t repeat all of the details from our prior S4 review, but each of the 2011 vintage features carried over to this model, including two-phone multipoint pairing, the ability to store phonebook entries, a noise reduction system, and simplified controls: an on-off switch, volume up and down buttons, and a select button, nothing more. The original design was efficient, and this model continues that theme.
As with S4, Commute’s big selling point is an almost completely handsfree operation mode, combining voice recognition technology to let you speak to the accessory with voice prompts and text-to-speech technology enabling it to speak back to you. Turn on Commute for the first time, and after choosing the language for your voice prompts, it’ll guide you by voice through the Bluetooth pairing process, then download your phone’s contacts so that it can speak the names of incoming callers. While the transition between pre-recorded male English voice prompts and the female, Asian-sounding text-to-speech voice can be awkward (“Call From—Nick Guy—Answer or Ignore”), the speech feature otherwise works as expected.
Another element of the handsfree mode is Commute’s ability to initiate calls and provide access to Siri without requiring any physical interaction. It passively monitors all of the speech in its immediate radius, waiting to hear either the phrase “BlueAnt Speak to Me” or “Launch Voice Control” before doing anything. The former command lets you tell the accessory directly to redial a prior caller, provide battery status, or initiate pairing mode. “Launch Voice Control” triggers Siri to give you direct access to an iPhone’s deeper voice command functionality without needing to press a button. If you want to conserve battery life, BlueAnt continues to use a third (and now clearly marked) position for the on-off switch to activate a battery saving mode, which turns the passive voice monitoring off after two minutes of inaction; you can reactivate full voice control by pressing the accessory’s select button.
Commute’s audio performance is respectable. Thanks to a capable and intelligible single speaker, callers’ voices can be heard even when there’s wind blowing, and BlueAnt’s noise-canceling microphone does filter out the same wind—mostly—when you’re speaking to callers. The top front-mounted mic does let callers hear wind when you’re not talking, but otherwise dims it significantly enough to let you be heard clearly. A2DP mode is supported for streaming music or navigation/GPS turn-by-turn directions from your iPhone to Commute; music is flat and plays at somewhat lower than ideal volumes, but can be heard, while directions sound clear and crisp.
There were only a couple of small hiccups during our testing. Initial Bluetooth pairing required an iPhone reset after a number of failed attempts, even though Commute appeared properly in the iPhone 5’s Bluetooth settings menu right along with its helpful spoken prompts. Additionally, the unit’s capacitive controls are supposed to recognize both swipes and taps for volume adjustments, which sometimes introduces a little ambiguity: you can hit the left volume down button, but if you swipe a little from left to right atop it, volume goes up, and vice-versa with the right volume up button. Placing the select button between these controls is a slightly odd ergonomic decision, as well.
Apart from the out of the box aesthetic differences, which some users might prefer in either S4 or Commute, the newer model feels like a small downgrade in some ways. Beyond the increased tendency to tarnish and no-magnet mounting system, BlueAnt has reduced the warranty from 2 years to 1 year, and didn’t upgrade the hardware inside despite a reasonable gap between their release dates. Thanks to its still-strong speakerphone performance, we’d call Commute good enough to merit our general recommendation even today, but a future model could benefit from improved A2DP sound quality, slight tweaks to the control system, and a more resilient body design.