Review: Kensington Hands-Free Visor Car Kit for iPhone + Bluetooth Phones
Compatible: iPhone, iPhone 3G
A year has passed since Bluetrek and Contour Design rocked our worlds with SurfaceSound Compact, a $100 iPhone-compatible in-car wireless speakerphone system that combined a flat-panel speaker, a wand-like microphone, a rechargeable battery pack and a Bluetooth chip in one slim, car visor-mounted housing. Though it certainly wasn't the first Bluetooth speakerphone, SurfaceSound Compact was a simple, attractive, and highly practical solution for people who wanted to make and receive calls from their iPhones without having to actually hold the phones up to their ears while steering. Now there are a number of competitors, and we review two more today: Parrot's Minikit Chic Bluetooth Wireless Speakerphone ($101), and Kensington's Hands-Free Visor Car Kit for iPhone and Bluetooth Phones ($120).
Before discussing the Parrot and Kensington options, it’s worth noting that the in-car speakerphone category is a little more complex at this point than just comparing apples to apples: though the options all perform the same basic functions, not all of these devices are built with the same types of parts, packed with the same items, or even laden with the same types of technology inside. SurfaceSound came with a simple car charging bulb, USB cable, and optional wired earpiece, but a later, $130 competitor from BlueAnt—Supertooth 3—was thicker, included wall and car charging cables, two magnetic mounting brackets to let you transfer the unit from vehicle to vehicle, and a “text to speech” system that could tell you the names or telephone numbers of your incoming callers. Both units offered 15 hours of talk time, with SurfaceSound promising 21 days of powered-on standby time, and Supertooth around 33. We preferred the sound quality of SurfaceSound, but Supertooth was pretty good, too.
Parrot’s and Kensington’s products offer different takes on their predecessors. As the fashionable, flower-decorated version of Parrot’s Minikit Slim, Minikit Chic is priced as aggressively as the SurfaceSound, and is roughly as sparingly packaged: it includes a car charger and a USB cable, nothing more, and uses similar flat-panel speaker technology to achieve a fashionable, slim design. It compromises on battery life, however, offering only 10 hours of talk time, meaning that you’ll need to pull it more often from your visor for recharging, a fact that won’t endear it to many users.
But Minikit Chic adds a couple of things that SurfaceSound lacks: the text-to-speech feature found in Supertooth 3, and a “jog wheel” that lets you access voice-assisted menus within the device; there are power and pairing indicator lights on the face, but for whatever reason, they quickly turn off rather than staying on. When it initially pairs with your iPhone, it quickly downloads the phone book, enabling you to hear callers’ names or numbers when they call. You’re also supposed to be able to use the oversized button-shaped wheel to turn your way through the downloaded phonebook to find people to call. Sometimes, the feature worked properly and let us pick between different numbers—work, home, cell—for a given caller. Sometimes, it called the wrong person without any confirmation. It seems like there are some bugs to work out in the outgoing direction, but as-is, it does let you hear who’s calling without making serious mistakes. For better or worse, the wheel also handles volume adjustment.
By contrast, Kensington’s new unit has a higher price tag and a different take: it doesn’t include the text-to-speech functionality, but aims to solve other problems that aren’t addressed by its competitors: battery life and dialing convenience. Kensington includes a car charger, but no means to connect it directly to the Hands-Free Visor Car Kit. Instead, you get a USB-cabled battery charger, and two included 10-hour rechargeable batteries. Though you get five hours less per battery than with the previously reviewed car speakerphones, Kensington’s power approach here is unquestionably a highly practical one: keep the charger in your car or house, have the second battery as a spare, and swap between them as needed. While the Hands-Free Visor Car Kit is consequently the thickest of these options overall, it’s also the least likely to run out of juice when you really need it—assuming you keep the second battery around—and unlike the others, will never need to be removed from your visor for charging.
There’s another nice feature in the Kensington unit: a set of three one-touch dialing buttons that are found in a convenient spot on the unit’s face. Setting each button’s number is as simple as holding down one of the buttons during a call from that number; dialing requires nothing more than a light press, and like pairing status, lights on the device’s face make clear when you’re dialing a number. Kensington has also made volume adjustment easy with a simple slider, with separate dedicated buttons for pairing and power. The Hands-Free Visor Car Kit is, consequently, easy to set up and operate; there’s no fussing with a menu system, as in the Parrot device, to call people or change the volume. You do give up the larger number of potential callers the Parrot system can reach through its downloaded phonebook, but in practice, fidgeting with the Minikit Chic’s wheel to call people is even more difficult than just swiping to the right caller yourself on the iPhone. Neither is a great idea when you’re supposed to be concentrating on driving.
Outgoing audio performance wasn’t identical between these units and their predecessors. Callers told us that they all sounded pretty good, but that the Kensington was more treble-focused, making our voices sound less natural but more intelligible, while doing a comparatively impressive job of filtering out ambient background noise. The Parrot unit had a more natural sound signature for our voices, sounding more like the iPhone itself—a fact that our callers preferred—but it also picked up more background noise than the Kensington. While the Parrot’s sound might be preferable in a low-noise vehicle, the Kensington was a better pick for high noise environments. Supertooth 3, by comparison, was in-between these options on sound, with more treble than the Parrot but also more ambient noise.
Incoming audio performance also varied from unit to unit. The Minikit, Supertooth 3, and SurfaceSound were all louder but flatter at their top volumes than the Kensington, which has a maximum output volume and clarity that’s very similar to the iPhone 3G’s bottom-mounted speaker. If this sounds as if the Kensington’s comparatively deficient, it’s not by much; the visor-mounted speaker location makes it plenty audible in a car, except over the loudest ambient noise. Thus, there’s somewhat of a paradox: if you have a really noisy car interior, the Kensington will let callers hear you the best, but you may have an easier time hearing them with the others.
At this point, the choice between these options will come down more to a given user’s needs than any huge difference in their performance, a reason that their ratings are all so similar. We continue to really like the innovative, thin design of the SurfaceSound Compact, combined with its solid battery life and strong sound quality. While each of the two new alternatives offers its own advantages—easily swappable batteries and super-simple three-caller dialing in the more expensive Kensington, and sleeker looks and voice-based caller ID in the Parrot Minikit Chic—neither delivers a definitive knockout punch to the Contour and Bluetrek product, due to their 10-hour talk times, Parrot’s less than perfect voice implementation, Kensington’s higher price, and their differing approaches to incoming and outgoing audio quality.
Thus, our recommendations here are positive, but qualified: if you’re looking for simpler dialing, don’t mind paying more and getting a thicker enclosure, and are willing to swap batteries every 10 hours, you may prefer Kensington’s design over the SurfaceSound. Similarly, if you want voice-aided caller ID plus similar thinness and pricing to the SurfaceSound, and don’t mind less overall talk time and a slightly buggy menuing system, consider the Parrot. While both of the new units have totally fine, wire-based visor mounts, Supertooth 3’s magnetic system is probably the most convenient of all of the options, and it offers good battery life and standby time. If none of the extra frills aren’t important to you, Contour still has a very strong option with a great combination of features and performance at a reasonable price.