This past week I've been trying out Ford Motor Co.'s MyFord Touch system, the company's newest technology for controlling the vehicle's entertainment and climate systems, phone calls, plus numerous other functions. It can diagnose your vehicle and send you a report with recommended actions, let you access Ford to obtain turn-by-turn directions, traffic reports, sports scores and read incoming text messages.
I tried it in a 2011 Ford Edge Sport, a crossover SUV equipped with 4-wheel drive, but without the optional GPS navigation, and with a sticker price of about $39,000. MyFord Touch comes standard in this model and costs $1,000 in other mid-line models.
MyFord Touch is the next generation of the highly rated Sync system. Advances include new voice recognition capabilities and additional displays and controls. The system uses three displays for presenting the car's status and controlling its functions: an 8-inch color resistive touch display in the center of the dashboard and two 4.2-inch displays that flank the speedometer dial directly in front of the driver.
The 8-inch display's home screen is divided into four color-coded quadrants, each with touch buttons, on-screen lists, and icons to control the entertainment system, climate system, cell phone and settings. Each quadrant can be expanded to the full display to access more features.
The screen to the left of the speedometer is used to display a tachometer, gas gauge and engine temperature; it can be changed to show trip data, mileage and other information using a 5-way controller on the left spoke of the steering wheel. It works much like the controller on a digital camera.
The right display presents a quick glance menu that lets you control the entertainment, climate and phone functions without the need to look over at the large center display, which can be distracting when driving. It uses the same color-coding as the main display. The quick menu uses a second 5-way controller mounted into the right spoke of the steering wheel.
The display with resistive touch in the center of the dashboard is loaded with clearly labeled soft buttons that are activated by a firm touch. Below the display on a flat panel are more than a dozen non-moving backlit capacitive touch buttons to adjust those audio and climate settings that you use more often, such as fan speed, defroster and audio selection. The only physical control is a large knob for tuning the radio and adjusting volume.
As advanced and useful as the technology is, using touch buttons can create a distraction since you can't find the buttons by feel and need to take your eyes of the road for a second or two. To address this, Ford has developed voice interaction that lets you speak commands to perform all of the functions. If you forget the commands you can say "What can I say?" and a list appears on the display.
This voice system is more advanced than most and lets you speak a phrase rather than one word at a time and then waiting for a response between each word. It works particularly well with the built-in Sirius radio with hundreds of channels. I said "listen to NPR." Up came its two NPR stations on the display, and it asked me which one.
Setting up my iPhone was similar to other vehicles. I synced my phone to the car's Bluetooth following directions on the screen, and then pushed another button to download my address book. To make a call you can display the address book on the center display, scroll down to the name of the person and call. But that was very tedious and something you would not want to do while driving or even standing still. That's where voice control is used. I called my wife, Jane, by simply pushing the listen button on the steering wheel and said "Call Jane." Voice calling worked correctly about three-quarters of the time, but missed a few names, no matter how carefully I spoke.
The Edge offers a huge number of entertainment options and is well equipped with numerous inputs and connectors, including USB and an SD slot for playing music from thumb drives and memory cards, and Bluetooth streaming to listen to Internet radio stations and Pandora from your smartphone.
You can also plug in your iPhone or iPod into the USB connection to upload your music and play through the excellent sounding Sony-built audio system and view your playlist on the display. While you can control the music by touch, a better way is to use voice commands to call up tunes, such as "play Billy Joel."
The interior of the Edge is attractive with very good fit and finish and upscale materials. But surprisingly, there was no place to rest your phone while driving, other than in one of the two front cup holders, or on a shelf behind the radio out of sight. At times, when the speech recognition failed, I found it easier to dial directly from my phone and would have liked more convenient access to it.
The MyFord Touch is the most powerful and advanced system I've experienced in any automobile and its user interface is very well implemented, considering its complexity. Because of the sheer number of features, it requires several hours of study and perhaps a week of practice to become comfortable with it.
If you're excited by and enjoy new technology, you'll love what Ford has done. It may even be the reason for choosing a Ford over another brand. As with any new technology this advanced, expect to experience a few glitches and frustrations as you master it.
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer" published by Financial Times Press and available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and other booksellers. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others, holds 30 patents and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Phil can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Phil's blog is http://blog.philipgbaker.com and his Web site is philipgbaker.com
Beginning with today's edition we'll showcase a tech product of the week. It can be a gadget, software, an app or a service, as long as it's useful, novel and technology related.
Tech Product of the Week: BookArc
Notebooks have become so thin, they take up hardly any room when stored on their edge. So Twelve South has created a beautiful arc-shaped stand created out of a solid slab of aluminum for just that purpose. Use it to store a MacBook Air or similar sized notebook while charging or using with a monitor and keyboard. A soft insert firmly grips the notebook for a secure fit while a keyhole routes cables out of the way. ($40, twelvesouth.com)