Vehicles equipped with Sync 3, the latest iteration of Ford's in-car entertainment system, are currently rolling out onto Australian roads in a range of models including Focus, Mustang and Ranger, offering a phone-powered music, navigation and communication system the car-maker claims is more hands-off and easy to use than ever before.
I recently spent some time in a new Ford Focus hatch, and while your mileage will likely differ depending on the exact car you're in and the exact phone you have, I'm confident in saying Ford's solution is a very smart way to handle in-car tech.
The biggest issue with built-in entertainment systems generally is that they tend to age poorly. Particularly in any non-luxury vehicle, sticky resistive touchscreens and laggy navigation systems can seem serviceable when the car rolls out of the factory, but in a matter of years you'll get a better experience out of your phone, which is obviously not ideal when you're behind the wheel.
While it's anyone's guess what the future will hold, Sync 3 seems to sidestep this issue by offloading much of the software features to the driver's smartphone itself, while also providing a clean, clear interface and a familiar hardware setup.
The screen is capacitive and multi-touch, meaning it's more or less like a regular tablet to use, with tapping and pinching to zoom feeling nice and snappy. The panel is bright enough that you can read it easily in all but the glariest direct sunlight, but it can automatically switch to an inverted dark theme at night so you're not blinded.
Sync 3 comes with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but even with no phone connected the standard features do a pretty good job. Ford's own navigation software and music player, for example, are perfectly decent, and certain spoken voice commands are supported. There's even a handful of native apps built in, and since Sync 3 can update itself over your home Wi-Fi there could me more native apps to come down the line.
Connecting your phone via Bluetooth will let you stream audio, take calls and add some basic phone control to Ford's baked-in system, but for the best experience (and the most app options) you'll want to plug in your phone via USB.
Once your iPhone or Android Auto-compatible device is attached, parts of the Sync system will be taken over by your own apps. I tested this with an iPhone 7, Samsung Galaxy S7 and Sony Xperia Z5 Premium, and in all cases I found the integration pretty impressive, with elements of the generic Sync interface (like the radio) sticking around but not intruding on the phone-powered experience.
With CarPlay, an iOS-style interface will appear showing Apple's own apps (Music, Maps, Phone, Messages etc) as well as any other supported apps you happen to have on your phone. As with other Apple products (like its watch), I had the easiest time when using the company's default apps. Playing music through a non-supported service, for example, works OK via CarPlay's Now Playing app, but using the in-car controls would occasionally prompt Apple Music to fire up instead.
Android Auto works a bit differently, but is equally helpful. It doesn't take over the dash as completely as Apple, and Play Music doesn't look quite as flashy as Apple Music on the car screen, but I found navigation and voice control to be superior.
Regardless of the kind of phone you have, both systems provide a much more driver-friendly version of your apps than your phone would. Messages, for example, will be read out to you instead of appearing in text form on the screen. With Siri or Google Now taking voice commands and the steering wheel controls working well for functions like skipping tracks and answering calls, there's no excuse not to have your phone plugged in and out of reach while driving.
The story Ford Sync 3 review: in-car multimedia powered by your phone first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.