Earlier this year, I purchased a Kensington device for my car called the LiquidAUX (which I reviewed here) that allows me to charge my iPhone and play my iPhone through my car's stereo. The LiquidAUX is special because it includes a wireless remote, which I really enjoyed using. But a few weeks ago, Kensington sent me a (free) sample of its latest iPhone automobile device, the AssistOne, which was just released on October 31, 2010. It retails for $99.99, but you can currently get it on Amazon for only $78.20. This is a fantastic device that I have really enjoyed using, and if you are looking for a single device that can handle virtually all of your iPhone in a car needs, this may be the solution for you. Here are the key features.
1. Hold the iPhone. The AssistOne is a car mount that gives you a spot to place your iPhone where you can easily glance at it while you are driving. You insert an iPhone by sliding the bottom of your iPhone into a dock connector and then pushing back the top of the iPhone. A clip grabs the top of the iPhone and then it is held securely in place. I use an iPhone 4 but it adjusts to work with other models as well, and can even adjust to work with many iPhone cases.
The AssistOne can be mounted in your car one of two ways. First, there is a flexible arm with a suction mount so that you can attach it to the bottom of your windshield. Second, there is an attachment that connects to your AC / heater vent.
I haven't tried the vent attachment because the flexible arm works so well. The suction cup seems to have a strong hold. I've heard people complain about windsheield suction cups in general (not this specific device) because when the weather gets cold they can lose their grip. I haven't had any cold weather in New Orleans to test this out, and I'll update this post in the future if that ever is a problem for me. But this does seem to be a very secure connection. It is one of those suction cups where you place it on the windshield and then push down a lever to secure the connection. You lift the lever to remove the device.
I was also worried that the mount would get in the way of my area of vision for driving. To my surprise, it doesn't interfere at all. It sits low enough that I have never found my view of the road impaired.
With the iPhone mounted in the AssistOne, you can easily see the iPhone screen for information such as a map (if you are using a GPS turn-by-turn program), see the album art for the song that is playing, etc. The part of the AssistOne that holds the iPhone can also rotate, which is helpful if you want to view your iPhone in landscape mode.
2. Charge the iPhone. The AssistOne comes with a cigarette lighter adaptor and a cord that connects to the bottom of the AssistOne. Thus, whenever your iPhone is in the AssistOne, it is being charged.
3. Auxiliary out port. There is an AUX out port on the bottom of the unit. You can attach a cord (not included) to that port and then connect to your car stereo. I don't have an AUX in port on my car stereo, but I do have a cassette deck. (I'm suing this Sony model right now. It works fine and is inexpensive, which is good because in my experience you need to replace these cassette adapters every year or so.) I plug the cord from my cassette adapter into the bottom of the AssistOne. Thus, any music playing on my iPhone or other iPhone audio gets played through my car stereo.
4. Bluetooth. If you just look at the AssistOne, you'd probably guess that the audio goes from your iPhone to the AssistOne through the dock connector. But actually, the AssistOne connects to your iPhone via stereo Bluetooth (version 2.1 + EDR). I didn't notice any loss of audio quality over Bluetooth, and using Bluetooth is pretty smart for a number of reasons. First, it means that if you get in your car with your iPhone playing music or a podcast just using the built-in speaker, simply tap the button at the bottom of the AssistOne to turn it on, and even if your iPhone is still in a pocket, it will start playing over your car stereo (assuming that you are using the AUX out port). For short trips where I'm not worried about charging my iPhone, I often just leave my iPhone in my front shirt pocket but still take advantage of the AssistOne. Neat trick.
5. Handsfree calls. A second reason that using Bluetooth is useful is that the AssistOne provides handsfree calling, and it does this very well. When your iPhone is docked in the AssistOne, if a call comes in you will hear your phone ring, and you can either tap that single button on the front of the AssistOne to answer the call or you can just say "answer" and the AssistOne will hear you and answer (or say "decline" and the AssistOne can do that too). The AssistOne includes an echo cancelling microphone so you can just talk normally while you are sitting in you car and the person on the other end of the line can hear you quite well. The quality seemed to me to be on par for a Bluetooth device, and I don't mean for that to be a criticism. Everyone I talked to said that I sounded quite good. And the other person's voice is routed through your car stereo (if you are using the AUX out) so you can hear them very well.
6. Voice activation. As I just mentioned, you can just say "answer" or "decline" and the AssistOne responds. This works because the AssistOne listens to you. If your iPhone isn't already playing music, you can at any time just say "Launch Voice Control" and the Voice Control feature of the iPhone starts up. I've talked about Voice Control before and, for the most part, I consider it a mixed bag. Sometimes it does a great job of understanding me, other times not so much. Every time that I told the AssistOne to call my wife, it understood me perfectly and asked whether I wanted to call her cell, home, work, etc., and when I selected it put me right through. Great. But when I tried to use the AssistOne to ask it to start playing music from a particular artist, it was about 50-50 in guessing correctly what I said. (I suppose there is something to be said for serendipity; when it guessed wrong, it played another artist, often something good that I forgot was even on my iPhone.)
To be clear, I'm not blaming the AssistOne; the problem is just that voice control on the iPhone itself is not perfect. Note that if the iPhone is already playing music, a podcast, etc. through the AssistOne, the AssistOne doesn't seem to hear you when you say "Launch Voice Control," but you can always just launch Voice Control by pressing the button on the front of the AssistOne. The button is within easy reach so this is simple to do. Quite a few times over the last few weeks, the glare of the sun made it impossible to read my car's clock, so I would just tap the button and say "What time is it" and my iPhone dutifully told me "The time is...." Very useful, and does make you feel just a little like you are Knight Rider.
7. Sound amplification. I can't imagine why you wouldn't want to connect the AssistOne to your car stero using the AUX out port, but you don't have to do so. The AssistOne includes a built-in speaker, so it amplifies sound. This is just mono so you probably won't want to listen to music, but it does work fine for a podcast, an audiobook or if you are using an app to give voice turn-by-turn directions.
My experiences. I've been using the AssistOne for a few weeks now, both for short trips around town and for one long trip that I had last week. (I had to drive from New Orleans to Shreveport, LA and back — about 700 miles total — for a summary judgment hearing.) The AssistOne has worked great. When I start my car, I press the single button on the front of the AssistOne to turn it on. Then I pick something on my iPhone that I want to listen to, such as a playlist or a podcast (or for that long trip to Shreveport, the audiobook The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson). I press play on the iPhone, then place the iPhone into the AssistOne (because of Bluetooth, it starts playing through my car stereo even before I place it in the unit) and then I go on my way. You can tap the AssistOne button to launch Voice Control and say "pause" if you need to pause the audio. Whatever you are playing pauses automatically if a call comes in (or if you initiate a call) and then resumes when you are done. For that Shreveport trip, I also used MotionX GPS Drive (which I reviewed here) so that my iPhone could help me with navigation. It was nice to be able quickly glance at the iPhone and see how many miles I had left and my estimated time of arrival, what my next turn would be, the 3D map, etc.
I did notice one annoying thing when I was driving across the state in pockets with no AT&T coverage; with the iPhone in the AssistOne, I could hear some slight beeps and chirps as the phone was struggling to get a signal. You may have heard the same thing in the past when a phone that is struggling to get a signal is placed next to a speaker phone. When this was happening, sometimes my iPhone would actually tell me on the screen that it had lost the signal; other times it would claim that there was an Edge signal although I'm not so sure:
To solve the problem, I just removed the iPhone from the AssistOne and placed it in my shirt pocket. The audio continued to play via Bluetooth and with my iPhone away from the AssistOne speaker, the annoying noise went away. After a while I would just slip it back in the AssistOne so that it would be ready if I received a call. I am no expert on this, but my suspicion is that if the AssistOne used a shielded speaker, then this would not be a problem. Fortunately, this has never been a problem for in-city driving, it just happened those two or three times during my road trip.
Another small issue: I noticed that whenever the iPhone starts to play audio, it takes about a second for the Bluetooth to kick in. I don't know if this is unique to the AssistOne or typical for any Bluetooth stereo device. Missing the first second (or maybe even half a second) of a song as music starts to play is no big deal. It only happens when you start, and then as your iPhone continues to play audio for additional songs, there is no problem. But for a GPS app providing voice turn by turn directions, the audio starts at the beginning of each direction and then stops when the direction is over, which means that you miss about a second at the beginning of every direction, which is annoying. If you are already playing audio through the iPhone, switching from the iPhone playing music to the iPhone giving a turn by turn direction works great, presumably because Bluetooth audio is already in use. Thus, I have decided that every time I use MoxtionX GPS Drive for directions, I always play a song, podcast or something at the same time just so that Bluetooth stereo is already in use when it is time to hear a direction.
The Kensington website has a special address — car1.kensington.com — that includes helpful videos for all of the Kensington car devices, including the AssistOne. There is a helpful video guide for initial setup of the AssistOne that is frankly a lot more useful than the included manual. There is also a promotional video that shows off the key features, and I'll embed that one right here as it does a good job of showing you much of what I explained above:
Should you get it? Depending upon your car model, you may not need all of the features of the AssistOne. For example, a lot of new cars have Bluetooth handsfree calling built in, and some new cars already know how to work with an iPhone via Bluetooth, in which case all that you need is a simple iPhone mount. But if your car doesn't already have Bluetooth, the Kensington AssistOne is a fantastic device that I think you will really enjoy using. It grips your iPhone in a convenient location, charges it, gives you handsfree calling, and plays music and other audio through your car stereo (although you need to add a cord to do so and a way to connect to your car). This is just about everything that you would want any iPhone car device to do. Beatweek Magazine posted a very short review of the AssistOne and called it a "a jack of all trades product which may finally solve all the tasks you’re likely to perform with your iPhone in your car." I agree.
Having said that, I do miss one feature of the LiquidAUX that I had been using — that remote. I liked that if my iPhone was playing music in shuffle mode, if a song came up that I didn't feel like listening to, I could just tap fast-forward to skip to the next song, plus it was nice to tap a button to play/pause. You can do all of this using handsfree voice navigation on the AssistOne, but talking isn't as quick and convenient as tapping that button.
Nevertheless, the advantages of the AssistOne far outweigh that one feature that I miss from the LiquidAUX. If you are on the market for an iPhone car device and you don't have a new car that already has Bluetooth or iPhone integration, I suspect that you will love the Kensington AssistOne as much as I do.
Click here for Kensington AssistOne from Amazon ($78.20; MSRP is $99.99).