Review: BlueAnt S4 Bluetooth Speaker
BlueAnt has released its latest Bluetooth Speakerphone, the S4. The S4's main features center around the use of voice commands to enhance the "hands free" experience. While you can still control the speakerphone with buttons, with the S4 you can say "answer" or "ignore" to manage incoming calls.
In addition to offering hands free calling, the S4 also puts BING information at your disposal through BING 411 and allows access to audible text messages by being Vlingo compatible. All in all, the S4 hopes to keep your hands more on the wheel and less on your phone.
We had the opportunity to take the S4 out for a test drive and found it to offer some "cool" features. We also found some features still needed a little work. Follow the break to what type of impression the S4 left.
Out of the Box
Conservatively packaged, the S4 comes boxed with a micro-USB cable, car charger adapter, and 2 metal visor clips.
The S4 felt solidly built and measures 4.88" x 2.38" x .62". On side of the S4 you'll find a dedicated power switch and micro-USB port. On the face of the S4 is the microphone, speaker, volume controls and multi-function touch-sensitive keys.
I can't call these controls "buttons" because there isn't a physical button to press. The heat or pressure of your finger activates the controls. There is a clear protective film on the S4 that needs to be removed before you start using the speaker. If you keep the film on the S4, the touch sensitive keys may not work properly.
The S4 attaches to the visor clip with two healthy magnets. BlueAnt provides two sizes of clips with the S4 to better fit the various visors out there. One is for the more thicker, plush visors while the smaller clip fits the thin, low profile visors.
My only nit with the car charger is that the USB cable is only about a foot long. You can't charge the S4 while it's attached to the visor unless you have a roof mounted power socket. Granted you can get a longer micro-USB cable but it would have been nice to see it included.
The S4 fit nicely on my visor and only being .62" thick, I would comfortably classify it as a low profile speaker. The microphone is at the front of the speaker and picks up your voice nicely.
Battery life is reported to be up to 20 hours of talk time and 700 hours of stand by time. I was able to use the S4 for five days with moderate use before thinking about re-charging the battery. Even with the short USB cable, if you keep the charging adapter in your car, battery life becomes a non-issue.
The S4's firmware is upgradeable through BlueAnt's support site.
Accessing the S4 is as simple as stating "BlueAnt Speak to me". That statement triggers the command prompt for the S4 and from there you can access various voice commands and access other features on your Windows Phone (device dependent). As mentioned previously, the S4 is compatible with Vlingo and uses BING 411 for information services.
When first paired, the S4 will download contact information from your Windows Phone and will store up to 2,000 entries per paired device. This will allow the S4 to announce by name, any incoming call from one of your contacts.
The S4 is A2DP compliant which allows you to stream audio through the speaker. This will cover items such as music tracks, audio books, or podcasts you have on your Windows Phone as well as turn-by-turn direction from GPS applications (application dependent).
While the S4 specializes in voice command operations, you can still use the "touch-sensitive" keys to control the speaker. The center key is your multi-function button that can be used to answer, end, or reject a call.
To adjust the volume, you swipe the keys in the direction you want the volume to go. A tone sounds to confirm the adjustment and the S4 will let you know audibly when you reach maximum volume. For example, to lower the volume you slide or swipe your finger across the keys from the "+" sign to the "-" sign. This takes some getting used to and it might have been more efficient to have put a volume rocker switch on the side of the S4.
When you first turn on the S4, it goes into pairing mode. The S4 has an audible tutorial that walks you through the pairing process and once that is completed, the S4 will download your contact information.
The volume on the S4 was respectfully healthy. No complaints about hearing callers over traffic and car noise. The microphone picks up your voice nicely and the noise filtering software does a good job as well. Traveling at interstate speeds with the stereo playing, I could use normal voice tones and volume to be heard.
Voice commands are initiated by saying "BlueAnt Speak to me" but are heavily dependent on your phone's voice command abilities. However, core functions such as redial, answer, ignore and call back (dial the last incoming number) are controlled within the S4 and universally available regardless of your phone's voice command capabilities. If you ever forget what commands are available say, "What can I say?" and the S4 will run down the list.
I found the initial voice command ("BlueAnt speak to me") was not very effective. Using a normal tone and volume, I couldn't initiate the command prompt. Raising my voice, didn't initiate the prompt. It was only until I changed the tone of my voice did the S4 respond. I don't know if shortening the trigger command would improve efficiency.
Once I triggered the command prompt, voice commands were accepted with more consistent results. Background noises didn't interfere with voice commands too bad. Only in extreme cases where the stereo was too loud or I was driving on a bumpy, noisy road did I experience any interference.
When "BlueAnt speak to me" doesn't work, you cant press the multi-function button to trigger the command prompt. This is where I don't like the "touch sensitive" keys. You don't have the physical feedback with these keys as you would a traditional button. Haptic feedback would help but it took some practice to determine how long I needed to push the multi-function key.
The S4 is A2DP compliant which will allow streaming audio files. It's a nice feature to have and the small speaker doesn't sound half bad. BlueAnt's audible instructions and information came in clear. The S4 is programmed with a male voice and it would be nice to eventually be able to change the voice styles to suit personal preferences.
I do have one oddity to report. Every so often, the S4 will change the volume levels on its own. The S4 will announce volume up, volume down, maximum volume in no particular order. It hasn't happened every day and there's no rhyme or reason behind it. Sometimes there's a good amount of background noise, sometimes it happens when I'm on a bumpy road and sometimes it happens going down a smooth road with no background noise. To get the volume changes to stop, I simply turn the S4 off and back on again. It's not a deal killer and hopefully a future firmware update will take care of it.
This is a neat feature and one accessible directly from your phone even if you don't own a S4. BING 411 is a dial up service that provides audible information much like the BING mobile app. BING 411's navigation is done through voice commands and will give users stock quotes, news, sports updates, traffic information and weather information. Voice commands were very effective and while BING 411 did throw in a few advertisements along the way, you have to remember it's a free service.
I would like to comment on the S4's interface with Vlingo but the company (Vlingo) never moved the Windows Phone version of their app out of Beta (and that's only compatible with the Samsung Jack).
As is, the Beta showed promise and for those devices that Vlingo is catering to will see the app as a benefit for the S4.
The S4 made me smile at times from the convenience it offers. It is well constructed with a sleek design and has some "cool" features. The "touch sensitive" keys do provide a sleek, smooth appearance but I'd gladly throw in a few bumps in the form factor to have physical buttons.
Performance wise, the S4 isn't too shabby either. When the S4 was running on all cylinders, you couldn't ask for a better Bluetooth speaker. Call quality was top notch and the amount of voice commands available provided more depth to the hands-free concept. Unfortunately, with the voice commands, you did have glitches and performance issues. The trigger phrase wasn't always picked up and you do have the odd, sporadic volume changes. Hopefully BlueAnt will fine tune their software to address these issues and all that will be needed is a firmware update
The availability of BING 411 and Vlingo (for those who have compatible devices) extends the capabilities of the S4 tremendously. To be able to get traffic and weather updates in a hands-free fashion is really useful and cool. Many areas are passing "No texting while driving" laws and both of these features can give you access to information that might otherwise put you in violation of these new laws.
All in all, I was pleased with the S4. There were issues but the pluses out weighed the minus enough that I would recommend the S4 to anyone needing a Bluetooth speaker solution for the car. The good thing is that most of the issues may be addressed with firmware updates, making a solution easy to put into place.
You can check out the BlueAnt S4 Bluetooth Speaker over at the WMExperts.com Accessory Store. It's currently running $97.99 and is worth consideration.