Monday, November 12, 2012

BlueAnt S4 to the Rescue?

On my continuing journey looking for the perfect cell-phone system for someone who can't use his/her fingers, my stop today takes me to the BlueAnt S4. As I mentioned in a previous post, I require a truly hands-free solution to make and receive calls since God chose to make my life just that much more interesting.  Anyway, as you may recall, I have tried several voice-triggered devices that work in conjunction with a cell-phone, like the DriveBlue and the Moshi Bluetooth speakerphone, but I always felt that I still hadn't found what I was looking for...

I still feel that way, even after trying the BlueAnt S4, but at least I know what I want now.  The BlueAnt feels like the more refined older brother of that bitch Moshi. He has a deep manly voice, and he sounds a little stern ordering me to "Say a Command" when I utter the magic words, "BlueAnt Speak to Me".  Mr. BlueAnt is very similar to Ms. Moshi in many ways, but he seems to be more specifically designed for today's smartphones and refuses to even pair with my old Sony Ericsson T637. On top of that, BlueAnt is not designed to dial any of the contacts directly... and he makes your smartphone handle all of the heavy lifting to figure out if you want to call your friend Steve. I understood this from the start, and set out to find the correct smartphone to pair him with to make my life easiest. After extensive research, and hours upon hours of reading blog posts and Amazon reviews, I settled on the original Motorola Droid RAZR. See, I'm not satisfied with just making and receiving calls... I'm always looking for the most adaptable solution to needs (or wants) I may have in the future, and the RAZR seemed like a good candidate. Since my fingers don't work to slide/tap/long-press/pinch/flick whatever images or words appear on the magic glass-like screen, I needed a phone that would give me the option of using an alternative input device to interact with it. For the longest time, no elegant solution existed for the smartphones on the market... until EasyBlue... a little Bluetooth dongle for the PC that pairs correctly with most Android 3.2 or higher devices, and enables the (mostly) full control of the phone using the mouse/keyboard (yes, and even voice software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking) you already own (check out this YouTube video for a great demonstration). I want to try to focus on the BlueAnt for now, so I won't get into all the particulars of the EasyBlue or the RAZR, but I will say that the path I went down works the best for me at this point and the voice commands built into the RAZR work pretty darn good (more details below). Sure, I wish I could've gone with the iPhone 5, but Apple (to this day) refuses to allow a Bluetooth mouse to interface with its iOS (even through EasyBlue) and I am dependent on this technology to work with my phone in certain situations. I am a fan of Android however, and I love the open-source feel to all of it, but man... Siri would have been nice.

Anyway, back to BlueAnt... first impression is that he is much bigger than I thought he was going to be, and heavier. This wouldn't be a problem if I planned on using him on my visor in my car, but since my voice is weak I still need him pretty close to my mouth and hanging him on my shirt looks extremely goofy. Fortunately, I quickly discovered that the BlueAnt can hear me just fine, and I am pleased to report that BlueAnt uses a microphone-array setup that filters out background noises and amplifies my voice better than anything I have ever used. He understands almost all of my commands, and when I am speaking commands to the RAZR to dial Steve (for instance), I've had very good results. On top of this, everyone I call is reporting that (for once) they can hear me loud and clear. This has allowed me to take him off on the front of my shirt (when I go out) and hide him inside my shirt pocket... the quality is ever so slightly diminished, but voice commands and phone calls work almost just as good so I am happy. I still wish that there was an external microphone option so I could mount him permanently on my wheelchair somewhere, but what are you going to do?

Pairing him with my RAZR presented no problems, and all of my phone book contacts were automatically transferred into BlueAnt. When a call comes in he will announce either the name of the caller (weirdly in a female text-to-voice kinda way) or the phone number (in his voice), and will then ask if I want to "answer or ignore". As long as the choice is made fairly quickly, these voice commands work wonderfully. Unfortunately, there is still no way to hang up the call by voice, and I miss that feature every-single-freaking-day and wish someone would bring it back. When not on a call, BlueAnt is always listening for his command phrase, "BlueAnt Speak to Me" and he is very quick to respond when that exact phrase is spoken anywhere near him... and thankfully, he almost never false-triggers because of the complicated phrase. Some users have complained about this in their review of the S4, but I am happy he doesn't go off every time I sigh (like Moshi did). He also hasn't locked up on me yet, and has survived a drop to the floor already. He will last almost 2 full days between charges (I leave him on day & night) and the speaker quality is excellent. However I hate the touch-sensitive buttons on the front for volume & trigger... they are not responsive when you really need to use them, but they will react like crazy when someone is trying to slide him into my pocket or put him on the charger.

After triggered with his command phrase, he will ask you to "Say a Command" and he will respond if you ask him to "check battery" or "call back" the last incoming call or "redial" the last outgoing call or "cancel" if you changed your mind. He will also allow you to "pair" him with more than one phone simultaneously or adjust the "microphone sensitivity" or to turn on/off the "LED lights". He also will directly dial Bing-411 using the "favorites" command and then a certain service like "weather" or "news". If you forget the commands, you can always ask "What Can I Say" and he will quickly spew off everything he knows.

Of course, it would have been nice if he was able to directly dial your contacts by saying "call Steve at home", but alas he cannot. To accomplish that goal, you must say "Phone Command", and BlueAnt will take way too much time by saying "activating the built in voice commands on the connected phone"... and will then hand you over to your phone's internal voice command options. The RAZR has a pleasant female voice, and she will first tell me to "please wait", then she will ask me to "Please Say a Command". The most useful commands I have found, strictly using my voice, start with "Call" then the name of one of my contacts like "Steve Kelly". I can follow it up with a certain phone, like "Mobile 1" or "Home 1" or I can wait till my female RAZR voice confirms and dials or asks me which phone. If she wasn't sure what contact I wanted to call, she will ask "Did You Say..." and wait for confirmation after saying a name. Otherwise, I am instantly connected. I discovered, quite happily, that she can also directly dial any phone number I say aloud, so a command of "Call 614 555 1212" will get a confirmation from you (with a few alternatives of what she thought she heard, if you answer in the negative) and then a dial out of the number you spoke. I love this feature, and I won't be dependent on only calling people/businesses I have already pre-programmed in my phone. Other useful commands I have discovered include "check battery" and "check time".

Of course, I have a wish-list of other things I could do entirely by voice... hanging up by voice is on the top of that list, speaking dial-tones to be able to select "3" when prompted by some automated answering service sure would be awesome, and sending/receiving text messages completely by voice prompts would be great as well... which leads me to a thought that I perhaps chose the wrong phone for BlueAnt. I have tried several different Android apps which supposedly allow you to receive/send text messages directly by voice, but none of them seem to work through BlueAnt. I don't know if it is a specific BlueAnt communication issue, or a problem with the RAZR not tying the voice prompts correctly in the Bluetooth stack to the BlueAnt microphone, but something isn't working. The best I can do is to run the official BlueAnt android app that will (sometimes) read out incoming text messages over the speaker. That is something, but after seeing some examples of how Siri can interactively prompt you to respond to text messages entirely by voice, I am envious. There is a review of the S4 on Amazon which seems to indicate that BlueAnt works well with Windows Phones using version 7.5 (Mango) that also have the type of built-in voice texting reply prompting that I want... look at this YouTube video to see what I mean. Fortunately, I'm not on a contract with Verizon so I may get the chance to try BlueAnt on a Windows Phone someday... and I sure hope it works like it looks like it does.

Anyway, I am mostly satisfied with my new cell-phone solution. At least I feel like I'm living in the 21st century now and not tied down to an old T637 candy-bar style phone anymore. I wish I could do more things by voice directly on my RAZR, but thankfully the world seems to be heading in that direction.