When I got my first iPhone, it was easy to hook it up to car audio: there were a bunch of options for 30-pin-to-aux connectors. (Which would also charge your phone, useful both in itself and because most audio and map software has an option to not shut off the screen as long as the device is powered.) When I got my first lightning phone, though, doing that was harder: for some reason, there wasn’t a similar ecosystem for lightning-to-aux connectors, it seemed like the general feeling was that bluetooth was the way to go. I’d heard enough weird stories about bluetooth, though, that I didn’t want to try that, so I ended up staying with with the old connectors in our cars and buying 30-pin-to-lightning adapters.
Recently, though, for whatever reason, my phone has been slipping off the lightning adapter in the cars if you touch it at all: not good when playing the next podcast episode while driving. And, with the iPhone 7 launch, I’d been hearing more chatter around bluetooth; in particular, people saying that, despite bluetooth’s issues, it really is better not having to fiddle with wires. So I figured I’d give a bluetooth adapter a try in my car. (We have two cars: one which is the default car for the family on evenings/weekends, and which Liesl drives to work, and one which I use on the rare occasions when I drive to work and which I, or more rarely Liesl, drives when we both need to use a car on weekends.)
So I did a bit of research, and found a well-reviewed bluetooth adapter that supported two phones; and, as it turns out, bluetooth does feel kind of magical! I’m not sure why I like being able to hit play on my phone and hear it come out of the speakers even though I haven’t plugged in anything, but I do. So: tentative success, enough so that I was trying to figure out whether I wanted to buy a second one and convince Liesl to switch over as well.
There were a couple of times a day or two later when it didn’t connect up immediately, though; I had to go into the phone settings to tell it to re-pair. That was pretty annoying, especially because I didn’t know when it would happen: so I would hit play, hear the sound coming out of the phone speaker, hit pause, fiddle with settings, go back to the podcast client, skip back 15 seconds, and play again. If I had to do that at all regularly, then that would be a problem; maybe I could find a sequence of steps that would reliably avoid that problem, though?
But, a few days after that, I went through those steps, and the phone couldn’t see the bluetooth device at all: apparenly I’d gotten a bad device. Oops.
I chalked that up to probably being the problem that Amazon has with fakes; I figured the solution there was to go to the Apple store, since, with the push that they’re making to bluetooth, surely they have an adapter there that works and that comes straight from the manufacturer. But, to my surprise, Apple’s online store didn’t list anything, and when I went to a physical store, they didn’t have any, either. I asked a sales person about this; she said that most people’s cars came with bluetooth already. This may be true, but it doesn’t solve my problem, since a car (or even a new car stereo) is rather past my price range for a phone accessory! (She tried to be helpful by pointing me at something from a device manufacturer’s website; that was an FM transmitter, though. And, indeed, there are still lots of FM transmitters available: I guess the window when aux-without-bluetooth car stereos were manufactured was surprisingly small?)
At any rate, I went into Best Buy, and they had something that more or less fit the bill. Its main downside was that it only supported one phone; fine for my car, not fine for Liesl’s car. So I bought it, and it seemed to work.
The next day, though, a support person for the seller of the first device that I’d bought contacted me: apparently a one-star Amazon review gets their attention. I figured I’d give them a second chance: if they’re talking to me directly, then hopefully I won’t get a fake, and if it works well, I can potentially use two of them? So I let them send me a replacement instead of asking for a refund, and used that instead of the one I’d bought from Best Buy.
Which worked well, until it didn’t: audio dropped out while I was driving about a week later, and while it reconnected the next time I tried, the time after that, it wouldn’t reconnect. So apparently that manufacturer had a bad batch of products, or something; I’m not naming them here, because they really did seem to be trying to make things right, but ultimately, I got two devices from them and both failed after a week. (In particular, I now think I was wrong to blame this on Amazon.)
Fortunately, the one I got at Best Buy, an iSimple BluStream device, worked great! If I leave it plugged in, then the phone doesn’t always connect to it when I get into the car (or at least doesn’t always quickly connect to it); but I don’t actually want to leave it plugged in all the time (I don’t use that car all that often, so I don’t want any potential battery drain). And if I leave the device sitting next to the power plug, and plug it in as I sit down in my seat, then by the time I get ready to go and have the car turned on, if I hit play on my phone, it connects reliably. (Incidentally, iOS 10.2 just added a headphone indicator that shows up when the phone is connected to a bluetooth device, making it easier to tell what to expect.) And I still prefer not having wires attached to my phone, and going wireless is new enough to me that it still feels a little magical; and it’s certainly a big improvement over using a wired connection that falls out if I touch the phone!
The one downside is that the phone isn’t charging. The device does have a USB power port, though; so I ended up getting a cheap lightning connector from Amazon. That way, I can plug in if either my battery is low or if I’ll need to look at the screen while driving, and I can not worry about it otherwise; and I also don’t have to worry about the cable disconnecting, podcasts will keep on playing. (And the phone is smart enough to realize that it should send audio over bluetooth, not over lightning.)
It doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with the other car, though: I do prefer bluetooth, but not necessarily enough to try to find a device that works and that can remember two phones, and to answer questions like “if both Liesl and I are in the car, will it let either of us play music to it without doing any re-pairing, or will it only talk to the most recently used phone?” (And I would prefer to be able to use that car on weekends, it’s more gas-efficient.) Fortunately, while poking around on Amazon, I noticed that there is currently (as opposed to when I looked at this a few years ago) one lightning-to-aux connector available, the Griffin iTrip AUX. And plugging normal lightning connectors into my phone seems stable enough: I think the 30-pin adapter puts more torque on the connection or something. So I’ve ordered one of those; hopefully it will work…
At any rate: I like doing stuff without wires, and I didn’t run into some of the problems with bluetooth that I’d heard about. (E.g. the latency was fine; audio quality was also fine, but listening to podcasts in a car is not a good test for that.) I was surprised to see weird gaps in the ecosystem, though: I still don’t understand why Apple doesn’t sell a bluetooth car adapter in their stores, in particular.
But it also feels like there are issues to solve. Maybe I’m making up this problem about connecting multiple phones to the same bluetooth device, since I haven’t actually tried that, but I don’t think so. And, while I’ve found an order of operations that gets my phone to reliably and easily pair with the device, that took a bit of trial-and-error, with bad experiences while I was experimenting. (And I was lucky that, in the car I was using, the power plug was exposed instead of hidden in a console.)
Still, I’m tentatively optimistic about our new wireless world…
This post has not been revised since publication.