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After three tries, Ford almost gets its Sync interface right

The third time's the charm: Ford gave its Sync 3 infotainment system a makeover to make it more intuitive and user-friendly.

Sync was a pioneering platform when it launched in 2007. However, with no substantive hardware changes since, it went stale. Voice recognition was hardly accurate, smartphone integration lagged with dysfunctional support and menu navigation required too many steps.

So Ford went back to the drawing board, and "built [Sync 3] from the ground up," with a new look and feel developed by BlackBerry subsidiary QNX instead of Microsoft. A capacitive touchscreen replaces the resistive touch technology of previous generations.

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That change is reflected in how drivers interact with the larger eight-inch screen. More akin to a smartphone than an old Palm Pilot, users pinch to zoom in on a map, swipe up, down or side to side to scroll through lists and tap on the onscreen keyboard with better response. And, like a smartphone, the screen won't register touches when gloves are worn by the user.

Ford's Sync 3 infotainment system was developed by BlackBerry subsidiary QNX. for The Globe and Mail Ted Kritsonis for The Globe and Mail

The interface looks better, and includes both day and night palettes triggered by headlight use. There are several ways to access most features. Onscreen arrow buttons mimic the previous method of scrolling through lists; there's built-in voice activation; and there are hard buttons on the dash and steering wheel controls.

This hybrid approach is designed to avoid alienating older drivers and prior Ford owners who might not adapt well to the smartphone-inspired layout. The improved voice-command recognition interprets more conversational language – speed and enunciation are less of a burden – but, with more commands under its belt, accuracy still matters.

Indeed, the system shines brighter for navigation. Saying "find an address" after the prompt is actually a new shortcut. Previously, the word "navigation" would've been required first. Minor, yes, but it proves to be useful, especially in a widening context. Saying "find the nearest gas station" pops up points of interest on the map and the list is read aloud. Pinching to zoom in on the map creates a more personalized way to view it. Saying "Sirius" or "FM" launches directly into those respective features.

Sync was the only infotainment system featured voice-activated climate control. Not much changes in Sync 3, other than that saying, "Set temperature to 22 degrees" from the initial prompt negates the need to say "climate" first.

Apple's Siri Eyes Free is also baked into Sync 3 through a long press of the voice button – to deal with phone calls, text messages and music playback from an iPhone. Incoming messages don't appear onscreen; instead, Siri reads them aloud – which could be problematic when passengers are inside.

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It is, however, incredibly easy to respond to a text using Siri. Phone calls are easy to manage, though a voice-only method would've been nice. As is, pressing the talk button on the steering wheel, or the "accept" button on the screen, are the primary ways to answer.

Siri works whether the iPhone is plugged in or connected via Bluetooth, and the use of the vehicle's microphone improves its voice recognition dramatically. Indeed, Siri understands and interprets commands better than the Sync voice does.

Pairing any smartphone with Sync 3 via Bluetooth is simple, as is audio streaming while connected. Playback controls are always available on the steering wheel and touchscreen. The one caveat is that music stored on the phone is only searchable by voice when it's plugged in, whereas on Bluetooth, choosing a different artist or playlist forces you to use the phone.

Spotify has built-in support with Sync 3, marking the first time the popular music-streaming app is accessible through voice in the car. BMW and Mini were first to integrate it, albeit without voice activation.

Sync 3's infrastructure and design is not backward compatible with older Ford vehicles. The 2016 Escape and 2016 Fiesta are the only two Ford vehicles to feature it, but Ford plans to migrate Sync 3 to other models by the end of 2016. Software updates can be installed either through WiFi or a USB stick.

Ford has also said that Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto will eventually roll out, but it's not clear on which vehicles and when.

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