Integrated Aftermarket Bluetooth: Part 2

In part 1 of this series I focused mainly on the hard wired cradle-type (i.e. non-Bluetooth) handsfree phone kits that are currently available from MikeyTheMini of NewMiniStuff.com (NMS). Since then, I’ve switched over to using two new Sony Ericsson phones (a K750i “camera” phone and a W800i “WALKMAN” phone), and unfortunately, neither of them will work with the older cradle-type handsfree phone kits. Because of this I was forced into giving up my totally awesome cradle-type kit (with the really cool factory nav address book display) and exploring the newer Bluetooth-type kits that are available instead. As a result, this second part of the handsfree phone kit series will focus on the Bluetooth side of things.

What Bluetooth Handsfree Phone Kits Are Available For The MINI?

MINI currently offers an OEM Bluetooth handsfree phone kit (reviewed here), but it’s quite expensive, is quite difficult/expensive to install, only works with a limited number of Bluetooth phones, and still relies on a small two-button controller that must be installed into the interior of your MINI. It has been nearly a year now since the extra phone buttons on the MINI’s Multi-Function Steering Wheel (MFSW) were introduced and MINI still hasn’t released an updated version of their Bluetooth kit that supports them. I’m so disappointed and frustrated with MINI in this regard that I’ve now totally given up on them and have instead turned to NMS for all of my handsfree phone kit needs.

At the time of this writing, NMS offers several Bluetooth handsfree phone kits that directly integrate with the MINI’s radio (factory or aftermarket). If you have a pre-January 2005 built MINI that doesn’t have the extra phone buttons integrated into the MFSW (or you have any 2002-2006 MINI without the MFSW option), then NMS offers at least three different Bluetooth compatible phone kits for you to choose from. All of the NMS Bluetooth handsfree phone kits are neatly wrapped up with a 100% plug-n-play interface (specific for the MINI) making the kits very easy to install. There’s no cutting or splicing into the MINI’s factory wiring harness required when installing the NMS phone kits and so no harm should come to your MINI’s factory warranty by having one. All of the NMS phone kits install by simply plugging into the back of your factory (or aftermarket) radio. You just unplug the existing radio connector and then plug in the connector from the phone kit in its place. Nice and easy (unlike the MINI OEM Bluetooth kit which is really quite difficult to self-install).

Each of the NMS Bluetooth handsfree phone kits power the respective (Parrot or Nokia) handsfree phone kit, automatically mute the radio during a call, and automatically route the call through your radio’s speakers. Their top-of-the-line Bluetooth handsfree phone kit is based upon the Parrot CK3100 Advanced Car Kit. The CK3100 kit includes a small LSD display that (amazingly enough) uses Bluetooth to show you the contacts in your phone’s address book, display the incoming caller’s ID, etc. In addition, the LCD display is used to answer/end calls, activate voice dialing, and redial the last number called. The two other Bluetooth kits that are available are based upon the Parrot CK3000 (Evolution or non-Evolution) and the Nokia CK7w Bluetooth handsfree phone kits. These two kits function in the same exact way as the top-of-the-line CK3100 kit does except that they don’t include the LCD display. Instead, they use a small two-button controller without the LCD display. NMS can even sell you just a plug-n-play phone interface kit that you can use to connect any handsfree phone kit of your choosing to the MINI (including one that you may already happen to own).

If you have a MINI that was built after January 01, 2005 that happens to have the extra phone buttons on its MFSW, then NMS currently offers two Bluetooth-based handsfree phone kits that completely do away with the separate two-button controller box and integrates with the new phone buttons on your MFSW instead. One of the kits is based upon the Parrot CK3000 (non-Evolution) Bluetooth handsfree phone kit and the other is based upon the Nokia CK7w Bluetooth handsfree phone kit. These two kits are a bit more expensive than the previously mentioned ones because they require an extra controller (or “black box”) that integrates the phone kit with the extra phone buttons on your MINI’s MFSW.

Even though my own MINI is a January 2005 build that has the extra phone buttons on the MFSW, I’ve opted to go with the NMS kit that is based upon the Parrot CK3100 Advanced Car Kit (with the small LCD display) instead. Although the kit won’t support the extra phone buttons on the MFSW, I found that having caller ID and phone book entries show up on the small LCD screen far outweighs using the extra phone buttons. Besides that, if you strategically locate the small LCD display that comes with the CK3100 kit, you’ll find that you won’t miss having those extra phone buttons on the MFSW at all. I sure don’t.

Note: rumors have it that MikeyTheMini is currently working on an interface kit that will make the Parrot CK3100 function with the extra phone buttons on the MFSW. When/if the interface becomes available you can always add it onto your existing CK3100 phone kit at a later date.

It sure was hard for me to give up the really nice factory navigation integration of the cradle-type handsfree phone kit that I reviewed in part one of this series, but having the small LCD display really is the next best thing. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, there aren’t any Bluetooth-type phone kits available that can integrate with the factory navigation system like the cradle-type kits can.

Installing The Bluetooth Handsfree Phone Kit

I ordered my Parrot CK3100 Advanced Car Kit complete with the plug-n-play interface kit from the NMS website and it arrived at my door in a timely fashion. The kit came completely assembled and ready to be installed. The installation of the phone kit was a breeze as it’s all plug-n-play. I simply removed my factory radio, plugged in the interface kit, re-installed the radio, tucked the kit’s controller box and wiring harness up under the steering wheel (via the removable knee blocker), ran the wire for the external mic up the driver’s side A-pillar (mounting the mic to the headliner using Velcro), and installed the small LCD display. The entire installation took less than 30 minutes and I didn’t have to cut a single wire or drill a single hole.

The CK3100 kit included a handful of different mounting brackets that could be used to mount the small LCD screen in various locations, but I found that using the NMS metal no holes mount worked much better in my MINI. The mount attaches to the radio screws that are hidden behind the down tubes. The small LCD display is then attached to the mount and sits in a perfect position for quick access from the driver’s seat. As its name suggests, no drilling of any holes in your MINI is required in order to install the mount.

Using The Bluetooth Handsfree Phone Kit

Using the Bluetooth handsfree phone kit is a complete joy. Once you’ve properly paired your Bluetooth phone with the kit, each time you turn on the ignition in your MINI the kit automatically locates your Bluetooth phone and makes a connection to it (even if it’s still in your pocket, bag, boot, glove box, etc.). Incoming calls ring over the car radio (and also in your phone if its handsfree profile is setup to do so) and you answer them with a simple click on the green phone button that’s part of the LCD display (or using the R/T button on your MFSW if you’re using one of NMS’s MFSW phone button kits that doesn’t have a two-button controller box). The incoming caller’s ID is displayed on the LCD screen so you know right away who’s calling. To hang up the call, you simply press the red button on the LCD display (or hit the R/T button on your MFSW). The phone kit can also be setup to answer/end calls using voice commands (or “magic words”) if you so desire.

For placing calls, you can use voice commands that you’ve setup in your handsfree phone kit or within your phone itself. The CK3100 kit will even go one step farther and automatically synchronize with your phone’s address book each time it connects allowing you to place a call by simply scrolling through the list of contacts shown on your LCD display. Missed calls, received calls, and dialed calls are also available via the LCD display as well. It’s all done over a wireless Bluetooth connection with your phone and really is quite amazing technology to say the least.

The quality of the sound on my kit is very good. Callers can hear me well (although some say that it sounds a bit like I’m on a speaker phone – which I am), and I can hear them in perfect fidelity over my MINI’s H/K stereo. It’s all very loud and clear. In the end I couldn’t be happier with the Bluetooth kit I’ve chosen to use in my MINI.

A Word Of Caution About Bluetooth Phone Compatibility

One thing to note is that not all Bluetooth phones are created equal and not all Bluetooth phones will work with all Bluetooth handsfree phone kits. There are many reasons for this stemming from different versions of the Bluetooth protocol all the way to bugs in the phone’s firmware (i.e. the software that controls the phone – just like operating system software controls a personal computer) or handsfree kit. Therefore, you really need to make sure that your particular phone is going to be compatible with the Bluetooth handsfree kit that you want to use BEFORE you actually buy it. The best way to do this is to visit the Bluetooth handsfree phone kit manufacturer’s web site and see if they list compatibility with the phone you want to use.

I myself stumbled into this pitfall and so I’ll share a bit of my own experience with you about the Parrot Bluetooth kits that are currently offered by NMS. As you may have noticed, I really love Sony Ericsson phones. So much so, that I’ve given up my nav-integrated cradle-type phone kit just so that I could switch over to using the latest (and very popular) Sony Ericsson K750i and W800i phones. Well, it turns out that these phones use a completely new version of the Bluetooth protocol and so they are not fully compatible with many of the Bluetooth handsfree phone kits currently available on the market.

At the time of this writing, the K750i/W800i will NOT function with the Parrot CK3000 (non-Evo) phone kits. This means that you can’t use them with the NMS CK3000-based kits (which includes the really cool kit that integrates with the extra phone buttons on the MINI’s MFSW). Apparently, Parrot has discontinued support for the older CK3000 (non-Evo) kits and so they have no plans on adding additional Bluetooth phone compatibility with those kits in the future (or so I’m told). An update for the Parrot CK3000 Evolution kit’s firmware is in the works, but isn’t available at the time of this writing (another rumor has it that MikeyTheMini is also working on an interface kit that will make the newer, and still supported, Parrot CK3000 Evolution kit work with the extra phone buttons on the MFSW just like the older Parrot CK3000 non-Evo kit does). Fortunately for me though, Parrot has just released an update of the firmware for their CK3100 kit that makes it fully compatible with these two new Sony Ericsson phones. The update can be installed via a serial cable connection or via a Bluetooth connection with the phone kit’s controller (i.e. the phone kit’s “black box”).

Therefore, really good features to look for in your Bluetooth handsfree phone kit of choice, is whether or not it can have its firmware flashed/updated (which is necessary for compatibility with future Bluetooth phone models), and if it is easy to do so (i.e. do you have to send it back to the manufacturer to get it flashed, can you do the flash yourself using a special cable, or can you do it yourself using a USB Bluetooth dongle, etc.). Another thing to consider when purchasing your Bluetooth handsfree phone kit is the lifespan of the kit itself. How long has the kit already been out on the market and how long will the manufacturer continue supporting it with future firmware upgrades? You don’t really want to get stuck with a kit that you can’t use the next time you upgrade your phone.

The Bluetooth world is full of pitfalls, but if you can find a Bluetooth handsfree phone kit that works in your MINI, it will certainly add to your driving experience/pleasure.

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