When Ford unveiled its SYNC in-car infotainment system in 2007, it was all early days and excitement for the automotive market. Over the years automaker offerings have matured as the technology has gotten exceedingly more capable.
But the system offered in 2015 Ford and Lincoln models was an exceedingly dated version of that first SYNC. Although it had been updated over the years, there was never a from-scratch redesign of the original.
All that changed with Ford’s new SYNC 3 system for 2016. Only SYNC by name, it bears no resemblance to the old system in design, functionality or platform. The new Ford infotainment system is an absolute departure from its predecessor that is used to control navigation, phone, entertainment and the climate system.
Designed for use
There’s typically a distinct difference between infotainment systems that are designed and approved by artists and those that are created by engineers. With SYNC 3 Ford opts for a balance that’s skewed toward an engineer’s approach, with a specificity on end use rather than final look.
Katie Allanson, a Human Factors Engineer for Ford’s Core Ergonomics Group breaks down their approach to SYNC 3’s HMI (Human Machine Interface) philosophy as follows:
- A user-centric design
- Clean and simple layout
- State retention: where the system picks up where you left off (i.e. when turning off and turning the car back on)
- Large target areas
- Day/night colour palette
- Future scalability
This focus results in a system that is easy to understand at first glance and easy to operate with minimal instruction.
On-screen buttons are large and easy to identify, while graphics maintain a refreshing simplicity. The background daytime colour palette is a muted hue of light blue while at night the colour base changes to black. There is no other use of significant colour throughout the interface. The design relies on the contrast between background and foreground elements for quick at-a-glance identification.
As someone who’s worked with graphic designers and layout artists over the years, I appreciate purposeful design and the avoidance of unnecessary visual complexity. The design of SYNC 3 speaks volumes with its minimalist aesthetic and utilization of sensible, straightforward layout.
Instead of design for design’s sake, what SYNC 3 offers is design that follows good ergonomic reasoning.
Friendliness and functionality
Where the new system really shines is its processing speed and level of user friendliness. While scrolling through menus and various features, using SYNC 3 feels very much like using a smartphone. You can swipe to scroll pages, pinch zoom on the map and even use Siri when a user connects an iPhone.
For navigation, SYNC 3 uses mapping modeled on the widely acclaimed HERE maps (originally a Nokia product). The beautifully rendered, content-rich maps now also feature a 3D mode where users can see semi-transparent recreations of the buildings around them when in a city core. Using in-car navigation has been simplified with things like address search which can now be accomplished by simply typing it all into one line via on-screen keyboard or by using voice control.
SYNC 3’s voice control system itself represents a giant leap forward for Ford. Where old systems involved a tiered command method that required users to start with a broad topic of control before getting down to a detail item, the new system simply requires you say what you want.
Although the results can sometimes be mixed, I found the system’s ability to understand commands and give me the correct result far exceeded its predecessor’s capabilities. Once familiar with the new system, SYNC 3 allows users to turn on an Advanced Mode which makes it even faster to use verbal commands.
While it is capable of all the standard entertainment options – AM/FM/CD/satellite radio/Bluetooth audio streaming – what makes SYNC 3 special is the use of AppLink, a function that allows the control of apps from your phone through the system.
Music streaming services are no doubt the most popular allowing occupants to bring their tastes in music into the vehicle with them. Of the many apps that already play well in this ecosystem, only a handful are currently available for Canadian market vehicles. Ford does promise there’ll be many more in the months to come.
During the sysem's reveal event, I was given an in-person demonstration of all the functionality that music streaming service Spotify has built into its app when used with SYNC 3. In addition to voice controlled playback options, user-saved playlists are voice indexed as well. According to Ford this kind of enhanced integration along with ease of control is what they are looking for from app developers looking to create apps with SYNC compatibility.
Those of us following the auto industry at the time remember Ford’s announcement of the original SYNC system and the fanfare around it being powered by Microsoft. For SYNC 3, Ford dropped its connection with the software giant and got a fresh start by building on BlackBerry’s QNX platform.
Ottawa-based QNX serves as a software supplier for more than 40 automotive brands globally including Acura, Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar, Land Rover, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Toyota, and Volkswagen. Say what you will about BlackBerry’s failings as a smartphone manufacturer, is dominance in the automotive infotainment space is undeniable.
Despite the BlackBerry underpinnings, SYNC 3 plays well with a variety of different smartphones including Apple, Android and Windows products. For a comprehensive, user sortable list of it all visit http://owner.ford.com
What about the future?
Readers who follow the tech industry may now be asking why Ford would put so much effort into developing its own new infotainment system just as Google’s Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay make their way into the market, potentially rendering all else obsolete.
When asked that question, Ford’s response was simple: not everyone has a new smartphone, and not everyone who has one will be connecting it to their vehicle. The company refused to comment on any future development of SYNC for Android Auto or CarPlay integration.
As it stands SYNC 3 is a smart and highly capable infotainment system for Ford. The new system is currently available on 2016 Escape, Fiesta and Lincoln MKC vehicles.