A review of the Supertooth HD bluetooth device. Does it meet the demands of the modern digital nomad?
Whether you’re on a continental road trip or an extended stay abroad, at some point you can expect to be manning a vehicle for long periods of time – periods of time in which you probably can’t go without calling or text messaging someone close to you (or, worst-case scenario, 911). Distracted driving is a big issue – and a big killer – in most developed countries, particularly the USA and Europe, so ensuring that you have hands-free access to a device (must you use it) is not ground to be tread on lightly.
I recently tested out one of the newer in-car Bluetooth systems, the SuperToothHD. Ancient Bluetooth devices, while they can be bought on the cheap, require several attachments and even come with built-in keypads – if you need to punch numbers in on a keyboard, you might as well just be texting. The streamlined design of the SuperTooth, along with easily-accessible features, makes it an option worth considering, but the “HD” label has yet to live up to its name.
I have to admit that I was immediately impressed with the SuperTooth design seconds after taking it out of the box. Unlike other in-car Bluetooth devices, it was sleek and simplistic; a no-frills nugget of plastic and metal that Steve Jobs would covet. It has only three buttons, and you will probably only ever use two. The one you will use most often is huge and easy to press from your car visor, and the device itself is light as a feather. This is all the more accommodating to the metal clip, onto which it grips effortlessly via magnets. This in particular was a major selling point for me, because the second something dares to fly across my front seat, it flies right out the window. (I’ve said farewell to many a GPS anchor this way…)
The SuperToothHD is like the little engine that could: it’s small, and on the outside looks tough…but it can barely transmit a voice above a whisper. While the device voice is robust and thundering (and also happens to sound like C3PO’s romantic interest), the actual call quality is mediocre at best. Despite attempting calls in various locations (my room, my car, outdoors, indoors, beneath ground) and different distances (local, out of state, out of country), I could never get through a call without asking the other callers to repeat themselves profusely. Moreover, the greater the distance between us, the poorer the quality, which cuts the SuperTooth a liberal amount of traveler points.
Could it just have been my phone service, or crummy U.S. cellular towers? Perhaps. But what it comes down to is that I could hear the caller better through my phone alone, and focusing my attention on getting a caller to repeat himself/herself while yelling into the device is definitely going to increase my chances of getting into a car accident. In fact, it would probably double them compared to me actually using the speakerphone and touchpad on my phone to conduct a call. It’s not so much that the device isn’t loud – oh no, the beeps between commands rip straight through your ears – as that the quality is dreadful. Voices are muffled, and even the otherwise crisp voice commands coming from my phone were cloudy.
After taking (an extensive amount of…see below) time to read through the user manual, I tried out a few voice commands. The SuperTooth is responsive to voice commands, but I can’t really give it all the credit – all it did was bring up S-voice (the Galaxy S version of “Siri”), which in turn processed all commands for me. When I tried the “send an email” command, my phone, through S-voice, told me it “couldn’t send an email”. When I tried to “send a text,” something went awry and it called the last person I called instead (fortunately, this particular individual was a frequent guinea pig in my Bluetooth trials and wasn’t caught too off-guard). Then I realized that, oops, I was supposed to have downloaded the “SuperTooth HandsFree Assistant” in order to use those functions, which is only free for 6 months. Bummer.
This was all particularly disappointing because I am personally a big fan of using voice-to-text on my phone while I’m driving – it allows me to send a text 95% hands-free – and it works every time. So again, it was Galaxy S: 1, SuperToothHD: 0. It seemed that I could accomplish more on my phone itself using voice commands than I could with the SuperToothHD.
Once paired to your phone, making and answering calls with the SuperToothHD is fairly simple. I personally didn’t have any trouble pairing the phone to my Galaxy SIII, though who knows what the process might be for users of older phones. I was relieved, at least, that the process took mere seconds on an Android, as most devices these days are customized for iPhones. It also connects lightning-quick.
Simply saying “answer” didn’t always work – pressing the rotary button was much more efficient and did not require much hardship. The phone clip is extremely sturdy and the device won’t budge, even in formidable pothole territory. It’s important to note that a clip like this may even be useful for backpacking, or elsewhere that hands-free phone usage might be useful.
The device does, apparently, provide a host of options: enough to spawn this colossal user manual. Perhaps this size of manual is standard for Bluetooth devices, but I certainly didn’t feel like reading it. Then again, when am I ever going to use three-way calling or multipoint pairing…while on the road? I don’t even know business travelers who have phone conferences so pressing that the entire meeting must be conducted while they are driving. And yet, in the true spirit of testing, I did attempt the multipoint and three-way features, both of which worked just fine but required a generous amount of effort (translation: multiple re-readings of the user manual) to enact.
Apropos, the battery life of the SuperToothHD is glorious. I’ve talked on it for about two hours total and let it sit in varying intervals for more than two weeks, and the battery levels are still high. My phone battery will probably die about 10 deaths before the SuperTooth’s battery drops below 80%. It’s a shame it can’t be used for resuscitation of other devices. Another convenient, and also cool, feature is that the backlights on the device dim automatically so that you aren’t blinded by a red glare as you drive at night.
The SuperToothHD retails for $129 direct from SuperToothStore.com; not exactly a steal when you can get a comparable model for about $70. There does exist the SuperTooth Buddy, which is only $69, has an excellent design, is lighter, has all the necessary features, and is in my opinion a much better deal. If the “HD” call quality is what sets the SuperTooth apart, well…I don’t buy it, pun intended.
However, I believe the biggest issue with the SuperTooth, or any Bluetooth device, is that a Bluetooth seems to lack relevancy in the current era of smartphones. As evidenced throughout this review, my phone already does a decent job of hands-free calling and texting without me needing to shell out an extra $60-100+ for a Bluetooth device. One can only imagine that hands-free options will expand as smartphones continue to evolve, and Bluetooth devices will have to evolve with them, lest they become extinct. For the handful for outliers who refuse to upgrade, a Bluetooth device is still a worthwhile item, especially for those who are on the road, or otherwise on the go. It will simply be a test of time to see whether devices like the SuperToothHD will be able to ride the backs of travelers into the next decade.