Earlier today GM made several key announcements prior to the LA Auto Show, starting November 28, including the latest version of MyLink coming to the 2013 Chevrolet Spark and Sonic. Christen wrote his first impressions on the Spark EV, as well as how GM is working with Apple to integrate Siri functions into both cars, earlier today. In 14 additional models coming next year, GM will release the next version of MyLink, a smart infotainment system for cars that integrates smartphones with voiced commands and a touchscreen so users never have to use their phones in the car.

MyLink in these 14 upcoming 2014 GM cars — spread across different regions which will begin to release in summer 2013 with the Chevrolet Impala –will use a newer version of the Cadillac Cue. The MyLink system is not the same as Cue, but it does use a number of similar or identical features, such as voice commands through Nuance (famous for it’s Dragon Dictation software), a built-in navigation system, and multiple control points using both a touchscreen and buttons on two separate displays. The 2014 Impala, pictured above, is strategically different from the Spark and Sonic and are aimed and general consumers, not tech-savvy iPhone users who want Siri functionality.

We tested the MyLink system in both the Impala and the 2013 Spark, and the two couldn’t be more different. Both systems are controlled via resistive touchscreen technology, but the Spark requires no special functions best left for capacitive displays while the Impala does. The Impala, a mid-sized family sedan, has an infotainment system that feels and functions less fluidly and less intuitively than the Spark, a low-end vehicle geared towards young people who don’t have a lot of money, according to GM spokespeople at the event we attended in Los Angeles. However, many of the concerns I brought up with engineers regarding the Spark’s 2013 MyLink system aren’t inherent in the 2014 MyLink in next year’s cars.

For instance, Nuance’s logical speech recognition is built directly into MyLink on the Impala, so users don’t require a data connection to activate or use it. Using Siri on the iPhone — or S-Voice on the Samsung Galaxy S III, an Android smartphone with competing voiced-based search and secretary software — requires both a data connection and for Apple’s servers to process the data properly. On many accounts from users across the United States and other countries where Siri is enabled, both speech recognition and data connection for uploaded speech is problematic. Having the speech recognition software built directly into the vehicle reduces the strain on users driving, who don’t need any distractions from poor data connections or bad speech-to-text.

MyLink requires a Bluetooth connection, a feature available in all smartphones today. The 2014 version of MyLink also requires no smartphone to function, though a phone is required to send texts, listen to music outside of the car radio, and stream music through apps. The MyLink package includes GM’s OnStar system, which can field phone calls, among other services. Purchasing a new vehicle with OnStar built in includes six months of free OnStar service and no requirement to pay the monthly fee after that. OnStar starts at $18.95/month.

Unlike MyLink in the 2013 Spark and Sonic, next year’s version works natively across all handset types and isn’t geared towards any individual smartphone operating system or model. The widely available MyLink will be available first in the 2014 Impala, and will slowly release to 13 other models worldwide starting in summer 2013.

My take on MyLink is that for the Impala and next year’s models, a capacitive screen is required for functions such as moving apps around and gesture controls. Such gestures aren’t necessary for a car, and may in fact be distracting. MyLink in the 2013 Spark and Sonic include no such features, and the resistive screen works just fine. The system itself also looks and feels clunky, not fast like on the 2013 model, which may be more limited but at least matches the responsiveness and fluidity of the iPhone 4S, the likely phone of choice for Spark and Sonic buyers (according to one Spark engineer their customers tend to own iPhones over any other smartphone, which is why Siri functionality was imbedded in the car in the first place).

So while I have reservations about Siri’s functionality (and often lack thereof) in the Spark and Sonic, smartphone owners who buy a 2014 Impala or other cars featuring the new MyLink may be disappointed by how the software looks and feels. I have no doubt they’ll be pleased with the acuity of speech recognition and how quickly speech is recognized and acknowledged, but in this day and age how things look and feel are more important than how they operate. And tech savvy or not, MyLink 2014 makes for an ugly prom queen, a prom queen nonetheless.



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.