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Ford drops Microsoft and revamps its Sync system for more speed

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Ford has abandoned Microsoft in favor of BlackBerry with its third-gen Sync connected car system and promised smartphone-like performance, conversational voice control and a simpler interface. As had been rumored, the Sync 3 will use BlackBerry's QNX instead of Microsoft's MyFord Touch system platform -- a big change-up, considering that Ford and Microsoft have worked together on Sync for over seven years. But after polling customers, the auto giant said that it was determined to make the third-gen system more responsive and less clumsy to use.

The Sync 3 will feature a much brighter touchscreen with sharper graphics, and allow pinch-to-zoom and other multi-touch functions. It'll also sport larger onscreen buttons and high-contrast fonts to minimize driver futzing. The interface has been completely redesigned with three zone choices on the home screen: navigation, audio and phone. In addition, a "one-box search" gives Google-like simplicity when looking for locations or contact info.

The system was designed to be used primarily with voice control, however, and now accepts much more conversational commands. For example, a driver can just say "Play 'Good Times Bad Times'" to hear the Led Zeppelin song, without having to enter more specific info as before. Sync 3 now supports Siri voice commands as well, allowing iPhone users to activate it with a push-to-talk button on the steering wheel. You'll no longer need to say or type an exact name or address, either -- you can now enter "Detroit Airport" to get directions if you don't know the official name, or give a business name like "Starbucks" rather than the address.

Ford has also touched up its AppLink system, making it possible to select compatible apps used on iOS or Android devices. But apps like Spotify or Pandora will function in a completely different way on the Sync's driver-oriented interface than on a phone or tablet. After you log into your account, you'll be able to control music or perform other functions with voice control or menu buttons, rather than a smartphone's typically more fiddly interface. Ford told me that it has over 70 compatible apps so far, and expects to bring hundreds more over the next year. To update them, Sync 3 now has a WiFi receiver that can log onto your home network or a smartphone hotspot.

When conceiving its third-gen Sync system, Ford polled customers who said the most urgently needed improvement was (yep) more speed, though we could've saved them the trouble. As such, it added a much faster OMAP 5 1.7GHz processor and other improved hardware. Ford told me that it wanted the Sync 3 to have benchmarked performance, "so that the system could be as fast as a tablet or smartphone, especially in terms of touch and voice responsiveness."

Whether Ford succeeded or not remains to be seen, but we'll have a chance to try it out next month at CES 2015 in Las Vegas. Ford's decision means BlackBerry's QNX now joins Android Auto, Nokia Here Auto and Apple CarPlay as the major connected car systems. That leaves Microsoft on the outside looking in, though it did recently show off its Windows in the Car strategy with Cortana riding shotgun. The Sync 3 will be available across Ford's US vehicle lineup starting next year, and will roll out everywhere else by the end of 2016.

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