Parrot Minikit gives drivers a great hands-free link to their cell phone

I have to admit it, I use my cell phone while I drive.

Yes, I know I shouldn’t — there’s plenty of highway road signs telling me I shouldn’t and I’ve heard all the experts say it’s almost equivalent to drinking and driving. Yet I do it anyway — and I bet a lot of you do it too.

After all, it’s a good way to pass the time when you’re stuck in traffic. What better way to make use of that rush hour other than making that phone call you needed to make?

I also often rely on the Google Maps for Mobile application to direct me to an unfamiliar location. It saves printing a map and I can call up the information whenever I need it. So I’ve formed some bad driving habits with my device.

But if I don’t soon change my habit, the law’s going to do it for me. Bill 40 was introduced before Ontario’s legislature last October and it seeks to ban the use of electronic devices while you drive. It’s designed as a law to weed out some driver distraction — a proven cause of accidents — and keep both your hands on the wheel. It’s likely to pass.

The provinces of Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have already enacted similar legislation. So have many American states. But not all hope is yet lost for drivers who can’t imagine parting with their cherished device time.

The law is designed to keep both hands on the wheel. So as long as you’re using that device in a hands-free manner, you’ll be OK. That opens the market up for electronics manufacturers peddling Bluetooth headsets and in-car systems that provide a relatively hands-free link to your device — a link that’s voice activated.

Enter the Parrot Minikit — it lets you talk to your cell phone via a Bluetooth connection, and the aptly named device talks back to you — in a female voice with a charming British accent. Parrot SA is a Paris-based company that sells several different hands-free device solutions. Their products range from high-end systems that you install into your dash down to simple plug and play visors that clip on to your sun blocker.

The Minikit is the plug-and-play option. It’s probably the easiest way to get hands-free access to your device and the $99 price won’t hurt your pocketbook too much. You can buy it on Parrot’s Web site or at other retailers in Canada.

The device comes in two styles — slim or chic. The chic model has a grey floral design on the front and the slim model is plain black. It is 110 mm long by 60 mm wide and 29 mm deep at its thickest point.

Essentially a big, flat clip that you attach to your sun blocker with a metal clasp, the main feature of this device is a knob near the top front. You turn the knob to access different options on your phone, and the centre black button is the action button. On one side of the knob is a power button and on the other, a call button.

When you get into your car, you reach up and press the red power button. The lights will flash and the Parrot will greet you with a sound similar to a little drum roll. When the connection to your Bluetooth device is made a second later, you’ll hear a little chirp sound. Now you’re ready to make calls.

Pressing the green button will prompt Parrot to ask you: “Who do you want to call?”, and you’ll tell it the name of someone on your phone’s contact list, and the location to call them at (cell, home, office). Then the call is dialled for you and you can speak to them over the Parrot device.

The voice activation feature worked very well after I practiced with a couple different names. I wait until I hear the “chirp” sound, and then clearly state the name, and enunciate well. The device picks up any voice and doesn’t require training. For me, it worked reliably.

Parrot will also tell you who is calling when you have an incoming call. This features reads the caller display screen of your cell phone.

By moving the centre dial on the device, you’ll cycle through three different options. You can select the Contacts menu, change the volume, or tell the device to receive contacts from your updated cell phone address book.

I didn’t tinker with this too much as dialling through my contacts is petty silly when I have the voice activation option. It also defeats the “hands free” purpose of the device. Once you click into the contacts, you sort through them alphabetically and can dial one by clicking the call button. You escape from this menu by pressing the red power button.

The volume and call quality delivered by the device are exceptional. I was always able to hear my contacts well over the large, loud, clear speaker featured on the device. Never once did I have someone say they had trouble understanding me, even when driving on the highway. To my contacts, it sounds like I’m using my handset.

Installation of the device was also a snap. There’s no software to install anywhere. Just make the pairing with your Bluetooth cell phone and you’re ready to go. This was easy to do with my BlackBerry Curve and I set my cell phone to automatically connect with Parrot whenever I turn on the device.

The battery life of Parrot surprised me. I used the device regularly for about three weeks while testing it, and didn’t recharge to see when my battery would give out. But the device held strong and didn’t degrade in call quality or volume.

It is a bit awkward when you do want to recharge the device. Parrot comes with a car charger that is a standard USB connection, but the cord is quite short. You won’t want to plug it in while it’s attached to your visor. You’ll have to take it down and place it near the cigarette lighter instead.

Another minor problem is the device will sometimes need to download the address book from my phone again before I can make calls. But this happens rarely and only takes a few seconds to complete anyway.

Overall, the Parrot Minikit is an effective product at a reasonable price for drivers looking for a hands free solution. It serves as a great alternative to those who don’t want to wear a head set all the time.

But keep in mind that driving with both hands doesn’t mean you’re driving safe. The Ontario Medical Association is calling for a complete ban on cell phone use in vehicles because even having a cell phone conversation means your attention isn’t fully on the road.

Not that I’m going to let that stop me.

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