GM has an answer for the Ford Sync infotainment package. It’s called Chevrolet MyLink and it delivers a seamless connection for smartphones and services such as Pandora, Stitcher Internet Radio, and Gracenote. Other cellphones and music players work, too. MyLink arrives later this year in a very limited rollout on the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and Chevrolet Equinox SUV, three-plus years after Ford Sync. Chevy and GM officials announced and demo’d Chevrolet MyLink Thursday in New York. Some of the details were sketchy such as “how much?” but the broad outlines of MyLink seem promising. MyLink will be up upgrade option beyond the base audio system. It will include a 7-inch color LCD display that, at least on the Equinox (right), is deeply hooded for readability. But you won’t be required to take navigation with MyLink, something you’d suspect (or fear, if you’re trying to buy a car cheaply) when a car has a center stack LCD. The MyLink car includes a USB jack (just one), in the center console bin on the Equinox, and a Powermat inductive charging mat at the base of the center stack, meaning any time you toss in your phone or music player, if it has a Powermat jacket or charging arm, it auto charges. That’s neat, even if the technology isn’t ready for prime time until the inductive component is embedded inside the phone. With the Bluetooth wireless connection and the Powermat charger, your phone is ready to use for calling or music streaming simply by dropping it in the center stack cutout. Voice Recognition: a Work in Progress To run MyLink, you tap one of the eight large icons on the center stack display, or issue a voice command to work the phone or any of your infotainment choices: AM/FM/XM radio, CD players (remember them?), USB key or USB-connected music devices, and Bluetooth streaming music players. The screen-tapping part works fine. But when Chevy execs tried to show the assembled analysts and editors how easy voice control was, they struck out badly. Virtually every attempt failed. And most of the requests were drop dead simple. That’s GM global vehicle engineering executive director Micky Bly, above, after going 0-for-4 issuing the command, “Play artist Douglas Kay.” Bly eventually punted, resumed his presentation, came back later, and got a couple more failures before we finally heard music from Of All the Towns to Sleep In. To be fair, the Nuance voice recognizer hasn’t had its final tweaks, and it’s optimized for the car cockpit, not a big auditorium where the speaker’s voice doubles back via the auditorium loudspeakers. But still, it suggested GM has some learning to do in terms of managing expectations (including its own) in the infotainment arena. Not that Ford hasn’t had trouble getting Sync technology to demo well, but Ford with its head start seems to hit fewer rocks when navigating shallow technical waters. Two Nuance RecognizersMyLink cars will use two editions of Nuance. There’s the onboard version that controls the infotainment system that MyLink talks to, and a cloud-based edition of Nuance for talking with OnStar. How much, or little, they differ accuracy will be seen over time. The in-car recognizer doesn’t have to deal with voice compression as much, or the vagaries of cellular communication, but the cloud-based recognizer will have more processing power. Nuance also powers Ford Sync and the majority of other cars with voice recognition.Pandora, Stitcher, Gracenote Chevrolet MyLink includes a trio of products Ford rolled out last year. There’s Pandora internet radio for streaming music from everywhere. For many users who spend most of the time in urban/suburban settings, it’s a cheap substitute for satellite radio. BMW Group last month announced Mini Connected and BMW Connected, which also gives their cars Pandora connectivity. Chevy appears to have an advantage in being able to control Pandora from the center stack or voice input where with the BMW/Mini version, you tune Pandora on your smartphone, plug it in, then play that one station. Stitcher SmartRadio lets users create customized podcasts through their smartphones. It aggregates and updates news and information feeds. Gracenote identifies and categorizes music on the user’s music player, music key, or smartphone. It also includes aliases, so if you say, “Play Elvis,” you’ll get the King (or Costello, if that’s who you have loaded instead). Products such as Gracenote make assumptions about what the typical user wants and if you’re in the mainstream, you’ll do fine. Doing alpha entry on other vehicles, typing T-H-E brings up a listed headed by the Beetles because that’s what more listeners are searching for. If you prefer voice input and say “Play Fab Four,” that, too, brings up the Beatles. Chevy execs said Gracenote can track up to 10,000 songs at a time from a larger onboard tunes database. An engineer working on the project explained the car has two onboard caches for music information, each of about 10,000 songs, letting you load his-and-her music players without having to index from scratch. If a third device is added, the older of the caches is bumped from the stack. Powermat Charging System MyLink also includes a Powermat charging system that will be in the cubbyhole at the base of the center stack. If the user has either a Powermat receiver attached (a short dongle) or a jacket (for the most popular devices), when you drop it on the Powermat base, it autocharges. They’ll start on the Volt and Equinox and, says GM, “expand to other vehicles in the Chevy lineup over the next 18 months.” To be answered is whether that’s some or all of them. Shares the Screen Nicely with NavigationMyLink will have a split-screen mode that divides the display in half when you’re running navigation: half for navi, half for infotainment. A lot of automakers are brain-dead in this regard. You can have the whole screen dedicated to navigation, or to infotainment, but not a nice mixture of the two. The worst cars are the ones that, if infotainment takes over the whole display, don’t pop up the navigation display when an important exit comes up. On a long highway drive, if you’ve got the navigation audio turned down, you might go miles past your exit before you think to check the nav screen and see it wants you to make a U-turn. (The photo isn’t very dramatic because it was shot indoors and the car’s internal GPS couldn’t place itself precisely in Manhattan. Normally you’d see a straight or curved arrow on the right side.) But Not Much of a Track List When you first click on an album, you see as many tracks as fit on screen. But once you press the play button, you don’t see the next couple tracks. That’s a minor drawback and GM should have offered that option. It’s especially desirable when you’ve created a playlist and want to see what’s next if you skip past the current song. And you can see from the photo above that there’s space available. Integration with OnStar, Chevy SaysIn its presentation Chevy made a big thing of how well MyLink integrates with and enhances the OnStar telematics system. Here, too, some of the details are sketchy. The one piece of integration I saw was that if you don’t buy onboard navigation and you are an OnStar subscriber, you can use OnStar to download rudimentary driving directions to the MyLink LCD. Actually, the directions are thorough but the visuals are rudimentary: simple arrows, not moving maps. So that leaves Chevy saying things such as, “The debut of Chevy MyLink extends the OnStar experience from safety and security to information and entertainment by seamlessly integrating the capability of a smartphone into the vehicle so that hand-held phones may be safely stowed while driving.” That apparently means: OnStar is a safety feature and if your phone is used hands-free via MyLink, that’s more safety. Chevrolet MyLink does not require OnStar, so if you decide not to continue the subscription after the first free year, MyLink’s functionality is for the most part unaffected, other than no longer getting navigation destination downloads sent to the LCD screen. Satellite Radio WallpapersIf you subscribe to XM satellite radio, the screen background is a wallpaper themed to the music genre (one wallpaper for rock, not one per channel). Also, the channels are stylized icons at the bottom of the screen. If that’s too much visual stimulation, you can revert to the standard blue background. What’s Not New: All GM Cars Have Bluetooth Already Most every GM car already has Bluetooth because of OnStar. Bluetooth is built into OnStar and OnStar comes on most every car GM sells other than some fleet cars. MyLink extends the usefulness of Bluetooth. GM cars have also had line-in jacks for years and some iPod connectivity as well. GM notes that “Chevrolet vehicles have offered customers the ability to use portable media devices since 2006” without explaining if that’s line-in or iPod specific, but they can be excused for the haziness since Steve Jobs for several years has talked about how the majority of cars are iPod-compatible merely by having that same line-in jack. How Good? How Soon? How Much? Thursday’s announcement outlined what Chevrolet will be doing: two cars this year, one of them a very-low-production unit, the Volt. More cars will follow in calendar 2012 but Chevy didn’t say how many or how soon they’ll expand beyond the Chevrolet line to the wide range of GM vehicles that includes Cadillac, Buick, GMC and, um, that’s the GM lineup these days. Apparently the first MyLink cars will arrive in late summer or early fall. It was unclear if GM would wait for a new model (cycles could be as long as six years) or a mid-life refresh (3-4 years), or inject MyLink and new head units sooner. GM didn’t say if the 7-inch display will be standard on cars equipped with onboard navigation. An 8-inch display would be helpful for moving maps because it has 30% more screen area but most buyers probably wouldn’t do the math and realize how much they lose with a screen that’s seemingly only a little smaller. As for price, GM knows it has to come in around $395, since that’s what Ford charges for Sync on its entry- and mid-line models; on the premium trim lines it’s free (built into the sticker price). MyLink has a big advantage over Ford Sync in that if you order MyLink, you get a color LCD, where Ford also makes Sync work (just passably) on the radio displays of cars without navigation or without MyFord Touch. Color displays keep getting cheaper. I believe GM will have to come in a $500 or less to be competitive. Automakers gripe about having to ruggedize and safety-test and blah-blah-blah their technologies (read: it’s gonna cost you) while buyers note you can buy an iPad or a decent laptop or two portable navigation devices for that kind of money. Best guess: Chevrolet MyLink as a $499 option this fall, or no extra cost but built into the sticker price on premium trim line cars, or swallowed in the cost of navigation-equipped cars. If Chevy can do MyLink for the same price as Ford Sync and include the LCD display, that’d be even more noteworthy. If it’s more than $500, Chevrolet will have a tough time convincing buyers of the value of MyLink.