Automotive App(s) of the Week: StartTalking, Vlingo


Despite tragic examples of how texting and driving create a deadly mix, there are those on the roadways who have to get their information fix while behind the wheel. And all the laws and Ray LaHood's lecturing aren't going to stop these folks — or stem the tide of technology surging into the car.

So what can we do, short of Secretary Ray's wholesale and unworkable ban of cell phones in the car? Perhaps solve the problem with more technology, the kind that lets people do what they're going to do anyway, but (hopefully) in a safe manner.

That's the premise of two free smartphone apps, StartTalking and Vlingo, that allow drivers to text via voice control, completely hands-free. StartTalking was just released in September; Vlingo has been around for a while but just introduced an InCar beta version. We spent time trying out the apps on an Android phone and survived to report that they make it possible to text and more without causing havoc on the highway.

StartTalking currently only works with Android 2.0 or higher devices, while Vlingo is available for Android, Apple, BlackBerry, Nokia and Windows phones. Both work without having to touch buttons on an iPhone and Android device and allow voice-activated text messaging. StartTalking and Vlingo also lets users update their Facebook and Twitter status, while Vlingo adds sending and receiving emails and finding points of interest and navigating to them, although some of these enhanced services require a "plus" purchase and can incur fees.

We primarily tested the apps' text-messaging function and found StartTalking easier to use. We prefer the StartTalking's "operator" command to wake up the app over Vlingo's goofy "Hey Vlingo" initial greeting, and StartTalking has a superior user interface as well. But Vlingo works better where it matters most: understanding voice commands. StartTalking occasionally wouldn't pick up on voice commands, even when we spoke slowly and clearly. Vlingo also works with some Bluetooth accessories, as we found in a recent test of Bluetooth speakerphones. So you don't need a fancy smartphone to use the app.

Few if any text messages are so important that it's worth risking life and limb for yourself and others to send or receive them. And if you gotta Tweet so badly, just pull over. But we also realize that some people can't go more than a few seconds or a few feet without getting their iPhone fix or checking their CrackBerry. At least apps like StartTalking and Vlingo let these tools do it without taking their hands off the wheel to reach for a phone or looking down at a tiny screen.

And until Ray LaHood puts the technology genie back in the bottle and completely bans phones in cars (Good luck with that, Mr. Secretary!), apps are where it's at to save us from distracted drivers.