Skip to main content

Bluetooth: It Just Works

Experience has demonstrated that the bleeding edge of technology is usually a very uncomfortable place to be. However, Bluetooth - a wireless connectivity technology that operates in the 2.4 Ghz range - has proved to be an exception.

Not only did I find Bluetooth to work in a simple and reliable way, I also found it to be quite useful, which in these days of "technology for technology's sake," is a pleasant departure from the norm.

The hype about Bluetooth has been buzzing since the first specification was released in mid 2000. Now, after a slow start and steady improvements, the technology is starting to become increasing available, especially in laptop computers, PDAs and mobile phones.

A DEAD DANISH KING

Essentially, Bluetooth is the popular name for a specification for low-power, short-range wireless connectivity. It's similar to the WiFi (802.11b) and HomeRF wireless networking systems, but differs by creating a personal area network, rather than a local area network. Bluetooth's range is about 30 feet and its bandwidth can be more than 700 kbps.

It's said that Bluetooth's main competition is a short wire, while WiFi's is a long wire. That seems a reasonable analogy and one of the things that, at first glance, makes the technology seem so trivial.

In the beginning, Bluetooth was limited to such mundane tasks as the cordless mobile phone headset. Now, it has moved into more advanced territory such as digital photography, print servers, keyboards, mice and the linking of mobile Internet devices. Soon to come is the wireless linking of home audio components, such as headphones and surround sound speakers.

I admit starting out as a skeptic, even questioning its reason for being. But my purchase of a new Apple PowerBook a few weeks ago was the catalyst to give the technology a try. Since the PowerBook came with a built-in Bluetooth module, I got my feet wet with Apple's cordless Bluetooth mouse.

After a one-minute setup, the mouse and computer linked and began a flawless relationship. I was hooked. Cutting the mouse cord was surprisingly convenient. And, best of all, it worked well.

Next, I added Apple's Bluetooth keyboard and had the same success. Its performance has been bulletproof. Then came a Palm Tungsten 3, a version of the PalmOne organizer that includes internal Bluetooth connectivity. Within seconds, I had the Palm talking to my PowerBook, automatically synchronizing contacts and installing files.

BLUETOOTH AND T-MOBILE

With these good experiences, I was confident enough to try a bold experiment-one the skeptic in me was certain would fail. I tried linking the Palm Tungsten 3 to a mobile phone for wireless Internet connectivity. The promise is that with a properly set-up Bluetooth phone left in the "on" position, one can use the Palm to check e-mail or browse the Web at any time.

The Bluetooth phone I chose was a Nokia 3650, operating on the T-Mobile service. This model, noted for its excellent RF capability, uses T-Mobile's all-GSM/GPRS network with coverage in 9,000 U.S. cities and in more than 100 countries worldwide.

This Nokia also just happens to be a picture phone, with built-in still camera and video recorder. A souped-up version of the Nokia 3650 is now being used by reporters at the BBC to successfully "phone-in" video news stories via e-mail.

For an extra charge of $19.95 a month, T-Mobile will sell its subscribers an additional unlimited data plan. This "all you can eat" option allows the use of phones like the Nokia 3650 as a wireless computer modem or Internet access device.

In my case, I linked the Nokia phone via Bluetooth to the Palm. This was quite easy because the Palm has a pre-installed driver for the 3650. The two devices were linked in a matter of seconds and stayed that way.

That's when the magic began. I could easily keep the Nokia phone in my bag and, without touching it, pull out the Palm to send and check e-mail. I just hit the "get mail" icon on the Palm and, presto, it automatically activated the out-of-view phone via Bluetooth.

What I expected to be a flaky, unreliable service was exactly the opposite. One day, on Amtrak's Accela train between New York City and Washington, D.C., I repeatedly used the setup to check e-mail. Not once did it fail.

That's the good news. The bad is that Bluetooth is very selective about her mate. It's important that the devices you wish to connect via Bluetooth are compatible. For example, I tried linking the Palm Tungsten 3 with a new Nokia 6600 GSM phone. It would not work because, at the time of this writing, no driver has been released by PalmOne for the phone.

Without the proper driver, you are out of luck. Drivers for similar devices won't work. In the case of the Palm, it's either supported or it isn't; same with Apple. Bluetooth compatibility between devices is essential and it's the buyer's responsibility to check before making the purchase.

With that caveat, Bluetooth is emerging as a solid, useful technology with vast potential in the home and workplace. Though it doesn't yet have the cachet of WiFi, it certainly has this skeptic's attention and vote of confidence.

Frank Beacham
Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.