Tech Review – Bluetooth

I wanted to take some time and write a little post on Bluetooth. This is really just a basic discussion of what it is and what it does, not a really involved, detailed, explanation of the technology and the science behind it. The web is filled with that kind of info. I'll try to post some links to other info sites sometime soon.

Bluetooth has been around for longer than people think. It was first developed in the mid 90's as a device wireless standard. Essentially, it is a standardized way for different personal devices to talk to each other. It allows Phones, PDAs, Computers, Headsets, Printers, and more to all talk the same language over the same designed radio frequency. It has gone through a few different versions, the latest being version 2.1 + EDR.

However, just because they communicate using the same protocol, does not mean that each device will support the other device. Each device is programmed to use different features of the Bluetooth standard. For example, a phone can support a Bluetooth Headset for phone calls, but may not support printing to a Bluetooth printer. Just because a device has Bluetooth capability, it's up to the manufacturer of that device to decide what features are going to be enabled, and how those features work.

Here's an example … My phone is a BlackBerry Pearl by RIM. It has Bluetooth capability for headset use. I can pair any Bluetooth headset to my phone. When paired, I can place and receive calls using the headset. However, I can not listen to music stored on my phone through a paired headset. The reason is that the manufacturer (RIM in this case) did not program that capability into my phone. A different phone (Cingular 3125 for old phone) would allow music to be played through the Bluetooth headset. It's a function of the programming of the phone … not the headset.

So, just because your phone has Bluetooth capabilities, does not mean that it will automatically work with all other Bluetooth devices. They need to be programmed to use the same features of Bluetooth.

To try to make it easier to determine if different devices will work together, Bluetooth SIG (special Interest Group … the group that develops and promotes the Bluetooth standard) has developed some icons for manufacturers to use on packaging. These Icons are supposed to tell you what Bluetooth features the device uses and that should help you determine if your devices will work well together. The icons are listed here. Although I have not seen too many uses of the icons on packaging yet.

In the example of my phone, my phone has "Headset" capability, but not "Music" capability. Therefore, my phone would work well with a Bluetooth headset (such as the "Mini" or "Micro"), but I would not be able to listen to music stored on my phone using a Stereo Bluetooth Headset (such as the "Stereo unit "). In my case, the main purpose of the Blackberry Pearl is messaging, not music, so I am OK with not listening to music in stereo on my phone. But other phones are marketed as "music" focused phones, and would be smart to offer stereo Bluetooth capability.

Not only do you need to determine what capabilities your device has … but the way your device USES the Bluetooth capability as well. For example, when I use a Bluetooth headset with my Blackberry Pearl phone, I can press the Multi-Function button (aka the talk button) on the headset and the phone will automatically go to Voice Dial mode. The phone will ask me who I want to call and will place that call. This is because RIM programmed the Pearl to do that when the Mulit-Function button is pressed on a linked (paired) Bluetooth Headset.

Now, if the same headset is paired to an iPhone and the MFB is pressed, nothing happens. Apple did not program the iPhone to use voice dialing with a Bluetooth Headset. The headset will work fine, but to place a call, you need to use the phone touch-pad to dial. To answer a call, you can just press the MFB.

These functions are all determined by the programmers and engineers who design and build the individual phones. Just because a device is Bluetooth compatible, does not tell you HOW that device uses the Bluetooth function.

The Bluetooth Experience Icons help (although not commonly used yet) but even those do not tell you HOW the device uses the technology, only that it does.

Hopefully this does not put you off towards Bluetooth altogether, because it really is great technology. It is very handy to use a wireless headset to talk on the phone. And in many areas, handheld use of cellphones is illegal.

So how do you know what will work with your phone? The instructions or manufacturers websites should be able to tell you if your phone is Bluetooth capable or not. And it should tell you what features it supports. But they may not tell you how convenient their programming and use of the technoligy is.

One suggestion I have (and use) is to start small. If you are thinking of buying Bluetooth headset for your phone, see if you can try it in the store. I have not seen that offered anyplace in our area, but if you can find a salesman or store that will let you try before you buy, take advantage.

Another option is to try with a lower cost headset first. There are a wide range of headsets and other Bluetooth devices out there. Some are very low cost and low quality, and some are very expensive. There are many factors involved in the pricing of these units … enough that I will save it for another post sometime. But there are some good quality units available at a very fair price. These tend to be lesser known brands, but since Bluetooth is based on a standard protocol, using standard chipsets, you will not see a huge difference in performance.

As I said, this is a very basic overview of what Bluetooth really is. I could get into hours and hours of great tech detail on this, but I'm trying to keep it simple and understandable.


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