- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

Bluetooth, the “personal area network” technology promoted by Microsoft, Apple and several other companies, is maturing and — if one might mix metaphors — spreading its wings.

One of the key technology areas where it is growing happens to be in the cordless headset arena. These ear-sized headsets are designed to help users “unplug” from a corded headset and work wirelessly with a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone.

The advantages are obvious: no wires to get tangled, you can keep the cell phone in a briefcase or purse or pocket and, so long as the phone is reasonably close, answer calls and talk. Sound quality should be acceptable, as good, if not better, than the corded headset.

Bluetooth is made for such an application. It is designed to offer a different kind of network than an 802.11 wireless network or one created using Ethernet cables and technology.

It will create networks among certain items that you have and, using special authentications, speak only to those devices. If you’re in a room with 20 other Bluetooth users, your headset still should work with only your phone, and your personal data assistant should talk to only that phone, and so forth.

I recently have worked with two Bluetooth headphones. One lists for $109.95 and is made by Belkin Corp. of Compton, Calif., (www.belkin.com); the other, list price $99.95, is from Jabra Corp. of San Diego (www.jabra.com). There is much more that separates these two than a $10 price difference.

Because the Bluetooth headset is, in fact, a miniature radio, it needs electrical power to function, and there’s an internal battery in each headset that must be charged. No one told me why each company does it in a particular fashion, but Belkin’s charging circuits are in the headset, while Jabra puts part of the electronics on a clip-on holster for a belt, pocket or purse strap.

The difference is noticeable on the scales: Jabra’s earpiece weighs in at eight-tenths of an ounce, while Belkin’s is 1.4 ounces. Guess which feels lighter on the ear?

The Jabra Free Speak, as the earpiece is called, is also a little more stylish than the rectangular Belkin unit. I also appreciated the way it easily “associated,” or “paired” itself with my Bluetooth phone, the Sony Ericsson T68i.

Operating the headset involves pressing one button to initiate or end a call, and using two others to adjust volume up or down. There’s an adjustable “ear bud” of a soft plastic that can be rotated to accommodate use on the left or right ear.

Belkin’s headset offers good capabilities as well. Its sound quality is excellent, and the earpiece can be adjusted for either ear. The device features three buttons for controlling volume and answering or terminating a call.

Battery life on both devices seems to be more than adequate, although my sense is that you may want to have more than one power adapter/recharger so you could revive the device at work or at home.

My vote so far is with the Jabra unit, not only for price but also because it is easier on the ear. But others might prefer the Belkin model, whose only flaw seems to be its weight versus the competition.

However, users who pick either for their Bluetooth phones will be untangled, just a bit, in their daily lives — as well as standing at the cutting edge of networking technology.

• A useful resource for computer users is worth some attention. MacHome magazine, which underwent a change of ownership sometime back, concentrates on making Macs more useful to those who are at-home users.


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