Josh Dick portrait Josh Dick

A Breath of Fresh Bluetooth

About my love/hate relationship with Bluetooth.

In The Beginning

Until recently, I thought that Bluetooth devices were essentially empty promises disguised as consumer electronics products.

I remember the days before Bluetooth devices were ubiquitous. My first cell phone was a Motorola StarTAC. It wasn’t until several cellphones later that I first had a Bluetooth-capable device, the Motorola E815.

Bluetooth 1.1

The E815 was a Bluetooth 1.1 device that supported a few different profiles. (The average consumer was and still is expected to be able to somehow comprehend what “profiles” are.) The only Bluetooth functionality I had any use for at the time was the wireless headset capability. Even that was enough to be excited about; Bluetooth promised to end the days of using an awkward wired headset. Eager to jump on board, I bought a Plantronics Explorer 320. This was the first in a long line of frustrating, regretted Bluetooth-related purchases.

I really wanted to like the experience of using a Bluetooth headset, but the amount of “What? WHAT?” dialogue that happened on both ends of most calls far eclipsed the less frequent occasions when the headset would work with no issues. And even when the headset was working properly, the audio quality was poor. The headset was always within a reasonable range of my phone, which I always kept in a pocket, but I kept hearing intermittent audio artifacts and dropouts. Eventually, I stopped using the headset because the convenience of having a conversation without interruptions caused by the headset outweighed the headset’s promised convenience.

I don’t know which part of the system was really at fault. It could have been the headset, it could have been my phone, or maybe Bluetooth in general just wasn’t ready for prime time yet. In any case, I was let down. This technology that was supposed to make things more convenient just made me frustrated instead. This was further reinforced when a later purchase, the Plantronics Voyager 520 bluetooth headset, had the same issues.

Bluetooth 1.2

My next cellphone was an [LG enV](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LG_enV_(VX9900). (At this point in time, the trend of cellphone manufacturers using “clever” names for their products rather than model numbers had recently started. I’ll never understand how those names are chosen.) For what it’s worth, I remember really liking the enV’s design, which was innovative for its time; it included a full keyboard and loud stereo speakers.

The enV was a Bluetooth 1.2 device that supported a dizzying array of Bluetooth profiles. Here’s the full list, lifted from the enV’s product page on Amazon:

A2DP (stereo music streaming), AVRC (remote control), HFP (hands-free car kits), HSP (communication headsets), BPP (basic printing profile for text, email), DUN (dial-up networking), FTP (file transfer), HID (support for mice or joysticks), OPP (object push for business cards, calendar items, and pictures).

This opened up a whole new world of Bluetooth-related possibilities, or at least seemed to. The headset situation didn’t change and remained frustrating, although it’s possible that my headset (rather than the phone) was a limiting factor. As a music lover I was quite excited for A2DP, and as a geek I was curious about OPP.

A2DP

I bought a pair of Bluetooth headphones to listen to music over Bluetooth via the enV’s A2DP capability. Of course, the headphones could also double as a normal Bluetooth headset for phone calls. They actually worked as advertised, but I ended up being disappointed yet again because the audio quality was unbelievably bad due to compression artifacts. In fact, it was so bad that I thought there was a chance that the headphones were defective, so I bought a clip-on Bluetooth A2DP receiver and plugged in normal headphones, only to experience the same horrendous audio quality. I had been expecting some reduction in audio quality, but the quality was so bad that it was distracting and made the music unenjoyable. This, coupled with the fact that it was difficult to actually get music onto the phone, forced me to give up on A2DP.

OPP/OBEX

I thought it would be neat if I could use Bluetooth to transfer MP3s from my computer to the phone, and pictures from the phone’s camera in the other direction.

The geek in me had to try.

Since my computer at the time didn’t have built-in Bluetooth, I bought a USB Bluetooth dongle to experiment with. I found a page describing how to get OBEX working on the enV in a Linux environment (now offline, thanks Wayback Machine!). Using those instructions as a starting point, I actually got OBEX working after lots of tinkering. While it did eventually work, it ended up being so cumbersome to get going that I couldn’t use it on a regular basis as a “convenience feature”. That said, the experience didn’t end up entirely being a waste since I learned about how Bluetooth works in Linux.

So, even the new Bluetooth 1.2 functionality was underwhelming.

Giving Up

In February 2010, I bought a new car that had integrated Bluetooth. Even in 2010, the system didn’t support triggering a phone’s voice dialing nor A2DP. (Hopefully this has changed for newer models.) Unsurprisingly, the built-in Bluetooth functionality doesn’t work very well. Since voice dialing isn’t an option, phone numbers have to be manually programmed into the car via a slow and cumbersome voice interface. The call audio quality is terrible for both parties.

After giving multiple Bluetooth devices and technologies a fair try and being disappointed every time, I was fed up, and figured Bluetooth would never quite live up to my expectations.

Hope Is Restored: Bluetooth 3.0

Bluetooth headsets were still the best option for talking on the phone while in the car, so I kept begrudgingly using the Voyager 520. It actually lasted a very long time, through the lifetimes of three different iPhones. I had been using it with my iPhone 4S over the past year, until it stopped working altogether several months ago. Up until then I hadn’t had any motivation to buy a new headset. I figured it would just be the same disappointment all over again.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long.

After doing lots of Internet research, I decided to buy yet another Plantronics headset, the M50. It was quite cheap (around $30) and had lots of positive reviews online. I figured for the price, it would be a pretty low-risk purchase.

After charging up and pairing the headset, I immediately realized how much I had missed by being fed up with Bluetooth and sticking with the Voyager 520. In fact, I was so impressed I tweeted about it (I don’t think Twitter existed when I bought the Voyager 520, which for some reason, is still available online at the time of this writing):


The M50’s call audio quality is vastly better than that of the Voyager 520. The headset is also A2DP capable, and the audio quality is great, even though in practice I only use the headset for calls. The headset’s battery life appears as a graph on the iPhone, and is also verbally announced every time it’s powered on. Interestingly, the M50 has been discontinued by Plantronics, even though at the time of this writing it is still available from several large online retailers.

I later received a Jawbone Icon as a prize. As far as I can tell, it has nearly the exact same features as the M50. However, it’s more expensive, and I find its minimal button layout to be harder to use than the M50’s. The audio quality is also slightly inferior to the M50 in my opinion.

Somewhere along the line I decided to give A2DP a second chance and bought the Belkin Bluetooth Car Hands-Free Kit. And I’m glad I did. The A2DP audio quality is fantastic; I can’t hear any Bluetooth-induced compression artifacts while driving. Interestingly in contrast, the audio quality of the same device’s built-in headset capability is horrible. Those on the receiving end of calls I’ve made with it complain that I sound very distorted, no matter where I position the microphone. My car’s center console has an auxiliary input jack and 12-volt outlet (remember when those were for cigarette lighters?) which the device is plugged into. Since I’m not using the device for calls, it stays completely hidden inside the center console. So, no wires are necessary in order to listen to music and podcasts in the car. Awesome!

No More Bluetooth Blues

Bluetooth has matured enough to the point where peripherals for computers, smartphones and tablets all interoperate and work flawlessly, as long as their batteries are charged.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it’s best not to ignore technology that has been discouraging in the past, especially if that technology is actively evolving.

Another smaller takeaway is that it’s important to make informed purchasing decisions. The Plantronics Voyager 520 and M50 are both still available for purchase today. Who will be happier with their purchase?

In any case, Bluetooth has finally delivered for me.

I’m a reformed believer.