While Wi-Fi has received a great deal of attention, it isn’t the only option for wireless networking. Several handhelds now come with Bluetooth built in and it can be used to connect your handheld to the Internet for Web surfing or email.
I know this can be done with a Bluetooth-enabled phone, but in the U.S. there are only a couple of these available and very few people have them. I’m going to cover wirelessly accessing the Internet through your home computer or network, as just about everyone can do this now.
Before I go any farther, I want to say I hope I don’t get any comments from purists saying that Wi-Fi is the only “true” wireless networking option. Holding to the hard-line stance that Bluetooth was designed only as a cable replacement and that’s all it should be used for isn’t living in the real world. Bluetooth can be used for wireless Net access and for many handheld users it’s the only option.
Internet access for Bluetooth has some advantages over Wi-Fi. The main one is it uses significantly less power. And it’s a cheaper option for almost everyone. You can pick up a Bluetooth dongle for your PC for less than $50, while a Wi-Fi access points usually cost twice that.
And like I mentioned earlier, there are lots of people for whom the main advantage of Bluetooth is they have no way to use Wi-Fi. This includes Pocket PC users with only an SD slot on their handheld, plus just about all Palm OS users. Wi-Fi SD cards are expected to be released this summer but that’s months from now, even if these aren’t delayed again. Bluetooth can be used now.
Of course, Bluetooth has some disadvantages, too. The most obvious ones are speed and range. The theoretical top speed for Wi-Fi is more than 10 times faster than the top speed for Bluetooth. In the real world, the difference is less obvious but still noticeable. Range is a bigger limitation. I can surf the Web from almost anywhere in my house with a Wi-Fi card, while I’m limited to just the rooms that immediately adjoin my home office when using the Bluetooth dongle. I extended its range considerably by putting it on the end of a long USB cable, though.
I know some of you are wondering if there is a point to wireless networking when the range is so short. For me, it’s about convenience. I sit at a computer all day every day. When I’m done working, I don’t want to keep sitting at a computer. With wireless networking, I can do my personal Web surfing from the comfort of my couch or bed. Also, it lets me spend more time with my wife. If she’s reading in bed, I’m not sitting at my computer down the hall; I can surf the Web while sitting next to her.
An increasing number of high-end Palm OS models come with Bluetooth built right in, including the Palm Tungsten T and Sony NZ90 and TG50. For the rest, you can get a Bluetooth SD card from Palm or the Sony Bluetooth Memory Stick.
Most of the Bluetooth browsing I’ve done has been with a Sony TG50. I’m torn about which is the better browser for this model. It comes with NetFront, which is excellent but takes up a lot of the TG50’s limited RAM. My other favorite option is AvantGo. People who use this for off-line browsing may not realize that it works as a very good online browser. Obviously I’m using the beta of the Palm OS 5 version, which has some new features for those who want to use it wirelessly, like bookmarks. It uses less RAM than NetFront, plus, of course, it does double duty as an off-line browser.
Web surfing via Bluetooth is definitely slower than Wi-Fi, but not unacceptably so. I would say it’s about 60% as fast. I tend to spend most of my time on Web sites formatted for handhelds, where the speed difference is negligible.
However, this is the first time the fact that the Palm OS isn’t multitasking has really bothered me. You can’t start to open a large page and, while it’s downloading, go do something else. Supposedly Palm OS 6 will offer this but it’s going to be quite a while before it is available.
I’ve stuck with ClieMail, which works pretty well and supports attachments. This allows me to save them to a Memory Stick and then open them with PicselViewer, which can display a large number of filetypes, including Microsoft Office documents, just as they would appear on a desktop. Another option for opening MS Office files is the new Quickoffice Premier.
The only time speed is a factor with email is if you get a lot of large attachments, like ones measured in megabytes. With text messages, I don’t notice any difference between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Bluetooth access certainly isn’t limited to Palm OS 5 devices. I’ve used the Palm Bluetooth card in an old m505 to surf the Web and get my email. This card works with almost any Palm OS device with an SD slot. The exception is the HandEra 330.
I’ve never had a chance to try the Bluetooth Memory Stick, though I know people who used it for Internet access on older Sony Clies. This was never officially released in the U.S., though you can pick it up from Brando or Expansys.
Of course, you’ll need to pick up a third-party Web Browser and an email app if you are using a Palm OS 4 model. You may have already guessed my favorite Web browser: AvantGo. It’s hard to beat free. It lacks some of the bells and whistles from the OS 5 version but is still a solid app.
For email you should check out Snapperfish’s SnapperMail. It also allows you to save attachments to memory cards. There are fewer options for actually opening them with OS 4, though. I’ve heard Quickoffice Premier is really slow on the 33 MHz processors, though I haven’t tried it myself.
I ought to mention that I’ve been able use Bluetooth to HotSync, too. This means the only time your handheld needs to go in the cradle is to recharge. If you don’t want to get a third-party email app, the default Palm Mail app can synchronize your email this way.
The HP iPAQ 5400 series has Bluetooth built-in. Also, one of the forthcoming iPAQ 2200 series models will, too. There were rumors that the h1915 would have integrated Bluetooth but, sadly, it didn’t happen.
Toshiba actually makes that Bluetooth SD card and there are drivers that allow all Toshiba models to use it.
In addition, Socket makes an SDIO kit that works with the iPAQ 3950 and 3955 after a ROM update. This is part of the SDIO Now! program, so future handhelds that are part of this will also be able to use it. Incidentally, this is a smaller card than the one Toshiba is currently offering.
For those of you with CompactFlash slots, there are several CF Bluetooth cards. I have the one from Socket which works well. It doesn’t project from the CF slot at all, though I think this decreases its range a bit. I try to keep the top of the card pointed in the general direction of Bluetooth dongle on my PC.
The apps that come with your Pocket PC are perfectly adequate for Web surfing and email. Pocket Internet Explorer has handled almost every Web page I’ve ever thrown at it, including frames, JaveScript, the whole enchilada. However, if you are going to be doing a lot of Web access, you might consider getting Spb Pocket Plus, which allows Pocket IE to have multiple browser windows.
I already talked about browsing speed in the Palm OS section but odds are lots of you PPC fans skipped over that part so I’ll repeat myself. Bluetooth is definitely slower than Wi-Fi, but not unacceptably so. I would say it’s about 60% as fast.
Inbox can handle getting your mail from an Internet service provider and, of course, allows you to save attachments. These can be opened with the Pocket Office apps. They may not show up exactly as they looked on the desktop but you’ll be able to get the gist of what’s in them.
You can probably tell that I’m a big fan of using the apps that come with my handhelds. A third-party product must be significantly better than a free app to get me to buy it.
On the Desktop
The typical setup involves connecting a Bluetooth dongle to your PC’s USB port and then sharing the computer’s Internet connection. Sorry, this isn’t going to be a step-by-step set of instructions on how to set this up on every possible kind of desktop computer. However, this information is already available on the Web.
A set of instructions for Windows XP RAS was put together by Troy Fontaine.
If you are a Pocket PC user, don’t be thrown by the fact that both these sets of instructions are for connecting to a Palm OS device. The PIC setup worked fine with my Toshiba e550g and the Socket CompactFlash Bluetooth card.
I’m using a Belkin USB dongle that I picked up at CompUSA for $50. Don’t be fooled by the ones you see that promise a 100 meter range. These are Class 1, while the cards for the handhelds are Class 3. Class 3 devices are limited to 10 meters and using a Class 1 dongle doesn’t change this. I also had frequent connection problems with the Class 1 dongle I tried.
Standalone Bluetooth Access Points
Connecting through your computer has some disadvantages. The most obvious is your computer has to be on in order for you to do this. A couple of companies offer products that can free you from the computer.
Pico Communications makes the PicoBlue Internet Access Point. This connects to an Ethernet network and allows seven Bluetooth devices to be connected at the same time. It claims to be the only product that can overcome the range limitation on Class 2 Bluetooth devices. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to try this for myself.
Belkin recently released a similar product called the Bluetooth Access Point with USB Print Server which costs less than the Pico Communications one. It also connects to an Ethernet network and allows seven simultaneous connections. In addition, it has a USB Print Server. Sorry, I haven’t been able to try this one, either.
If you don’t have a cable modem or DSL, Billionton Systems has announced the BT56R Bluetooth 56k wireless modem. This is a dial-up modem that provides Internet access via Bluetooth. It is supposed to be available next month for about $100.