Actiontec USB Bluetooth Adaptor

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, send e-mail
Published by: Actiontec Electronics, Inc., go to the web site
Requires: Windows 98SE/ME/2000/XP, available USB port, Pentium 90 or faster, 16MB RAM, TCP/IP installed
MSRP: $39.99

Wireless, wireless, wireless. Everybody's talking wireless. 802.11b, 802.11a, 802.11g, new 802.11g, Bluetooth - what the heck is going on? It's a standards marathon, that's what! As usual, the technology loons who impose all of this on us, couldn't agree on a single standard to start with, so over the past 4 years ALL the standards hit the market. "Let the consumer decide," they said. Well consumers have decided - they want higher speed, better connection stability and a wee bit of backward compatibility with the most popular of the 'older' standards. Enter 802.112g (fast 54Mbps, backward compatible with 802.11b), exit 802.11a (fast, 54Mbps, but nobody cared?), with 802.11b (11Mbps) still widely supported, stable and most common. The newest kid on the block is Bluetooth. It's a short-range radio technology aimed at simplifying communications among and between Internet devices and the Internet. It also aims to simplify data synchronization between Internet devices and other computers. Products with Bluetooth technology must be qualified and pass interoperability testing by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group prior to release. Bluetooth's founding members include Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba.

S'nice . . . but what's it good for? Well lots actually. If you have to haul around a laptop and printer, why not use Bluetooth to communicate with the printer, thereby eliminating the need to pack a cable? Because Bluetooth is a very short range technology (10 meters/33 feet max effectively), anyone trying to access your data has to be very close by and that means a bit more security for you and your precious data. Because Bluetooth hardware has been designed to fit neatly onto really tiny cards, it's a perfect match for both the CF and SD slots found in all PDAs (PalmOS & Pocket PC devices - it's even built into many new PDA models now, leaving the card slots free for other things), and that makes accessing local networks and the Internet a breeze. Bluetooth also provides for smaller ad hoc networks, or wireless personal area networks (WPANs). In business environments (just like at home), Bluetooth connections are created automatically and without assistance from IS/IT people often responsible for such things. Bluetooth WPANs can consist of just two units or multiple devices, otherwise known as point-to-point and point-to-multipoint. Bluetooth devices may also belong to multiple WPANs concurrently. There's more, but you get the idea. The Actiontec USB Bluetooth Adapter can also be configured as a Bluetooth server supporting up to 7 Bluetooth client devices with automatic IP address assignment when connected.

Install the Actiontec USB Bluetooth Adaptor drivers from the supplied CD, then plug the little adaptor (it's a bit smaller than a typical USB memory key) into any available USB port on your computer and you're done. Configuring the adaptor to communicate with another Bluetooth equipped computer is a process called Pairing. As mentioned however, you can exchange information with any other Bluetooth enabled device. You can make your computer, PDA, cell phone and printer communicate wirelessly with each other. The Bluetooth v1.1 specification used by Actiontec includes several features which make the whole technology more usable for you and me such as Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum which was explicitly designed to reduce interference between wireless technologies sharing the 2.4 GHz spectrum. Cordless telephones, microwave ovens and certain Wireless Local Area Networking (WLAN) technologies including IEEE 802.11b generally share the same wireless frequencies as Bluetooth. The device operates at a top speed of about 444 Kbps. We did not do any actual data rate measurements, but we also did not have any complaints about data transfer rates. We had a couple of irritating issues with Outlook (we really don't like Outlook very much) which threw error messages on screen yelling about the Bluetooth connection not being available (even though the connection seemed to be working just fine). The problem appeared to be connected with Outlook's automatic mail check and once we turned that off, the Actiontec Bluetooth Adaptor settled down.

We put the Actiontec USB Bluetooth Adaptor through the toughest test we could find - communicating on an hourly basis with a Palm Bluetooth card installed in a Palm M515 running BugMe! Messenger. We were already trying out BugMe! Messenger to carry some of our interoffice memo traffic. We also wasted quite a bit of time trying to configure the whole thing to work with a research assistant's AOL account conveniently forgetting that BugMe! Messenger only works with POP mail. The Bluetooth drivers at both ends seemed to work well, but BugMe! seemed unhappy with the communication connection and we don't recommend it. We also tried an HP 995c DeskJet color inkjet printer and a Dymo/CoStar Labelprinter to talk with a Dell Latitude laptop running Windows XP Professional. Printing worked well and quickly and we think this is a great use for Bluetooth. Last and by no means least, using the M515 to access data from the local network was a breeze - file transfer (images, spreadsheets, Word documents), web browsing, dial-up networking and faxing all worked mostly as expected. Best of all - no wires.

The security built into the Actiontec USB Bluetooth Adapter protects your data from intruders by using native 40 bit and 128 bit Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption. When used in conjunction with Windows Network Properties, security can be set to 64 bit or 128 bit WEP encryption. More security is provided by allowing the user to set trust levels for remote and local users, as well as using password protection. Even though Bluetooth is a very short range technology, we recommend enabling all security precautions.

Cons: Sending fax data via Bluetooth (between an iPaq 3950 with card) was not reliable. We're not sure why but we think the problem is a driver issue on the Pocket PC side - nothing to do with the Actiontec Bluetooth Adaptor. Outlook XP and the adaptor did not get along well on two desktops (running Windows XP Pro) but worked flawlessly on at least two others (also running XP Pro with identical installations). While we blame Microsoft for most of the problem, perhaps a driver update from Actiontec is in the works.

Pros: Installation, file transfers both ways, Internet access and browsing were mostly flawless. At home and at the office using a Bluetooth card in a PDA communicating with the Actiontec USB Bluetooth Adaptor is a convenient way of accessing the web, the local network and specific files. It's very handy, secure because of its short range and WEP encryption, and if you're a real PDA fan the adaptor let's you use your PDA for more work before absolutely having to resort to a desktop PC. We like the product, Bluetooth quirks and all. So if you have a use for Bluetooth connectivity, the Actiontec USB Bluetooth Adaptor is a great place to start.

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