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A cut above infrared
When you think of Bluetooth networking, think small. Bluetooth's strength lies in replacing cable for directly connected devices, but it is not well suited for networking computers. Bluetooth is what we all hoped infrared (IR) would be: a convenient, low-power, wireless means to sync up devices. But IR has two major weaknesses: limited throughput and the need for a clear line of sight. Bluetooth overcomes both of IR's major limitations; it offers increased throughput, and it is not encumbered by line-of-sight requirements. In networking jargon, Bluetooth is a wireless personal area network (WPAN) and should not be confused with wireless local area network (WLAN) technologies such as 802.11b, which are designed to connect computers to larger, more complex networks.
Low power; limited range
With these distinctions in mind, the 3Com PC Card adapter provides a well-designed and easy-to-use solution. With the antenna retracted, the device sits flush with the edge of your notebook's Type II PC Card slot, making it easy to transport. You can even leave the PC Card in your notebook permanently so that you're always prepared to connect with other Bluetooth-enabled devices. While leaving the 3Com card in your notebook will cause minimal battery drain, you can always disable the adapter by ejecting it from the Windows System Tray without physically removing the card. A tap of the finger on the end of the card extends its XJack antenna, which pops up and peeks over the base of the notebook. The retractable antenna is a nice design feature that can improve range, depending on the positioning of the connected devices. Bluetooth operates in the 2.4GHz spectrum and is subject to interference from some cordless phones, microwave ovens, and networking products based on the 802.11b and HomeRF standards. Interference is worse when devices competing for the same spectrum are within close proximity, so the positioning of devices can be important.
A little too simple
The PC Card's drivers are easy to install, and the accompanying CD includes all the necessary documentation and software. Simply insert the installation CD into your notebook's CD-ROM drive and follow the onscreen instructions. Drivers are available for Windows 98 SE, Windows Me, and Windows 2000. The current shipping CD does not include Windows XP drivers, but 3Com claims XP drivers will be available via its Web site by the end of December. Also, if you're a Mac user, you'll need to shop elsewhere.
The Bluetooth Connection Manager software is easy to use, in part because it does so little. Once installed, the program lets you set passwords, terminate connections, assign trust levels to remote devices, and set security levels for your local system. It also displays icons of all your connected devices. To send a file wirelessly, simply drop it onto another computer's icon, and the receiving computer prompts its user to accept or reject the transmission. If you accept the transmission, the file is sent to your Bluetooth in-box. It makes file sharing feel like instant messaging.
Putting Bluetooth to the test
In CNET Labs' tests, the 3Com PC Card performed well. Our small network consisted of two notebooks equipped with 3Com's Bluetooth PC Cards, a desktop equipped with 3Com's Bluetooth USB adapter, and an HP DeskJet 995C Bluetooth printer. The computers found each other and the printer quickly and automatically. We sent print jobs across a distance of about 30 feet and through three walls. Bluetooth radios are generally rated for a range of about 10 meters, and 3Com's excellent antenna design appears to promise every inch and then some, even in the face of a little RF obstruction. As expected, data throughput for 3Com's Bluetooth adapter pales in comparison to that of 802.11b devices.
3Com also offers one of the better support plans in the business. The Wireless Bluetooth PC Card comes with a limited lifetime warranty, compared with the standard one-year warranty offered by competitors. Toll-free phone support is available for only 90 days, but you can probably find most of the answers you need on the 3Com Web site, which offers drivers, manuals, and a searchable knowledge base.
WPAN, WLAN, and home networking
3Com's Wireless Bluetooth PC Card performs capably within its limits. If you want to network two or more computers, we recommend a cheaper WLAN solution. But there are scenarios in which Bluetooth makes sense; you may want to access the Web through your Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone or, perhaps, set up a simple wireless-printing connection with a Bluetooth printer. If a WPAN solution is what you need, 3Com's PC Card adapters are a good choice. They are well designed and competitively priced (compared to other Bluetooth cards), and they conform to the latest Bluetooth specification.
|Bluetooth/802.11b comparison throughput test|
Practical throughput measured in Mbps (longer bars indicate better performance)
|How we tested|
For practical-throughput-rate tests, CNET Labs ran a series of hand-timed file transfers. The Bluetooth PC Cards were set up to transmit at short ranges and at maximum signal strength.