The State of Bluetooth Headsets

The Bluetooth headset has gone from nifty novelty to ubiquitous accessory. They’ve become better and better with each generation, so now that they’ve matured, just how good are they? And what use are they for something other than making you look like you’re talking to yourself?When the first Bluetooth headsets came onto the market, I had been eagerly anticipating Bluetooth technology for years. Back then, wireless networking was still indistinguishable from magic. Unfortunately for me, I was on Sprint, which had a very backward selection of handsets, none of which had Bluetooth. Eventually, I got my hands on the one and only BT phone from sprint, which was hard to get and a littledisappointing. More disappointing were my first experiences with Bluetooth headsets. Muddy, echoey, and just overall substandard. Over time, I got better handsets, and they’ve all had Bluetooth. And from time to time I’d try a new BT headset. A few years ago, I bought what was considered to be one of the better Bluetooth headsets, from Motorola. I think it was an HS850. Rubbish. When I used it, people complained about the sound quality, and eventually it found a space in a drawer somewhere, and there it presumably still lies. Maybe it was just my bad luck. All this time, other people seemed to be happily walking around with dorky, blue-strobing Lieutenant Uhura thingamabobs on their ears. Was it just me?

I decided to give the Bluetooth headset another chance. The Aliph Jawbone seems to be the favorite Bluetooth headset these days, so I asked them to send me one. First off, this is definitely a worthy accessory to an iPhone. The designaestheticis a littledifferent: more angular and stark while the iPhone is curvier and shinier. iPhone = Mercedes Benz, Jawbone = Stealth fighter. But they both hold to a high standard, down to the packaging. Aliph definitely took a page from Apple with the little boxes within boxes packaging motif, compact documentation, nicely-designed accessories, and even the magnetically-attaching power supply. And just look at the thing:

Diamond-patternedaluminum-looking skin, hidden slit of an LED display (white and red, not yesterday’s boring blue), and that leather-wrapped earclip!

Jawbone Photo

The technology sounds impressive too: the noise-cancelingtechnologywas originally developed for military application and uses a special sensor to detect when you are speaking, and then it “models the noise, and aggressively eliminates it.” There’s more detail at their web site,but suffice to say, in their marketing materials, they make some pretty bold claims. So will I end up with a headset that not only isn’t muddy and echoey, but makes my voice sound even clearer than it should by eliminating ambient noise, even loud noise like a small engine or heavy wind?

To try it out, I put the Jawbone on, and went outside and started up my weed trimmer. It’s got a small noisy engine that’s just at the threshold that you can use it without ear protection, but it’s better if you don’t. I fired it up, and started talking. My wife, on the other end of the line, said that she could hear some noise from the weed trimmer, but that it didn’t affect her being able to hear me. Pretty impressive.

Now, this being OSNews and not a gadget blog or mobile phone review site, I thought that I ought to look at the possible uses for a Bluetooth headset beyond the mobile phone. In fact, before I even paired it with my iPhone, I paired it with my Macbook, and tried making a couple of VoIP calls with Gizmo5. I was able to get it to make calls on the Gizmo network, but was unsuccessful in configuring it to make SIP calls through my regular ViaTalk VoIP account. This would actually be a very useful tool for me while traveling, to be able to make a phone call using a service I already pay for, when, for whatever reason, I had internet access but no cell service or expensive cell service, such as overseas. I contacted Gizmo tech support and they informed me that their latest release was having problems with that particular configuration, and that I should try the next-oldest version. Sure enough, that did the trick, and I was able to make phone calls over Bluetooth through my laptop, and using the VoIP service I’m already paying for (and only $199 for two years).

So aside from VoIP calls, what else could I use this headset for?

It would be handy in the car to be able to perform various functions by voice control. Requesting an address in your nav system. Changing the radio station. Getting information from the trip computer. Why don’t cars give you the option of voice control, now that voice control systems are so good and cars have so much computing power? Typically, the interface design in automotive technology is absolutely atrocious. Ironic, really. The one place where performing your task quickly and with a minimum of fuss is literally a life or death situation, and it’s a complete disaster, UI-wise. Have you seen a late model BMW recently?

There are other areas where a nice Bluetooth headset would be handy for personal computing. Voice recognition software has advanced to such a point that it’s actually feasible to do dictation to your PC.

A good headset, wireless or otherwise, is essential for videoconferencing. Which, by the way, still makes me a little uncomfortable. All the science fiction movies assumed that we’d use video telephones in the future. And now we have them and . . . yuck! I don’t want to watch people while I’m talking to them. You have to make eye contact and not bite your fingernails, and be dressed and all those unpleasant things. But if you have a nice headset while you’re doing your Skype or iChat, at least you’ll sound good while you look uncomfortable.

A nifty headset like this would be great for voice control of software, kind of like Picard’s insignia/communicator on Star Trek. Trouble is, computers aren’t smart enough to really understand natural language, so we’re still in the era of needing to use arcane commands or endure a stilted back-and-forth with the software. The service “TellMe” that you can access by calling 1-800-555-TELL, is probably the most accessible voice-controlled computer you’ll run across, and it works pretty well. Get news or a stock quote or the weather or a bunch of other things you’d normally use the internet for, all through a voice interface. Now that I think of it, TellMe is voice-controlled cloud computing. Kind of cool when you think of it that way. And the most ordinary telephone you can find is your terminal to a mind-blowingly futuristic computing system. Of limited use in its current incarnation, but bound to improve dramatically in the next decade. Now all we need to do is mate the sophistication of TellMe with the hardware in a modern car, and maybe we can stop rear-ending people while we fiddle with switches and menus.

You know, the latest crop of smart phones, my iPhone included, are rather powerful computers. There’s no reason why they couldn’t integrate top-notch voice control functionality, and I don’t mean pre-recording and recognizing names in your address book like cell phones have had for years (but that, shamefully, the iPhone doesn’t do). I mean actual control of the entire device through voice command: “iPod” “Artist: Calexico” “shuffle all” or “Map” “search: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” or “Search: phone number” “Home Depot” “Arcadia California.” These are things I’d like to be able to do while driving, riding my bike, running on the treadmill, playing World of Warcraft, or while doing any task where fiddling with menus in a graphical user interface is inconvenient or dangerous. This is totally doable, and cool!

So ultimately, the Bluetooth headset that I wanted all those years ago has arrived, and I’m happy to have it. But there’s so much more that a ubiquitous, quality voice-delivery device could bring to modern computing. We now have the hardware of the future. How long will it be until the software catches up?


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