Tip

Belkin's Bluetooth USB adapter goes the distance

Product Name: Bluetooth USB Adapter F8T001
Company Name: Belkin Corporation (http://www.belkin.com/)
MSRP: $69
Platforms: Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, Mac OS X

Bottom Line: Wireless alternative for peer-to-peer that's

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simple to configure and overcomes distance limitations associated with older Bluetooth adapters.

In A Nut-Shell: A portable, easy-to-use alternative for as-needed wireless connectivity between laptops/desktops and peripheral devices at distances up to 100 meters.

Pros:

  • USB adapter is handy for travelers needing on-demand access to printers/files
  • Experienced usable connectivity / low packet loss at 180 feet (open space)
  • Auto discovery and built-in profiles make connecting to new devices a simple task

Cons:

  • Bluetooth 1.1 max data rate (721 Kbps) fine for ad hoc, but not a high-speed LAN
  • Turn security on, but beware of attacks like Bluejacking and Bluesnarfing
  • Keep an eye out for interference with other 2.4 GHz radio devices
Description: The fuss over 802.11 has over-shadowed Bluetooth, Wi-Fi's slower, shorter-ranged cousin. Both use the 2.4 GHz band to connect wireless devices, but they really address different needs. In particular, many struggle to use Wi-Fi ad hoc mode for as-needed connectivity between peers – often printer and file sharing. Devices like Belkin's Bluetooth USB adapter offer a simple alternative to meet this and other on-demand point-to-point needs.

I took Belkin's F8T001 for a short test drive. This tiny USB adapter implements Bluetooth 1.1 Class 1, supporting data rates up to 721 Kbps and distances up to 100 meters, depending upon environmental conditions, number of competing devices, etc.. You could save ~$10 by purchasing the F8T003 (10 meters), but you might as well go for the extra distance.

I didn't quite achieve 100 meters, but I was impressed by what I saw. The F8T001 gave me usable peer-to-peer data transfer in a typical residential setting at 100 feet, and outdoors up to 180 feet. Performance declined at longer distances, with average latency topping 200 ms around 250 feet. In fact, usable range was comparable, and in some cases better, than I've experienced with 802.11 adapters.

But Bluetooth isn't a replacement for 802.11. For one thing, rates pale in comparison to even real-world 802.11b/g throughput. We're talking Kbps, not Mbps. Bluetooth can turn a half dozen devices into a small LAN, but Wi-Fi APs are better at that. On the other hand, Bluetooth can be more convenient for peer-to-peer file transfer, wireless printer/fax access, and (in some cases) Internet connection sharing. Bluetooth defines "profiles" that let applications use these wireless services with very little end-user configuration.

Belkin's adapter supports drag-and-drop file transfer between peer Bluetooth devices. With just a few clicks, your laptop/desktop can share another Bluetooth device's Internet connection or use its modem through Dial Up Networking. Other profiles make it easy to use services provided by nearby fax machines and audio gateways. You can also connect your PC or Mac to a Bluetooth 1.1-compliant wireless headset or PDA.

All profiles are configured using Belkin wizards installed on your desktop/laptop, accessible from a system-tray icon after setup. Just decide whether you want your PC to behave as a client (e.g., use a fax), server (e.g., share your network connection), or both (e.g., peer to peer file transfer). Thereafter, a Discovery tool automatically finds other Bluetooth devices, the services they offer, and helps you connect.

You'll receive visual and (optional) audible notifications whenever a Bluetooth device is found or tries to connect. You may need to click on a pop-up to authorize each connection, but you won't have to configure other wireless parameters. Unlike Wi-Fi, there are no SSIDs to enter or channels to choose from. Wizard-driven configuration makes this adapter an easy solution for creating temporary as-needed connections.

Of course, you don't want to connect to just any Bluetooth device. To deter Bluejacking, enable security features like an authorized device list, PIN authentication, and 128-bit encryption. You can (and should) require these measures for all profiles, as a client or server. Depending upon the profile, you can let each device connect just once, for a specified duration, or connect again without user interaction. You'll define different PINs for each device – but you won't re-enter those static PINs again until you want to change them. This doesn't result in bullet-proof security, but it provides adequate protection against eavesdropping for many ad hoc uses.

Radio interference between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi is possible, so if you expect to use both, keep any eye out for performance degradation. I saw a very modest increase in 802.11 noise and errors when using Bluetooth in the same room, but not enough to cripple either connection. Bluetooth 2.0 will add more coexistence techniques.

Business travelers and other mobile users may find this adapter handy for quick pain-free connections to other Bluetooth devices. Home users struggling with Wi-Fi ad hoc mode for file/printer sharing without an AP might want to give Bluetooth a try. You won't get multi-megabit throughput – but you will probably get usable signal at greater distances than you'd expect from a Bluetooth device.

About the author: Lisa Phifer is vice president of Core Competence, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in network security and management technology. She is also a site expert to SearchMobileComputing.com and SearchNetworking.com.

This was first published in June 2004

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