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Listening to Bluetooth (or at least trying to)

by Dori Smith, coauthor of Mac OS X Unwired

I once read a review of a bug zapper -- a product that killed flying insects. The reviewer concluded that once you took into account the product's pros and cons, your best value for the dollar was to buy one and then give it to your next-door neighbor. You ended up with most of the pros and none of the cons. Using iChat AV with a Bluetooth-enabled headset has a lot in common with that product, including the way that both of them leave you complaining about bugs.

What you'll need (hardware):

  • A Mac running OS X 10.3.2
  • A Bluetooth module, either internal (all supported) or external (only some supported)
  • A Bluetooth-enabled headset, such as the Jabra BT200

What you'll need (software):

  • Bluetooth Firmware Updater 1.0.2
  • Bluetooth Software 1.5
  • iChat AV 2.1 beta

I've been pairing the Jabra BT200 headset with my Sony Ericsson phone for months now and found it to be very handy. Wearing it at last October's O'Reilly OS X Conference, the most common question I was asked was: does that work with a Mac? I was sorry to disappoint people and tell them no, and I was happy to hear that with the recent release of Bluetooth 1.5 that that answer had changed.

(The second most common question I heard was whether the headset made me look more like a Bajoran or a Borg, but that's another story altogether.)

What You'd Expect

You're a Mac user, so you expect that you can plug things in (or in this case, pair things), and they'll just work. So, you'd expect that a Bluetooth headset pairing would allow you to use your Mac and your headset to do things like voice recognition, listen to iTunes, and in general, use the audio input and output features of the headset to replace the audio input and output of the Mac. Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple.

The Installation Process

There are three separate downloads, all of which are required: the Bluetooth firmware updater, the Bluetooth software, and iChat AV 2.1. The firmware updater has the most ominous warning message I've ever seen in an Apple product, with five separate warnings (as shown in Figure 1).

Figure 1: Apple's Bluetooth Firmware Updater.

Related Reading

Mac OS X Unwired
A Guide for Home, Office, and the Road
By Tom Negrino, Dori Smith

Even with this many warning messages, things can still go wrong. If you were an early adopter and bought the original Bluetooth adapter sold by Apple (the D-Link DWB-120M), you'll get an error message saying that your adapter isn't suitable and its firmware isn't updateable. The Belkin F8T003 isn't updateable, either, but the current adapter Apple sells (the D-Link DBT-120) works fine.

But if you do have a compatible adapter, even with all those warning messages, Apple missed one: don't try to run the firmware updater with Bluetooth turned off. The updater won't ever find your Bluetooth device, and it won't stop trying -- leaving you with only an option specifically warned against: canceling the update. Thankfully, no harm appeared to be done to my test machine, and the updater ran just fine after Bluetooth was turned on.

If you've gone to Apple's Bluetooth page to download both the Bluetooth software and the firmware updater, you might then think that you have everything that's necessary. After all, the page says "You can also use a Bluetooth headset to talk to your friends and colleagues during an iChat AV session." But the page forgets to mention that the version of iChat AV you probably have (v2.0) only mostly works with Bluetooth headsets.

Save yourself several headaches and gray hairs (it's too late for me) and download iChat AV 2.1 Public Beta. While the only feature Apple documents adding in 2.1 was the ability to video conference with AOL 5.5/Windows users, installing 2.1 fixed a number of hairy Bluetooth chat bugs on my test system, including application freezes and an inability to turn Bluetooth devices off.

Getting Started

As mentioned previously, even though you've installed three different downloads, it's still not quite plug-and-play. Your Sound System Preference and the iChat preferences each have separate settings for sound input and output (see Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2: Sound System Preference pane.

Figure 3: iChat AV video preferences pane.

While this seems counterintuitive at first (two separate inputs and two separate outputs?), it starts to make sense shortly after you've tried using the headset for all system sounds. For instance, if your Mac hasn't made any sounds in awhile, it drops the connection to your headset. If an application then beeps, the connection has to resume before the beep can be sent, causing a delay that makes you wonder just which recent action went with that beep. And listening to iTunes through the headset is near painful; listeners compared it unfavorably to AM radio through a cheap speaker.

As for setting your System Preferences to use the headset for sound input, there's not really much point, as Apple documents fairly clearly that "Speech recognition is not a supported feature." And despite the Speech System Preferences pane successfully recognizing the headset as a microphone, and then displaying that it's hearing sounds, you can't use it to enter speakable items. The days when we'll be able to wirelessly talk to our Macs is coming, but it's not here yet. Between the issues with system sounds, iTunes quality, and lack of speech recognition, there's no point in setting your Sound preferences (either input or output) to use your Bluetooth headset.

Setting Things Up

After all that negativity, I'm happy to be able to say that setting up a Bluetooth headset was fairly straightforward, although somewhat more than plug-and-play:

  • Launch the Bluetooth Setup assistant
  • Choose the new-to-Bluetooth 1.5 "Headset" radio button
  • Set your headset to be discoverable, and wait for your Mac to find it
  • At the prompt, enter the passkey associated with the headset (hint: if you have the Jabra BT200, it's "0000")
  • Launch iChat AV
  • Go to the "iChat (Beta)" → "Preferences…" → "Video" (because you'd expect to find the audio settings under the video preferences, right?)
  • Set the "Microphone" and "Sound Output" pop-up menus to your headset, as shown in Figure 3, above
  • Start talking to your buddies

Thankfully, all those steps only have to be done the first time; after that, when necessary, you'll simply be prompted to re-pair the device (as shown in Figure 4).

Figure 4: Pairing the headset.

Don't believe that line about "Passkeys are only used once and do not need to be remembered"; you'll need to repeat this step every time you turn the headset off (which includes recharging it) or go out of Bluetooth range and come back again. And even though your Mac knows that it's a headset and that you can't enter a passkey on a headset, it'll tell you that "[t]he same passkey needs to be entered on both the computer and the remote Bluetooth device" -- so be sure to remember your passkey!

iChatting with Bluetooth

And finally, you've got everything set up, just the way you want it, and you'll find that it works well, although not perfectly. If you've used iChat before, you'll find that the greatest new feature is being able to pace while chatting -- no more having to talk directly into your iSight or PowerBook's microphone. And the combination of iChat, an iSight, and your Bluetooth headset is the virtual equivalent of VOIP calling.

I got mixed reports from the people I chatted with about the relative audio quality. While they all agreed that the headset was considerably better than my 15" PowerBook's built-in microphone, they split just about evenly whether the headset was better or worse than the iSight's mic. The most common evaluation was that the two were fairly even in quality, but their tone was different, and different people preferred one over the other (sometimes strongly).

I was hoping that the headset would clear up what I consider to be iChat AV's greatest failing: the echo effect. It's distracting to hear everything I say repeated on the other end. The good news is that the headset does kill off the echo. The bad news: it kills it off for the person you're chatting with, not you. So you'll still hear an echo, but the person on the other end won't. Consequently, I found that I got the greatest enjoyment from the headset when I gave it to someone else to use while I was chatting with them.

You'll also want to be careful how you seat the headset in and around your ear -- while it's supposed to fit everyone, nothing that's one size fits all ever quite does. Proper positioning of both the earbud and the mic improves the quality of both the sound input and output.

As for talking to Windows AIM 5.5 users, it's obvious why v2.1 is still a beta release. If my iSight was attached, I could audio or video chat with Windows users. Oddly enough, those with audio-only showed as video-capable, but whether audio or video-capable, only video and text appeared as options (never audio). And with my iSight detached, no one showed as having audio capabilities, even though both their computers and mine were capable.

Final Thoughts

If it's important to you (as it is to me) to pace while you talk, you owe it to yourself to get a Bluetooth headset to use with iChat AV. If you don't currently have any audio input to your Mac and you already have Bluetooth, this is a simple way to be able to start audio chatting.

But beyond that, this technology is still not quite there yet. The big benefits, I found, were those available when I gave the headset to others to use instead of me: primarily, the end of the echo issue (on my end), and also that I had access to other sound inputs (internal PowerBook mic, iSight) and the recipient (with a tower) didn't, allowing us to audio chat for the first time.

Eventually Apple will support features like speakable items and voice recognition. In the long run, we'll get functionality that will let your Mac/cell phone/headset inter-operate, such that you can be listening to good quality music on your headset until a phone call comes in. At that point, iTunes will pause, caller ID will show up on your Mac saying who's calling, and you'll be able to take that call via the headset. While we're close, we're not quite there yet.

Thanks to Tom, Matt, Al, Chuq, Steven, Eric, Lynn, Chuck, and Dan for help with the audio tests.

Dori Smith is coauthor of Mac OS X Unwired, JavaScript for the WWW: Visual QuickStart Guide, 4th Edition, author of Java 2 for the WWW: Visual QuickStart Guide, and a contributor to numerous online and print computer industry magazines.

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