Heralded with great fanfare during the last few years as the wireless communications technology that would network our ever-smaller and more mobile world of computing devices, Bluetooth products are finally beginning to emerge in the market—albeit at a much slower pace than Bluetooths marketing folks have had us believe.
As a short-distance, low-power wireless connectivity technology, Bluetooth can fill in the network gaps in the enterprise, particularly among systems such as phones, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and roaming laptop machines. eWeek Labs selected one such scenario—that of wireless printing via Bluetooth—to determine whether or to what extent Bluetooth is ready for rollout in the enterprise.
We found that Bluetooth wireless printing can enable companies to widen access to workplace resources, but incompatibilities among Bluetooth gear and frequently confusing user interfaces will leave many organizations waiting for more mature products.
This is in large part because the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (www.bluetooth.com) has yet to complete the specification profile that defines printing. With this profile unfinished, each of the adapters we looked at accomplishes print jobs through proprietary tweaks to the standard Bluetooth serial connections. In this, printing is not alone—similar circumstances will limit various other Bluetooth facilities.
Companies that cant wait to get started with Bluetooth will be able to upgrade product firmware to take advantage of software updates and fixes.
Bluetooth printing systems are certainly viable, but factors such as compatibility should weigh heavily in IT managers product selections. For example, the Anycom Inc. print adapter we tested would work only with Anycom products, while print adapters from Troy Wireless (a division of Troy Group Inc.) and MPI Tech (a business unit of I-Data International A/S) could interoperate with all the gear we reviewed. This puts the Anycom print adapter at a serious competitive disadvantage.
It takes at least two devices to do anything useful with Bluetooth. We put our print adapters through their paces with Bluetooth add-ons based on PC Cards, CF (CompactFlash) cards and USB (Universal Serial Bus) adapters from Anycom, Troy Wireless, Socket Communications Inc. and 3Com Corp.
Interference within the crowded 2.4GHz band in which Bluetooth operates has been cited often as a potential problem for Bluetooth, so we put our collection of Bluetooth and 802.11b gear into cacophonous action in our labs. IT departments will need to test with the devices and wireless networks running in their own environments, but we saw no interference problems under harsher conditions than many organizations would face.
We tried to force interference by setting up a laptop computer with 802.11b and Bluetooth atop each other in the machines PCMCIA slots. We were able to stream music to the laptop over 802.11b while carrying out a Bluetooth print job and searching for other nearby Bluetooth devices without any of the operations being disrupted.
We then threw in two other laptops on which we started large downloads over 802.11b and began a separate Bluetooth print job from another machine. Still, we could not detect any interruptions due to interference.
As far as range was concerned, we found it possible to maintain Bluetooth communications—between walls and among other obstructions—from at least 20 feet.
The print products we tested ranged in price from $130 to $170, roughly equal to or less than the cost of a workgroup-class 802.11b wireless print server device.
Each of the Bluetooth print products we reviewed shared the same weakness: Their ease of use is limited by the quality of the software that drives the Bluetooth client adapters through which they print. In most cases, this software passes too much of the complexity of Bluetooth along to the user.
Upon installation of a Bluetooth PC Card, USB dongle or other adapter, a devices setup software creates various virtual COM ports. Bluetooth printing, like other sorts of Bluetooth activity, occurs across these ports.
For each Bluetooth printer scenario we tested, we had to configure a virtual port for serial Bluetooth connections and then use our client devices Bluetooth software to discover and link to available print adapters. However, each Bluetooth client interface we encountered did this in a different way, often making setup—and in some cases general use—confusing.
Each of the Bluetooth software interfaces we reviewed was workable once configured and made it fairly easy to configure security options. For example, we could assign PIN codes for linking to the devices and determine that the devices not be visible to other Bluetooth gear. However, until Bluetooth vendors begin to agree on a set of common Bluetooth interface metaphors, each new product will have its own learning curve.
Once Microsoft Corp. makes good on its pledge to build native Bluetooth support into Windows in the second half of this year, these interface issues should become less of a problem, as Microsofts implementation will likely become a de facto standard.
We preferred 3Coms Bluetooth Connection Manager software to the offerings from Troy Wireless and Anycom. Connection Manager ships with 3Coms PC Card and USB dongle adapters, both of which also performed solidly in our tests.
3Coms Connection Manager features a Network Neighborhood-like interface, as does the Bluetooth software from Digianswer A/S that accompanies the Troy Wireless Bluetooth PC Card we tested. However, the 3Com software handled Bluetooth connections more intelligently.
For example, with Connection Manager, we did not have to create a connection to our Bluetooth print device before hitting the Print button, as was required in certain cases with the Digianswer software.
Instead, our print command triggered a dialog from which we could select the print device we wanted to use. We could also make our choice of print device the default for future print jobs.
With the 3Com software, the Bluetooth link expired on its own upon completion of a print job, leaving the print device free for other users.
Our favorite Bluetooth interface, however, was the one that graced Sockets Bluetooth CF card. Upon installation, the Socket software offered us a wizard to connect with an Ericsson Inc. T39m test phone, and other simple dialog screens led us through device and service discovery of nearby Bluetooth devices.
We could print to our Troy Wireless and MPI print adapters from a Pocket PC-based system with the Socket Bluetooth kit and Field Software Products $40 PrintPocketCE Version 3.0 Pocket PC-based printing application.
PM-2000 Printer Module
Like the print products from Troy Wireless and MPI, the Anycom print adapter plugs into any printers parallel port. All three adapters ship with separate power bricks that provide the devices with electricity. Alternatively, the adapters may receive power from pin 18 of printers.
Each of the three print adapters we tested required that we first install drivers for the printer we intended to use—driverless. Truly ad hoc printing wont be available from Bluetooth until the official print profile is completed and made available in updates to the print devices.
We tested Anycoms print adapter with a $199 Anycom Bluetooth CF card. Although the Anycom print device would only work with a like-branded adapter, the Anycom CF card worked with all three of the print products we reviewed.
In any case, we found the Windows software interface that accompanies the Anycom CF card the most difficult to use of those we tested. Printing to the Anycom print device was simple enough, but the process for setting up the CF card to work with the other print devices was unintuitive and clumsy.
We found the design of the Pocket PC version of Anycoms Bluetooth software much easier to use and would like to see Anycom bring this interface to the next version of its Windows software.
The Anycom Bluetooth CF card ships with drivers for Windows CE 3.0, as well as Windows 95b through 2000. Anycom does not yet support Windows XP and offers no support for Mac OS or Linux.
The Anycom PM-2000 Printer Module, available in the United States since late August, costs $159.
Bluetooth Printer Adapter
MPIs Bluetooth print adapter looks similar to that from Anycom, with the exception of blue and yellow lights that indicate the connectivity status of the device. In addition, the MPI adapter sports an exterior button for printing test pages or for putting the unit into an upgrade mode from which users may update the modules software.
We found the MPI adapter to be the most widely interoperable of the units we evaluated. The Anycom module worked only with Anycom products, and, while the Troy Wireless unit worked with everything we threw at it, it functioned most smoothly with the Digianswer Bluetooth PC Card that Troy Wireless markets under the name WindPort. (Toshiba Corp., IBM and Motorola Inc. market the same card under their own brands.)
The MPI Tech Bluetooth Printer Adapter, released in July, costs $129.
WindConnect Bluetooth Wireless Printer Adapter
The WindConnect adapter is the largest of the print devices we looked at, about twice the length of the Anycom and MPI units. In addition to activity lights and a reset switch, WindConnect carries an RS-232C port for linking the unit to a serial printer or other serial device.
The Troy Wireless adapter also comes with useful print monitor software from Troy. Upon printing, the software offered a choice of Bluetooth print adapters within range. The software sent print jobs to the Bluetooth print device we chose through a Troy-specific port that we associated with our printer when we installed it.
However, when there were no Bluetooth printers within range, we had to open the print manager in Windows to manually cancel our print job—an annoyance wed like to see eliminated in a future version of the software.
Troy Wireless WindPort Bluetooth PC Card ships with the same Bluetooth Software Suite application that accompanies all Digianswer-based Bluetooth gear and that we first reviewed in an earlier version.
The software suite adds a Bluetooth Neighborhood icon to systems on which it is installed. The Bluetooth Neighborhood works like the Network Neighborhood in Windows—we were able to discover nearby Bluetooth devices and determine which services were available to us.
When printing to the MPI adapter with this software, we had to first create a connection between our client system and our MPI-equipped printer.
After printing, we had to manually break that connection lest our print resource be left inaccessible to other users. Having to make and break the Bluetooth link before and after printing made the process more of a hassle than it should have been.
The WindConnect Bluetooth Wireless Printer Adapter, released in November, is priced at $169.
Technical Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected].
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