Inside Bluetooth 2.0

When Apple included USB (Universal Serial Bus) in its first iMacs back in 1998, the company faced widespread ridicule from throughout the computing industry. The gist of those taunts from analysts and other computer makers: why include a new technology when few products available at that time worked with it?

These days, with USB standard on everything from mice to external hard drives, it’s safe to say that Apple is laughing last. But that probably isn’t going to shield Apple from some scorn over a similar, more recent decision—to include Bluetooth 2.0+EDR in its newly updated PowerBooks.

Bluetooth is a short-range wireless data exchange protocol designed for a small variety of tasks, like synchronization, voice headsets, cell modem calls, and mouse and keyboard input. The older 1.0 through 1.2 versions operate at no faster than 1 megabits per second (Mbps). The new 2.0+EDR flavor—with EDR standing for “Enhanced Data Rate”—runs at 3 Mbps. Older and newer Bluetooth devices can work together with no special effort.

But consumers won’t see an immediate benefit from these faster speeds. Dr. Mike Foley, executive director of the Bluetooth SIG, which sets Bluetooth standards and certifies products, said it will be summer or even fall before Bluetooth 2.0 peripherals appear. The new Bluetooth standards will appear in computers first.

What’s New

The raw speed improvement in Bluetooth 2.0+EDR is significant, but passing more data isn’t as important as preserving battery life. Because a device like a telephone headset can transmit the same information faster, Foley says, it will use less energy since the radio is on for shorter periods of time. Newer Bluetooth devices are efficient at using extremely small amounts of power when not actively transmitting.

“Because the headset is able to burst two to three times more data in a transmission, it is able to sleep longer between transmissions,” Foley says. He expects that existing headsets will be updated to 2.0 to last longer between charges, while there will also be headsets with smaller batteries and new form factors that take advantage of this power conservation. For instance, a headset that might last 90 minutes between charges with Bluetooth 1.2 could last more then four hours when upgraded to 2.0+EDR.

Battery life isn’t much of an issue for devices that transmit tiny amounts of information, such as mice and keyboards. But Bluetooth 2.0’s faster speeds should also help users operate several Bluetooth devices—a mouse, keyboard, and headset, say—at the same time with less latency or fewer delays, Foley adds. Previously, with several Bluetooth devices active at the same time, keystrokes or mouse movements could be delayed or lost.

Faster and more efficient performance comes at little expense; Bluetooth 2.0’s cost is only slightly higher than previously as most of its properties remain the same. That makes the technology ideal for including within computers even before the arrival of devices that take advantage of the technology, says David Russell, Apple’s senior director of portables and wireless. “[It’s ] not a huge cost increase,”l he adds. “It does require new silicon, and there’s some new software support” which Apple has added to OS X in the form of low-level drivers.

The newer 2.0+EDR standard is backward-compatible with 1.0 through 1.2 devices. Using older Bluetooth devices with a 2.0+EDR-compatible computer allows each device to operate at its fastest speed, but does drag the overall network speed down. The slower devices transmit one third as fast, thus taking up three times as much wireless time—during which no other Bluetooth devices on the local network can transmit—as 2.0+EDR.

Why Now?

Early adoption of Bluetooth standards is becoming old hat for Apple. It was the first company to release firmware that handled Bluetooth 1.2, an update that dramatically reduced interference between Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in the same computer or area. And Apple was the first computer maker to ship 802.11g wireless technology, which the company calls AirPort Extreme.

Apple has no concern about leading the market in adding 2.0+EDR to its computers, because of the technology’s low cost and backward-compatibility. The company is looking for bragging rights by slipping this technology in ahead of its rivals and before the next major overhaul of the PowerBook line. When Apple adopted USB, Russell recalls, “A lot of people wondered what's going to happen with that? There are no printers out there, no peripherals… We literally did prime the pump on that entire industry.”

And Apple expects history to repeat itself with Bluetooth 2.0.

[ This story has been updated to correct the ship date of the original iMac and the name of Dr. Mike Foley, who was misidentified in the first version of the article.—Ed. ]

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