Adapting to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi

By Joseph Moran | Posted March 07, 2006

Some small business owners (this writer included) have come to regret not checking the Bluetooth box on the options list the last time they bought a notebook computer. It usually happens the day you buy your first Bluetooth-enabled device like a smartphone or PDA. Fortunately, there's a convenient (if imperfect) remedy short of buying a new notebook, since lots of companies make inexpensive Bluetooth adapters that plug into a USB port.

But if you have the double misfortune of owning a notebook that suffers from not only a lack of Bluetooth but of Wi-Fi as well, you may be interested in the Trendnet TBW-103UB 11g Wireless Bluetooth Adapter. It's the only device we've seen so far that combines 802.11g/b and Bluetooth capabilities on a single USB device, and at $63.99, it costs about the same as (or perhaps a bit less than) what you would expect to pay for individual Wi-Fi and Bluetooth adapters.

The unit is a Class 2 Bluetooth 1.2 product, so it's capable of transmitting up to 10 meters, which should be more than enough range for the kind of devices you would use with it. As per the Bluetooth specification, the TBW-103UB can handle up to seven simultaneous connections from other devices.

Trendnet 11g/Bluetooth AdapterAlthough most Bluetooth-only USB adapters are quite small, the size of the TBW-103UB is more akin to that of a Wi-Fi adapter (because, of course, it is a Wi-Fi adapter). It has a flat antenna that seems rather fragile and flips up at a maximum angle of 90 degrees. Individual green and blue LEDs indicate when the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth portions of the card are active. At 3.9- x 1.2- x 0.6-inches, it can be a little bulky to connect directly to a notebook USB port, since it sticks out so far. A USB extension cable would be helpful in this regard, but unfortunately the TBW-103UB doesn't come with one.

Installing the TBW-103UB's software was straightforward, if slightly inconvenient — the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth components have separate installation processes. During the installation of the Bluetooth portion, Windows flagged a file being installed as being older than the one already on the system, and we chose not to have the newer one overwritten.

The TBW-103UB's WLAN utility can only be described as disappointing. Although all the configuration options are there, they're organized so poorly that it took us several minutes to figure out how to specify an SSID, encryption method and key. This probably won't be an issue if you use Windows XP's Wireless Zero Configuration (WZC) feature, but people with older operating systems (likely with older notebooks that lack Intel Centrino chips and need the Wi-Fi) will find it vexing.

The Bluetooth utility that ships with the TBW-103UB is BlueSoleil from IVT Corporation, and it's extremely easy to use. The minimalist interface consists of an orange sphere with a ring around it set against blue background. A row of more than a dozen icons along the top of the window represents different Bluetooth profiles. Clicking the sphere initiates the search for other Bluetooth devices, and when a device is found, it appears on the ring. Once it's logged into, the utility illuminates the profiles the device supports, and clicking one accesses that function. You can customize various aspects of the software, including the arrangement of device icons, and you can also set security parameters to determine whether a passkey is required in order to make connections between devices.

We used BlueSoleil with several Bluetooth devices, including a Motorola mobile phone, an HP PDA and a Logitech mouse. BlueSoleil properly recognized each device and the TBW-103UN, and we were able to perform a variety of tasks, including transferring files and synchronizing information between devices. Our experience wasn't completely uneventful, however, because on a couple of occasions, after prolonged use, the software would stop responding to any input. Only a system reboot resolved the issue (simply restarting the application and/or re-inserting the TBW-103UB didn't work).

Bluetooth and 802.11g/b Wi-Fi use the same radio frequency spectrum, and interference has been an issue in the past. But given that version 1.2 of the Bluetooth specification supports frequency hopping, such interference usually isn't a major concern any more. We didn't experience any noticeable interference or performance degradation on either the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth networks, even though the TBW-103UB and its connected devices were within a six-foot radius of an 802.11g access point.

As an overall package, the Trendnet TBW-103UB has flaws and rough edges, but its saving grace is the BlueSoleil software, which makes it easy to work with Bluetooth devices. These days, getting a notebook with both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built in is pretty much a no-brainer, but if you're trying to get more mileage out of an old notebook and want a single adapter than can do both, the TBW-103UB is an affordable, worthwhile solution.

Price: $63.99 (MSRP)
Pros: Good Bluetooth software, no conflict between 11g and Bluetooth
Cons: Disappointing Wi-Fi software, device sticks out too far

Adapted from wi-fiplanet.com.

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