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Bluetooth Networking for your Palm, Pocket PC and Computer
by Lisa Gade, Editor-in-Chief

PicoBlue Internet Access Point
For Palm, Pocket PC and PCs

If you've ever setup a WiFi (802.11b) access point or a router for cable/DSL use, you'll feel right at home working with the PicoBlue Internet Access Point from Pico Communications. While many Bluetooth products can be challenging and quirky to setup and connect, access points are thankfully much easier to configure. If only they'd come down in price: right now they sell from $500 up! This is a full-featured access point, with security and advanced network configuration support that's perfect for businesses. If you're looking for a less advanced access point suitable for home, consider the Belkin acess point reviewed here.

PicoBlue supports version 1.1 of the Bluetooth spec, and can allow up to 7 simultaneous users to connect to the access point. It works with standard TCP/IP networks and has one RJ45 10/100 Ethernet port to connect to your existing wired Ethernet network. The PicoBlue uses PPP protocol for client connections and has two external antennas and claims a range of 100 meters (a football field!) for PDA clients. Indeed at distances of 80 feet my iPAQ 3970 had no problem connecting (the iPAQ was set in high power mode for the BT radio). Other PDA cards in this roundup got between 40 and 60 feet of range.

Configuration

Most folks will likely plug the PicoBlue into their existing Ethernet network and use the web browser interface to configure the access point. This works as long as your computer is on the same subnet as the PicoBlue. If you have a DHCP network, the access point will automatically obtain an IP address, and you may not need to configure it at all! If you do need to configure PicoBlue, you can also use telnet or SNMP (Simplet Network Management Protocol). I used the web browser method, and found the process very similar to setting up WiFi access points and home routers.

When do you need to configure the access point? If you prefer to assign it a static IP address rather than using DHCP, if you want to enable PPP authentication or want to change any of the default options.

Using the web browser (or telnet or SNMP), you can change the usual suspects: subnet mask, DNS servers, WINS servers, gateway and IP address. You can also enable/disable NAT (network address translation) depending on whether or not you want the PicoBlue to assign IP addresses to connected Bluetooth devices. In many cases, you'll already have some kind of router or router/firewall combo that assigns IP addresses to clients, but if you don't, or wish to extend the range of available addresses you can turn NAT on. NAT is also useful for security purposes, because it assigns a "fake" IP address to connected devices, which means that hackers won't be able to find and directly access the device.

Administration

Casual users may never touch administrative and advanced settings, but for security minded users and corporate folks, it's unavoidable. PicoBlue uses a tabbed interface. The first tab contains the basic network settings mentioned above. The Administration tab allows you to change the administrator's name and password (a good thing to do!), assign the access point a name, enter a description of its location and system contact info if desired. Other tabs allow you to specify which Bluetooth devices are allowed to connect to the network, specify authentication (none, PAP, CHAP) and accounting such as RADIUS. You can also specify a start page for clients (i.e.: you want them to see the company Intranet every time they connect via Bluetooth and launch a browser). If you wish to change the default port for connecting to the access point for adminstration (doesn't affect clients) via web browser, telnet and SNMP, you can.

PicoBlue Bluetooth access point

 

You'll also be able to specify the level of access for Ethernet and Bluetooth computers connecting to administer the PicoBlue, and filter the range of IP addresses allowed to connect to the administration functions. All in all, this access point has all the network managment features a corporate user could ask for. Should you forget the administrator's username or password, fear not: there's a button on PicoBlue that will allow an override for 3 minutes after you've pressed it. This is great as long as your access point is within jogging distance of your PC, but watch out for strangers with laptops in your network closet! For SNMP users, PicoBlue offers the usual set of monitor and warning features.

If you're a home user, don't be frightened by all these features-- you need not ever use them.

What will you See on the PDA or Bluetooth-Enabled Computer?

Not much, and that's a good thing. While pairing to cell phones and other PDAs can be a hassle that requires pulling out the manual and scratching your head, connecting to an access point is much simpler. Under connections, select access point, then your Bluetooth enabled device should show the PicoBlue with whatever name you've assigned it. You do not need to pair with/bond to an access point, so you'll simply tell it to connect, and voila, your PDA should be on the Net. I had no trouble connecting any of the devices mentioned here-- truly a pleasure to use.

If you've got Palm users on your network, you can install some optional Palm apps (prc files) that allow you to use Palm PQAs (also called WCAs- web clipping apps) and sync to your desktop wirelessly.

Connection Speeds

PicoBlue supports connection speeds up to 723k. This isn't WiFi speed, which runs from 2 to 11 MB depending on distance from the access point, but it's obviously much, much faster than dialup connections. Most PDAs don't get better than 1 or 2 megs throughput through cards in their CF slot anyway, so in actuality, you're never running at the maximum speed WiFi offers.

Your speed will also be affected by the maximum transmission rate of the Bluetooth card or adapter that you're using. If speed is of interest to you, look at the max transfer rate before purchasing. The iPAQ and cards we tested here have fast transmission speeds, and the web browsing experience didn't keep us waiting. Generally, Pocket Internet Explorer, being feature rich and loading images, is slower than a Palm OS browser such as Blazer when it comes to page loading times. Pocket IE was zippy, and I didn't find myself waiting and tapping my fingers impatiently as I waited for pages to load. While I didn't time page loads, it felt like the pages loaded at 75% of the speed of a strong WiFi network. Plenty fast enough for a pleasant surfing experience. Email, being generally less demanding, was very fast. On the Palm OS side, I used the Palm SD Bluetooth card in both the Handspring Treo 90 and the Palm m130. Blazer is an optimized browser meant to work well with slow connections, and it flew, even with pictures set to download in hightest quality.

Conclusion

If you're looking to create a Bluetooth network, either at home or work, the PicoBlue is an excellent choice. While all Bluetooth access points are still pricey, the Pico unit is one of the cheaper units out there. It's very easy to set up and it worked with all the clients we tested on both Palm and Pocket PC platforms. The range and connection speed were excellent, giving us up to 100 feet of range through walls. It played nicely with our WiFi access point, despite its strong signal strength. Both WiFi and Bluetooth operate at 2.4 GHz, but we saw no signs of interference or diminished range with both access points in the same room.

Should you go with Bluetooth rather than a WiFi network? If you're a home user, probably not until access point prices drop. But if you're running a corporate network or an environment with Palm OS devices that have SD slots (or the new Palm Tungsten T with built-in Bluetooth or Bluetooth iPAQs) then this will be the easiest and cheapest way to get your Palm devices surfing the Net until WiFi SD cards come along.

Pico Communications, www.pico.net $495 US

 

 

 

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