Drop That Laptop

Why gearheads aren’t buying the latest gadgets.

Periodically I review my portfolio of consumer electronics to see if new purchases are required or, more likely, desired. My current judgment: My laptop is obsolete, I want a PDA with a built-in cell phone (or is it a cell phone with a built-in PDA?), and I’d like a high-end digital camera to replace my analog one(which uses something called “film”). But I’ve decided not to buy any of those things yet. I’m waiting for products that include Bluetooth, and you probably should, too.

Bluetooth is a combination of software and hardware standards that wirelessly connects devices for almost any application you can imagine. You can print from your laptop to any nearby printer, transfer files between two laptops on a train, or surf the Web on your PDA using your cell phone’s Internet connection. Any scenario that previously involved connecting two devices using a wire will soon happen via short-distance radio. Bluetooth products are already starting to dribble out—a Bluetooth camcorder here, a Bluetooth mouse there—and over the next year you will see Bluetooth-enabled versions of almost every kind of computer peripheral.

How is Bluetooth different from having a wireless 802.11b “Wi-Fi” network in your home? Bluetooth is a complementary technology that serves a different purpose. Wi-Fi replaces the Ethernet network cable that connects your computer to the Internet. Bluetooth replaces all the other wires and cables connecting your computer and its peripherals.(It can also connect two computers for exchanging files but is not meant for networking per se.) Wi-Fi uses higher-power radio with more range, usually enough to connect any computer in your house and a few outside, too. Bluetooth devices will typically reach only the length of a room. And at 720 kbps, Bluetooth is about 10 times slower than Wi-Fi. But that’s still faster than the average DSL or cable modem Internet connection.

The technology isn’t perfect. It’s expensive, for one thing. Bluetooth added a cool hundred dollars to a new Sony camcorder that I bought. Even if the price comes down somewhat over time, it’s still going to cost money to put little radios in each device. Also, Bluetooth’s relatively slow speed means it won’t replace all your wires. Certain data-intensive applications, such as transferring digital video from your camcorder, will still require high-speed wired technologies like IEEE 1394 (aka “FireWire,” aka “i.LINK”) or USB 2.0. (I wish I’d known that before I bought mine, but at least I can wirelessly transfer still pictures.)But by next year,your mouse, keyboard, printer, PDA, cell phone, and digital camera will all be talking to your computer and each other without cluttering your life with myriad cables. My favorite application: the wireless cell-phone headphone. Now you can really look like you’re talking to yourself. Isn’t that worth waiting a few monthsfor?