The wireless headset question

Farpoint Group –

There is little doubt that telephone headsets are one of the greatest inventions ever. I use one in the office with my desktop phone (an AT&T 955, which comes with a convenient 2.5-mm cellular-headset-compatible jack), and, of course, while on the road with my various cell phones. The primary reason I like headsets is ergonomic: using a headset produces a lot less strain on necks and elbows. I like headsets that hang over the ear, so that they're fundamentally light in weight, easy to put on and take off, and small to carry. For a long time I used a Jabra EarBud. This is the smallest headset available. It fits entirely in your ear, and uses bone conduction for a surprisingly good sound. Unfortunately, I never could get a good fit with the little gel things that are supposed to hold the device in your ear, so I've given up.

But the big issue I want to discuss is the debate over wired vs. wireless headsets (this is, after all, supposed to be a column about wireless technology). I am, again, no big fan of Bluetooth, but the one undeniable degree of success that Bluetooth has seen has been in headsets. Many cell phones now come with Bluetooth built in, and Bluetooth headsets are available from many sources. Just so the Jabra folks don't think I'm picking on them today (you may, after all, actually get a good fit with the EarBud), I urge you to check out the company's Bluetooth headset, though there are of course many others on the market.

I've been no big fan of Bluetooth because I think wireless LANs are a better choice for data communications and networking. But I don't think I'd want Wi-Fi in a headset; it consumes too much power, and you don't really need a network-attached headset in the first place. But Bluetooth in no panacea either:

•Wireless headsets are by definition going to be bigger, heavier, and bulkier than wired models.

•They're also going to be much more expensive.

•They will be less secure, although I think the threat of eavesdropping is relatively minor.

•Being battery powered, they may give out at the worst possible time.

But the appeal of a wireless headset is undeniable. Fumbling with the cord when the phone rings is often painful, and the cord can be uncomfortable when it snags on something. Overall, though, I continue to go with the corded solution myself. I'm presently using a Plantronics M130 when on the road. It has a number of convenient features, including a mute button, volume control, and a handy switch to match the volume level to that of your phone. Since I primarily use my cell phone to make calls (it's usually off), having to haul out the cord isn't much of an inconvenience for me.

If you really want to go cordless, let me suggest products based on Aura Communications' (magnetic-field technology. These tend to be less expensive than Bluetooth headsets, and aren't subject to interference from other 2.4-GHz. traffic. Of course, if your phone has Bluetooth built in, you've got to consider the convenience that comes from having one end of the connection already. Hopefully, Aura will make some progress in getting their technology into handsets in place of Bluetooth, but that's a long road indeed. Ultimately, I think ultrawideband technology has a place in headsets, even though the throughput that standard will offer is overkill. I'm expecting, though, that UWB chips will be really cheap, and their limited range and low power consumption are big pluses in the headset world.

Finally, a couple of words on safety. Many believe that using a headset while driving is inherently safer than holding a handset to one's ear. While keeping both hands on the wheel is always a good idea, I'm not sure if headsets make us any safer. The problem is that, for some reason, we tend to hyper-focus on the phone call when conversing, to the detriment of other activities we're attempting at the same time, whether adding the baking powder to a cake or operating a motor vehicle. The problem is inattention blindness, and it's the reason most of us really shouldn't attempt much else while driving. You can read a great paper on this phenomenon (in PDF format) that may give you pause about the whole headset-while-driving debate.

Regardless, I think we'll see continual progress in wireless headsets going forward. I really do like the concept, and I certainly like headsets. Once we move beyond Bluetooth, I think we'll see a broad range of products and lower prices. Of course, I'll probably still use a corded headset myself, and save the airwaves for Wi-Fi and its brethren.

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