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The Nokia BH-800 is highly rated by CNET readers

Over the last few years, Bluetooth headsets have become must-have accessories for salesmen, white-van men and anyone who spends a great deal of time on the road. The benefits of these hands-free, wireless devices are obvious, particularly as it's illegal to use a handset in many countries while driving. And just as the number of headsets has exploded, the number of Bluetooth mobile phones has increased as well. Integrated Bluetooth is now present in a broad range of phones--from high-end smart phones to low-end functional models.

A little history
Before we delve into the different kinds of headsets, it may help to know a little about Bluetooth itself. Even though the technology has been around since 1999, many consumers are still confused as to what it is, mostly due to its odd name (after a tenth-century Danish king with an affinity for blueberries) and how it works. And though it may sound complicated, it's actually simple, inexpensive and easy to use.

Bluetooth technology involves two devices communicating with each other over low-frequency radio waves in the 2.4GHz range. No cables or wires are needed, as the only requirement is that both devices be Bluetooth-compatible. Unlike infrared ports, the connected devices don't need to be within line of sight, and unlike a phone-network data transfer, Bluetooth doesn't cost anything beyond the initial investment in the devices.

In addition to connecting a mobile phone to a headset, Bluetooth is used to connect PCs to keyboards and mice, handhelds to other handhelds, and phones to computers. Many cars are even equipped with Bluetooth so that you can use the car's audio system for hands-free phone use.

Pairing up
The process of connecting devices via Bluetooth starts with 'pairing', where a headset and a phone search for and recognize each other. Once your connection is made and secured via a PIN, the two devices will 'talk' to each other and exchange information. You can connect up to seven devices simultaneously at speeds of 500Kbps and up. Bluetooth does have limitations, however. Its effective range is limited to 10m (high-powered devices can go up to 100m), which makes it good for connecting a handful of devices, but not appropriate for an entire network of computers (you're better off with Wi-Fi for a network). Also, you can connect only devices that have compatible versions of Bluetooth (more on this later).

But while Bluetooth itself may be easy to understand, choosing a Bluetooth headset for your phone isn't so simple. The number of Bluetooth headsets continues to grow rapidly. Styles, features, performance and compatibility vary, so it's important to take the time to find a device that's right for you.

The Motorola RAZR H3 is designed to complement the hugely popular RAZR range of phones
Most Bluetooth headsets can be grouped into two categories: Models with a boom and models without. A boom is an extended microphone that arches towards the mouth and looks like a telemarketer's headset. Though the mic's proximity to the mouth can result in better audio clarity, boom headsets have a tendency to be on the bulky side, such as the Jabra BT500 and the Plantronics Voyager 510. Though these models are designed to rest behind the ear, other models such as the Sony Ericsson HBH-610 fit over the ear. It's worth noting, however, that not all boom headsets are bulky. The Motorola H700 has a unique extendable boom mic that folds down to a more compact size.

While boom headsets ruled Bluetooth for a short period, headsets without the boom have become more popular in the past year. Not only are they more compact, they also tend to have a wider choice of designs. For example, Jabra offers the BT160, which comes with 33 different faceplate designs, and the JX10, which received much acclaim for its elegant and compact form. Motorola has also joined the fashion game with its headsets, which are mostly designed to match the company's phones. The Motorola RAZR H3 headset, for example, is obviously meant to match the RAZR range of phones, while the Motorola H500 comes in four different colours to match the many colours of the PEBL and the RAZR.

What's more, an increasing number of headsets fit directly in the ear rather than just resting against it. As a result, they don't need to be worn with ear loops or other equipment. Examples include the aforementioned Jabra JX10, the Nokia BH-800 and the Plantronics Discovery 640, all of which also won excellent ratings from due to their (relatively) stylish and compact design. Keep in mind, though, that some users may not like the feeling of a headset's earpiece resting in their ear canal. It's important to check a few different styles to see what's most comfortable for you.

A more recent Bluetooth headset design innovation has been the inclusion of LED screens. The Jabra BT800 and the Tekkeon ET3000 EzTalker Digital both feature a tiny little display for caller ID. You can't see the display when the headset is on your ear, but it can provide useful information when you take it off.

The Sony Ericsson HBH-610 features noise reduction and echo cancellation.

Though most Bluetooth headsets are compatible with most Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, compatibility is not universal. Bluetooth comes in different versions, so make sure that your two chosen devices will work with each other. Most products in use currently work on Bluetooth version 1.1, which offers such basic features as voice dialling, call mute and last-number redial. In 2003, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), a body that oversees the technology's development, released version 1.2 and rolled out version 2.0 a year later.

Bluetooth 1.2 introduced new features to eliminate radio frequency interference through frequency hopping and added greater security to protect against snooping and tracking. Bluetooth 2.0 brought higher connection speeds (up to three times as fast in some cases), improved performance and less power consumption. The Sony Ericsson HBH-610, for example, is one of the few headsets that has Bluetooth 2.0, which allows for advanced features such as echo cancellation, noise reduction, automatic volume adjustment and an automatic pairing feature with Sony Ericsson phones.

Another recent Bluetooth profile to hit the mobile space is A2DP, or the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile. This is also widely known as the stereo Bluetooth headset profile because it allows for a dual-channel audio stream, such as music from an MP3 player to a headset. This is an especially popular concept with MP3 phones, because they can theoretically switch from music to phone calls at the touch of a button. Unfortunately, few phones available in the market are compatible with the A2DP profile yet, although more will be available soon. Similarly, the number of stereo Bluetooth headsets that support the A2DP profile is also very limited.

As with any wireless device, Bluetooth has some minor security concerns. The SIG has admitted that 'bluebugging', wherein a hacker secretly accesses a phone's commands (such as eavesdropping on conversations), and 'bluesnarfing', wherein a hacker accesses a phone's data--such as contacts--are possible, yet the group downplays both actions. While they work through Bluetooth, they also require the hacker to use a PC and to be within range of the victim. To help combat both, simply turn off your phone's Discover mode, which makes it visible to other devices.
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