My relationship with Bluetooth technologies over the years has been a rather stormy one. Despite having been in development for many years now and having gone through several fairly major revisions, Bluetooth as a standard still suffers from performance, security and compatibility concerns. One of my biggest pet peaves though is the “dreaded dongle.”
Although I haven’t written about it here, it is probably no secret to anyone who knows me that I recently purchased a Lenovo Thinkpad. To be precise, I purchased a model Z61m sub-model 9450a36. For whatever reason, perhaps Windows Vista support, Lenovo chose to not ship this z61m with integrated bluetooth, which is odd to me, given that every other z61m seems to list it as standard hardware. Most of my geek friends gave me the advice of “just use a dongle,” which I absolutely refuse to do for a variety of reasons.
Chief among these reasons is that dongles jut out from the side of the notebook, which makes it an easy target for an accident waiting to happen. A $10 bluetooth dongle impacting or entangling with something can kill not just the dongle, but also the laptop which costs 100 or more times as much, or can damage the USB port. I do enough laptop repair in my line of work to know that this is one of the more common physical maladies to befall laptops. Another issue with dongles is that they are small and easily lost, or require you to dig through your bag to find them every time you want to use it. About the only dongle I would consider using is the diminutive Mogo Dapter, which barely extends past the USB port and has a rounded profile to minimize the chance of entanglement. This is basically a dongle that is designed to be left in all the time. Unfortunately, like so many wonderful James Bond inspired gadgets, this one is vapor, at least until the stated release date in June. Like with so many gadgets, I will believe it when I can buy it.
I spent some time researching internal options. It looks like I should be able to buy the internal module used by the other z61m models, but I am unsure of its compatibility and the install procedure is rather involved. For whatever reason, Lenovo places the bluetooth/modem daughtercard inside the screen assembly (perhaps to provide better rf propogation). Lenovo thankfully publishes a rather exhaustive service guide, so I am confident I could do the 11 major step procedure, but I wish there were a simpler solution. The z61m features two internal mini-pci express slots (yet, express, not just mini-pci). Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of hardware available for these slots just yet, and even if there were, Lenovo seems to have followed in IBM’s footsteps when they purchased IBM’s PC business, in that they lock down what devices you can install in internal slots to ones on an approved whitelist of device-ids. The solutions to the whitelist problem (short of saying screw you Lenovo and buying another brand of notebook) are not too appetizing. One can set a certain bit in the CMOS using a program called no-1802.com (named after the error message that inserting a non-whitelisted card produces), hex edit the bios and reflash, while keeping ones fingers crossed, or burn a new eprom for the device that you wish to insert, with a spoofed device-id (one which is on the nanny list). These prospects were a little too unappetizing, so I continued to look for solutions.
My nifty new z61m includes a nifty new ExpressCard 54 slot. ExpressCard is the new standard which is designed to replace Cardbus/PCMCIA as the solution for end user hardware expansion on notebooks. There are video cards, advanced docking port replicators, USB cards, Firewire cards, Sata cards, network adapters, WiFi adapters, sound cards, tv tuners, flash card readers and a host of other oddball devices available for expresscard already, but not a single Bluetooth adapter. Not only that, but the ExpressCard consortium could not provide me with any evidence that one is evening being developed. An ExpressCard Bluetooth adapter seems like a no brainer for me, given that ExpressCard actually offers a direct connection to the USB 2.0 bus. One should be able to scrape the circuitry from a Bluetooth dongle and slap it into an ExpressCard and call it good. Come on you creative Taiwanese manufacturers of Gizmos!
I may have found a solution to Dongle Hell in the form of a PCMCIA Bluetooth 2.0 adapter from Zoom, who a long time ago used to be Hayes, one of the better modem manufacturers back in the day. The antenna barely extends beyond the card slot, so this one shouldn’t present much if any clipping or entanglement hazard. The only PCMCIA compatible card with a lower profile, of which I am aware, is from Socket, which is actually a type II CF card which does not extend beyond the boundary of a type II CF memory card. It was designed for insertion in internal PDA slots which do not allow for extruding things like antennas. I have used one of the socket cards for a few years on my Jornada 720 and Netbook Pro. Unfortunately, Socket actually charges you extra if you want drivers for Windows. Their driver support only extends to Win XP and is by all reports rather buggy. the Zoom PCMCIA adapter, otoh is the first PCMCIA adapter, of which I am aware, to have published Vista drivers. I am unsure of whose bluetooth stack they are using, but they do list support for a wide variety of advanced Bluetooth profiles. While a lot of USB Bluetooth dongles are plug and pray supported under Vista, almost all of them are just supported by the rather minimal Microsoft stack, which is yet another strike against dongles. Anyways, I ordered one up on eBay and it should arrive in another day or two. I’ll give you a heads up if this product is a workable solution for Dongle Hell.
UPDATE The Zoom PCMCIA adapter arrived and works well in Vista. I downloaded the most recent drivers from their website, installed them, popped the card in and five minutes later was using my cell phone’s edge connection. The bluetooth stack is from Toshiba and thus far I much prefer it to the Widcomm or Bluesoleil stacks which I have used in the past. My only complaint against it is that the antenna nub which extends slightly beyond the card slot is made of purple semi-transparent plastic, which imo clashes a little with my Thinkpad’s blacker-than-though aesthetic.