We love being on our boat. Whether we're cruising thousands of miles or just out on a weekend getaway, we cherish the feeling of freedom and adventure. Sometimes our adventures take us beyond our mobile service, something we have come to depend on for our sense of safety and for maintaining necessary personal and business contacts. For us, a mobile phone has become important marine equipment and we're always on the lookout for ways to enhance its functionality.
A Bluetooth headset can be a great addition to a mobile phone on your boat. It can provide you with hands-free communication and extend the range of cellular amplification systems such as those mentioned in Boost Your Signal. Using a headset can also make your mobile phone more secure. You can tuck the phone into your pocket or bag, keeping it away from the elements, and safe from the seas.
Several years ago, we installed an amplifier in our pilothouse to increase the range of our mobile phone and it has worked very well. However, following our own advice discussed in Boost Your Signal, we have a pigtail cable running from the amplifier to our mobile phone. If cellular coverage is marginal or we want to use our data connection, we must be in the pilothouse. The new portable amplifiers require us to be three to six feet from the antenna - better than being tied with a cable but still pretty restrictive. What if we want to use our phone in the salon, a stateroom or out on the flybridge? That's where a Bluetooth headset comes in handy. You can extend the range of your phone by an additional 30 to 100 feet depending on the "Class" of the headset. This allows you to have hands-free communications on your mobile phone with the phone tucked away in a safe, dry and amplified location.
There are a variety of Bluetooth headsets to choose from - too many in fact to cover here. This overview will help you understand the technology and give you things to consider when selecting your headset.
WHAT IS BLUETOOTH?
Bluetooth, the first wireless communications standard, was originally developed a decade ago. It was designed to be a simple cable replacement technology and is used by a wide variety of devices such as laptop computers, printers, fax machines, pagers, GPS's and of course, mobile phones. Bluetooth has low power consumption, which is important for mobile devices, particularly on your boat. According to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, which oversees the licensing of Bluetooth technology and trademarks to manufacturers, there are more than 2 billion Bluetooth enabled devices in use worldwide.
Bluetooth is not particularly fast but it certainly serves the purpose it was designed for, which is communications between devices that are relatively close together. The standard defines three different operating ranges by "Class." Each Class defines the maximum power output, which directly affects the range of the device. However, there are other factors that can also affect the range of a Bluetooth headset, causing the actual range you experience to vary. In particular, any obstructions between two Bluetooth devices, such as walls or even your head, can reduce the range.
Most Bluetooth headsets are Class 2 devices, meaning they can communicate within a distance of 33 feet (10 meters) under optimal situations. As a Bluetooth Class 2 device, a headset can be quite small with a long battery life. You can easily keep your mobile phone in your pocket or on a table while using the headset. The Callpod Dragon V2, which we discuss later in this article, is a Class 1 Bluetooth headset which theoretically extends the range to about 330 feet (100 m). We hope to see more Class 1 headsets in the future as the extended range can be quite beneficial on a boat.
A Bluetooth "Profile" defines a protocol that a Bluetooth device uses to communicate with another device. All Bluetooth headsets support the Headset Profile (HSP). HSP allows for minimal controls on the headset including answering a call, adjusting the volume and hanging up.
The Hands-Free Profile (HFP) provides additional capabilities for Bluetooth headsets. These include last number redial, call waiting and voice dialing. We recommend that you only consider a Bluetooth headset that supports both of theses protocols to give you maximum functionality and flexibility.
CHOOSING A HEADSET
When looking at Bluetooth headsets, you should take several things into consideration. Your first may be your budget. The cost of a Bluetooth headset varies widely, from $30 to $300, but there seems to be little correlation between price and performance. Therefore, we advise getting recommendations for a particular unit either through reviews or from users. Don't be fooled into thinking a higher price means a better headset.
Since you will actually be wearing the headset, ergonomics and comfort are important considerations. Generally, the headset employs some sort of loop placed around your ear, or the earpiece is held in place by being pushed into your ear. The loop method is generally more comfortable, while the push method is often less comfortable but more secure.
Other ergonomic factors include the headset's weight and the ease of accessing the controls. A heavy unit will quickly become uncomfortable. Turning the headset on and off, adjusting the volume and answering a call should all be easy to perform. Ensure the headset will work with glasses in place, both prescription if you use them and sunglasses. And, of course, on a boat you want something that won't end up overboard. Consider a way to tether the headset to your clothing if you'll use it on deck.
Other features to consider with a Bluetooth headset are last number redial, 3 way calling, call reject and call muting. Also does it look appealing? After all you will be wearing this thing.
While price, comfort, and features are important, possibly the most crucial characteristic is how the headset sounds. Look into the sound quality for both sending and receiving the calls. Find out if it has noise canceling or digital signal processing in its microphone and sound circuits. This will improve the audio quality. Talk to your friends and colleagues, read reviews and, if possible, try the headset for yourself.
If you plan on leaving the unit off when not in use - something we recommend to extend battery life - make sure the unit will turn on quickly. Make sure you check the advertised battery life and check those claims with independent reviews. You should check claims for both the talk time (the amount of time the headset can actively handle a call) and standby time (the amount of time the headset can be on when not handling a call). How long does it take to recharge, and what methods are available? Various headsets can be charged using a USB cable, a cigarette lighter adapter and/or AC power. For your boat we recommend a DC method such as a 12v cigarette lighter plug or a USB-to-12v adapter.
Other battery considerations include a low battery warning to prevent losing power at an important moment. The ease, availability, and cost of battery replacement may come into play particularly if the battery is not rechargeable. A headset that quickly runs out of power, is slow to charge, or costly and difficult to power will quickly end up unused in a drawer.
If you plan on using a headset with multiple phones, such as with his and her mobile phones or your laptop computer, make sure it supports pairing with multiple devices. Also find out how easily the pairing can be switched. Some units require multiple button combinations that are impossible to remember. If you need multi-paring capabilities, make sure you know how to use them before you purchase the headset.
A Bluetooth headset connected to your laptop is a great way to use Skype or other Internet-based phone services. If you are not familiar with Skype, we highly recommend it. Skype was designed for free computer-to-computer voice communication anywhere in the world over the Internet. The software is free, and there are no charges when communicating via your computer to other Skype users. We've used it for years as an inexpensive way to stay in touch with family, friends, and our fellow cruisers. For an additional $3 per month you to make unlimited calls to any phone number in the US or Canada, and for $10 per month you can make unlimited calls to 36 countries worldwide. And you can turn the service on and off as you need it! For more information and to download the free Skype software visit their web site: www.skype.com.
A final consideration is a new Bluetooth headset capability: headset to headset communication. Units that can act as a walkie-talkies on your boat can offer significant advantages for increased safety and convenience.
If you already use a walkie-talkie on board, then you're well versed in how it lessens frustration and therefore makes your boating experience more enjoyable. We've come to depend on our walkie-talkies so much that we carry a spare set on the boat, just in case. If you haven't tried this method of communication on your boat, here's why you should. Even when we owned our 28 foot Albin Express, we found communicating in critical situations such as anchoring or docking could be difficult, frustrating and even sometimes dangerous. Straight-up talking was a challenge due to engine noise, wind, or other ambient sound. This often led to talking louder to the point of yelling, which only seemed to make a tense situation worse. So we tried a simple set of hand signals. This worked for some situations, but failed when one of us was out of sight - securing a line at the stern, for example. And it became impossible when both hands were needed, such as in a tough anchoring situation. These problems only grew worse when we moved to our bigger cruising boat. We realized we needed a hands free way to communicate reliably.
For the past 5 years we've used the Mariner 500, a pair of two-way headsets which provide hands-free communication anywhere on the boat. While they have certainly worked well and added greatly to our enjoyment and comfort on our boat, they have some significant disadvantages. They are not particularly comfortable, and because they cover both ears, it is difficult to communicate with others, such as a dockhand. The battery life is meager, and they cannot be recharged, which requires us to stock 9v batteries on board.
We were very excited, then, when we discovered the Callpod Dragon V2 and couldn't wait to put a pair of them to the test.
The Dragon V2 is a Bluetooth headset with some distinctive features that you will find useful on your boat. It has an advertised range of over 300 feet (100 meters) due to its Bluetooth Class 1 certification (Class 1 is rare for Bluetooth headsets, and this is the only headset we are aware of with this capability). And our favorite feature, the ability to pair two Dragon headsets together, provides hands-free, walkie-talkie capability.
The Dragon V2 has an advertised battery life of up to eight hours talk time and 300 hours in standby mode. The battery can be fully recharged in three hours and there are three charging options included with the package (AC, DC, and USB). All of the charging components are included for no additional charge - a nice touch - along with a black nylon pouch to carry everything.
The Dragon V2 employs an ear hook that's reversible, allowing you to wear it on your left or right ear. There are only two buttons on the Dragon, a multi-function button and a power/volume rocker. The multi-function button handles communication functions such as answering and ending calls, and muting. The power/volume rocker powers the headset on and off and controls the volume.
The Dragon supports both headset and hands-free profiles. It has advanced dual-microphone noise suppression for clear audio quality and it is designed to support downloadable firmware. If the manufacturer adds a function in the future, you can get a free firmware upgrade by connecting the headset to your PC or Mac.
So how did the Dragon V2 do in a live test? Our first impression was positive. It has a nice look, and, while it's slightly larger and heavier than most Class 2 headsets, we felt the added range and ability to double as a hands-free walkie-talkie device was worth the trade-off.
There were a few drawbacks though. While it didn't feel heavy while we wore it, it also did not feel secure in our ears. Although it never fell off, no matter how much adjusting we did it simply felt loose. Occasionally, after leaning over or doing other activities, we had to push the earpiece back in place. And properly lining up the microphone towards our mouths was critical.
Our first test was simply using it to make a phone call. The sound quality was fine, pretty much the same as any other headset we've used. The extended range was a very nice feature, allowing us to easily go anywhere on the boat while leaving the phone in the pilothouse. We feel comfortable recommending the Dragon V2 as a headset for your mobile phone.
But the feature that really had us jazzed was the walkie-talkie. We like any piece of boating equipment that offers double duty. The small size compared to our existing walkie-talkie headsets was appealing, as we felt less conspicuous wearing it, and found communicating with dockhands easier.
The real test was how well it worked. So, we tried the headsets out in various situations that generally warrant our existing headsets - primarily docking, anchoring and fueling. We also used them in some new situations, such as communicating while underway from different parts of the boat. After all, it would greatly enhance safety to know where each of us were at all times. And we'd get to feel like secret agents!
To our great disappointment, however, they were almost unusable in our first walkie-talkie test. The sound quality was extremely muffled, as if talking through a long tunnel. We had to turn the volume all the way up simply to communicate. And whichever one of us was speaking experienced an annoying echo in our own headset. We found the units completely unacceptable as walkie-talkie devices. We contacted the manufacturer who suggested that we make sure we had the latest firmware. When we downloaded the latest and greatest, we did experience a slight improvement, but still found the sound quality disappointing.
The bottom line is that if you want a Bluetooth headset with extended range for making phone calls, the Callpod Dragon V2 works quite well. It will extend the range of your mobile phone, allowing you to move about your boat while your phone stays close to your amplifier. If, like us, you really want to use the walkie-talkie capability, then the product needs more work.
We think the Callpod Dragon V2 has real promise as a Bluetooth headset for boaters and we plan to keep our eye on it. We've provided our feedback to the manufacturer, which has committed to keep us informed of future developments. Our hope is that it will continue to improve the sound quality for the walkie-talkie feature. We will update this article as information becomes available. We'd really like to see this headset work for us on our boat. Meanwhile, we will keep our Mariner 500 walkie-talkies close at hand.
- 01 - Introduction
- 02 - Boost Your Signal
- 03 - Locating Cell Towers
- 04 - Calculating Line Loss
- 05 - Navigation
- 06 - Adding a GPS
- 07 - Memory Cards
- 08 - Weather Forecasts
- 09 - Tides and Currents
- 10 - Other Applications
- 11 - Connecting a Laptop
- 12 - How to Buy a Phone
- 13 - Palm OS
- 14 - Windows Mobile
- 15 - Apple's iPhone
- 16 - Blackberry & Symbian
- 17 - Bluetooth Headsets
- 18 - Power Accessories
- 19 - The Bahamas