More gloom for Palm, and the X5 Bluetooth Headphones

I have been looking for writing this review for quite some time. A grand triumph in geeky innovation, platform utilization, and clever use of available technologies. A step forward in mobile communications, entertainment, and convergence in the media, communications, and personal networking space.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it turned out.

I have high demands for my mobile gear. I want it to do many things, work consistently, and not be a hassle. To that end, I’ve been trying to condense the pile of equipment, wires, adapters, and other goodies I carry in my Ogio backpack (similar to this one) down to something manageable. Since I’ve been travelling a lot lately, this has taken on a particular urgency, as I tend to carry not only my laptop and associated hardware for that, I also bring along an ipod, decent headphones, earpiece for the Treo, and power supplies for all of these. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could condense some of this down into one tool?
The perfect solution seemed to be a Bluetooth headphone arrangement. The Treo has Bluetooth capability, and laptops generally have this it as well. My goal was to come up with a wireless headphone I could use to listen to music or chat on a VOIP client from the laptop, but also use to listen to music from my Treo, while still being able to answer calls. Bluetooth seemed the answer. First though, I had to find the right headphones.
The Blueant X5 Headphones
These headphones looked great. They had all the bells and whistles I wanted, at a decent price. They supported AD2P, the Bluetooth audio streaming protocol, and are small and portable, folding up when not in use. Last but not least, they had to actually be two way! An amazing number of headphones are ‘listen only’ units, without a microphone. The Blueant X5 covered all these needs, and at $89 or so on eBay, worth taking the plunge.
Getting them set up was pretty much a snap. The volumnuous manual (it was a glossy half-page. Double-sided though) provided details on how to pair up the headphones with my Treo, as well as hook them up to my PC with a handy ‘audio streamer’ module. All components are about the size of a big oreo cookie, so the size was just about right.
Pairing the headphones to the Treo was simple enough as well, and shortly I was taking calls and chatting with no worries. It is odd doing phone calls with stereo headphones, as the persons somewhat tinny voice feels like it’s in the middle of your brain, but if that doesn’t bother you, these work great.
I will recommend using the foam earpad coverings over the faux leather ones though. The X5 came with both, and I quickly found the leather ones slipped down off my ears too easily, or endedup with the support band sitting on top of my ear. Very uncomfortable.
The Music
But enough about the phones. Lets go to the real fun.
The goal of this project was really to be able to listen to music off my Treo on the same Bluetooth device that I could use to make or receive calls. The hybrid headset I got a few months ago was great for this, as music playing on the Treo (via the included Realplayer music player) would be interrupted as I took a call, and resume afterwards. I just didn’t like the wiring, and the uncomfortable bud headphones.
To get streaming audio working, you need some extra software. Softick makes a set of fantastic Bluetooth tools including a Streaming Audio Gateway (SAG) that allows the Treo to stream audio out to a remote Bluetooth device. Perfect!
I downloaded and installed the SAG demo (21 days before a license is required), and tested it out. The SAG connected up cleanly to the X5 headphones, and shortly I was listening to music streaming from the Treo! With a 2 gig memory card installed, I had the same available music pool as an iPod nano, but without having a second set of headphones, USB cables, and charges along with me. I was set!
Or so I thought.
First, the X5 headphones
I have to admit, I do like the headphones. They’re small, lightweight, and work as expected. They have the benefit of recharging directly from a standard USB cable, so even though they include a wall power adapter, all you really need to do is find a spare USB port.
I’m not blown away by the sound quality or the functionality. Like many Bluetooth devices, the only indication of what the headphones are doing is a small blinking LED. Carrying around the small cheat sheet is a must to figure out what buttons to push when to get what functionality. Some audio cues in the headphones would be handy to tell you what mode you’re in or whether you’re connected to the bluetooth host or whatever.
Sound quality was mediocre, and sound levels were quite low. Compared to, say, my iPod headphones, these couldn’t really compete, particularly when doing phone calls directly on the phone. I also had range problems listening to music from the Treo. If I twisted my body to the right (I carry the phone on my belt, on the right), the music would cut out. That’s pretty spooky for a local network system thats supposed to carry 30 feet.
The Problems
The problems started when I received my first phone call. The X5 obediently went quiet, and gave a soft chiming sound saying that I had a call coming in. I tapped on the MFB (Multi Function Button) on the right earpiece, and the phone said “Connected” – showing a call in progress. Except, I couldn’t hear anything. Tapping on the phone to shut off the headphone connection resulted in nothing happening… the phone had crashed.
And so continued the problems I starting seeing last time I tried something like this. Anything Bluetooth on a Treo that is beyond basic ‘handsfree’ operation can cause the Treo to crash, requiring a soft reset.
I was frustrated, but decided to not go down without a fight. After posting to the Softick forum on the SAG, I also sent mail to the Softick developers asking for help. The forums are FULL of people having identical problems – Treos crashing, not working correctly, etc. It was truly painful to read. No real solutions, though Softick put out a series of beta updates trying to address the problems.
I got a reply back from the developers basically stating “We’re working around the bugs in the Bluetooth stack as quickly as possible, but we can’t find a stable solution.”
Palm is Dying
To me this is unfathomable. The Palm platform is enormously popular (though less so now than it’s been before), and with problems like this, I can see how it’s steadily losing market share. The Treo 650 was released in November, 2004. In two years, there has not been a software update that addresses these flaws. The only assumption one can make is that PalmOS is incapable of this sort of functionality. And the conclusion from there, the Palm platform is dying.
The recently released Palm 700p has virtually no changes from the current 650 release, and going by what others are saying on the forums, the Bluetooth implementation is no better than the 650.
I cannot recommend this combination of hardware and devices for audio. While I could easily get music streaming to the headphones, all bonuses gained by this connection were lost because the phone connection was now unuseable, and the Treo could crash at any moment. If Softick does manage to find a stable configuration, I’ll probably revisit this and try again, but for now, I’ll most likely go back to the hybrid headphones for general music wear, and a standard Jabra earpiece for long conference calls and travelling.


A wandering geek. Toys, shiny things, pursuits and distractions.

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