Wireless Is the New Black

Imagine how great it would be if there was one device that instantly translated any language into English and English into any other language. Bluetooth is kind of like that — it's newish technology that lets different devices from different manufacturers (and, in the case of cell phones, different providers) "talk" to each other on a shared wireless platform. For example, Bluetooth makes it possible to use your favorite Microsoft keyboard with an Apple MacBook. You can also transfer files, music or photos from camera to computer or computer to computer or from phone to phone. No more "Can you e-mail that picture?" With Bluetooth phones, you can take a picture and instantly share it with your friends via a shared connection.

How does it do that? Essentially an ultralow power radio signal and translator, Bluetooth allows wireless access to certain gadgets within about 30 feet. This all sounds complicated and kind of boring but basically this technology makes life a whole lot easier for those who can't do without their cell phones, cameras and PDAs.

From an automotive perspective, you can make and take phone calls while on the road via an in-car Bluetooth system. Cars like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Saab 9-3, Toyota Prius and others offer Bluetooth as a factory-installed feature. Even the low-priced Nissan Versa has an optional Bluetooth feature. Recently, we even installed an aftermarket Parrot system in our long-term Toyota FJ Cruiser.

We like it because Bluetooth offers all the safety and convenience of a factory-installed car phone combined with the freedom of a hand-held cell phone. But you have to have a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone in order to take advantage of the in-car feature. The good news is those phones are becoming more and more common and cost about as much as phones without Bluetooth. (Some Bluetooth phones are even less expensive than phones without the feature.)

With a Bluetooth phone and in-car system, your car can serve as your cell phone, using your existing cell phone number. You use minutes in the normal way and the charges show up on your regular cell phone bill. But the best feature is that to make and receive calls on your Bluetooth phone, you don't need a docking station or hard-wired connections. If your phone is on and somewhere in the car, you'll be able to make and receive phone calls. No call forwarding is necessary as the phone "sees" your car like any other external accessory — similar to a wireless headset. If the car's interface or your phone allows the use of voice commands, you can make and receive phone calls while in the car without having to touch any buttons.

And what makes this technology especially sexy (in addition to ease of use) is its relative affordability. For example, Chrysler's UConnect option costs about $290 and includes a Bluetooth receiver (mounted out of sight), a microphone and a small control pad mounted to the dash or rearview mirror.

Aftermarket kits are also available if you just want to hook it up to the car you already have. Parrot makes several adapter kits, as does Motorola and others. The kits are very affordable, with prices starting well below $200. OK, that may still be a bit pricey for the young person with the entry-level job, but it shouldn't be too hard to make parents see it as an investment toward their driving kids' safety.

Both the federal and local governments have been increasingly scrutinizing the wisdom of letting motorists talk on the phone while driving. In fact, a few states have already moved to make talking on a handheld phone while driving illegal — and those numbers will only increase as time goes by. Bluetooth could be a technology that offers a safe compromise between those who want to exercise their inalienable right to yak on the phone and those whose job it is to protect us from those who yak on the phone while piloting a 2-ton chunk of steel and glass.

Usability combined with increasing popularity leads us to believe that Bluetooth will soon become as common as tattoos at a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert. If you're shopping for a new phone, PDA, camera or even a new car, find one with Bluetooth. In the end it will make your life that much easier.