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Helpful gadgets for the hands-free set

Having handy gear like a notebook, handheld computer or smartphone on hand at all times means there's never a wasted moment. And thanks to a handful of new gadgets, you can be even more efficient than ever.
/ Source: contributor

I'm a passionate multitasker. Having handy gear like a notebook, handheld computer or smartphone on hand at all times means I rarely suffer a wasted moment, be it writing or Web browsing in a café, or riding the subway and reading the latest news downloaded to my smartphone.

The key breakthrough in multitasking was Bluetooth — the wireless technology initiated by Ericsson in 1994 that easily connects Bluetooth-equipped devices to one another. And thanks to a handful of new gadgets that take advantage of this handy (and in some cases, hands-free) technology, I’m even more efficient than ever.

But where to start? First of all, take a look at the hardware you already have: All Macintoshes ship with Bluetooth built in, as do a number of Windows notebook PCs. And luckily, adding Bluetooth to a desktop or notebook PC is as easy as buying and installing a USB Bluetooth adapter such as the Belkin's Bluetooth USB Adapter ($39.99).

On the portable gear front, some mobile phones and handheld computers have Bluetooth built-in, others do not. If you're shopping for a new phone, ask before you buy — a mobile phone with Bluetooth is infinitely more useful and interesting, if possibly slightly pricier, than one without.

Take my phone, for instance, the Nokia 6682. With my Mac PowerBook’s built-in Bluetooth and Apple’s handy iSync program, I can keep contacts, a calendar and to do items in perfect sync between the notebook and the phone. The Nokia 6682 also syncs with Microsoft Outlook on Windows PCs via Bluetooth (or with a cable connection). Let’s say, for example, that today is my mom’s birthday. No problem — both the phone and laptop will remind me (as if I’d ever forget). And thanks to iSync, her address is attached to her info, so filling out a label at the post office is a snap. Or I can just email her from the phone to say I’m on my way over to celebrate.

When I don’t feel like lugging my laptop, I can still get real work done with the 6682 phone or with my backup phone, Palm’s Treo 650 — thanks to a choice of Bluetooth keyboards that you can fold up and slip in your pocket. In fact, I wrote the first draft of this story using my 6682 phone, QuickOffice’s teeny, built-in word processing program and Nokia's optional SU-8W Wireless Keyboard ($149.00).

Think Outside's Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard ($149.99) also works with my Nokia 6682 (as well as a host of other handheld devices like the Palm LifeDrive and Windows Pocket PCs). But because of its dedicated Palm-centric function keys, I found the keyboard to be  better suited for the Treo 650. Blackberry users can buy one tailored to their device for just $99.99.

Both keyboards center around clever split-in-two designs that unfold to open and feature pop-up easels that prop up the phone or handheld at a comfortable viewing angle. Remembering which function or control keys to strike to type numbers and symbols takes some doing, and correctly striking the split spacebars on both keyboards took me a few hours to get used to. Mini Web browsers, chat messenger programs, and e-mail programs add to the mix, making it possible to literally pack my office in my pocket, set up in a café, and work for hours (albeit with curious looks).

When I do work on a laptop, the addition of a wireless Bluetooth mouse makes the experience more comfortable and convenient thanks to extra buttons with features missing from the laptop’s trackpad. I tested two: Think Outside's Bluetooth Stowaway Travel Mouse ($79.99), and Apple's new wireless Mighty Mouse ($69). The Stowaway Mouse is like ordinary desktop two-button scrolling mice with one exception: it's about one-third the size. The scroll wheel rolls Web and document pages up and down, and a press of the wheel activates a click feature that does nothing on my Mac, but carries out a custom command on Windows PCs.

Apple's Mighty Mouse, on the other hand, is anything but ordinary looking. Its smooth, polished white upper surface is devoid of visible left and right buttons, with only a rubbery “Scroll Ball” nub in the middle. Buttons on either side of the mouse's midsection can be squeezed individually or in tandem to activate an optional click for bringing up the Mac's Dashboard of useful widgets, for instance, or to launch a program.

Because there’s nothing to feel, tapping the Mighty Mouse's invisible, touch-sensitive left and right buttons is an odd sensation, like using the tap-to-click feature on most notebook touchpads. This eventually becomes second nature.

The Scroll Ball is the best implementation of a mouse scrolling I've ever experienced, letting you move up, down, and all around Web pages, spreadsheets or huge photographs in every direction. (Most scrolling mice only scroll up and down, and in some cases, left and right on Macs and PCs)

Rounding out my multitasking-enrichment program is a gadget that frees my hands entirely: A Bluetooth wireless headset. With one, I can make and receive calls while doing other things that otherwise occupy my hands, such as walking my dog, or preparing dinner. My friend Nadia wears one when changing her son’s diapers or doing her job restoring fine paintings for museums. Another friend, Ellen, a dog walker with up to five charges at a time, couldn’t live without hers.

Inexpensive Bluetooth headsets can be had for under $50, and a decent performer, Motorola’s H500 isn’t too large, has decent sound, and costs $69.99. My current favorite is Nokia’s pricey BH-800 ($179.99), which is about the size of a large beetle bug and weighs less than an ounce. It’s better than the Motorola at picking up my voice on windy dog walks along the Hudson or when car horns and sirens are blaring on Fifth Avenue.

The most interesting Bluetooth headset coming down the pike is Motorola’s H5 Miniblue. Weighing a scant .26 ounces, the H5 plugs into your ear like a hearing aid, and picks up your voice by way of ear canal vibrations. To see (or feel) what I mean, stick your index finger in your ear and talk. Feel your voice? So will the H5 when it ships sometime later this year, at a price Motorola has yet to reveal.