No hands, all ears

Dragon Bluetooth gives a clear signal within range

Callpod's Dragon CDHS-0001 headset

Callpod

Bluetooth is a marvel of a technology and works well for short-range communications. It can accurately send data to and from all types of programs, beaming your contacts from a personal digital assistant, printing a document on a compatible printer and even telling the gas station which Swiss bank account you'll be using to fill your tank this week.

But of course, innovators are never satisfied with things as they are. Bluetooth cell phones and cell phone adapters are the latest products to push this short-range technology.

In the past, Bluetooth phones have performed well enough, considering that Bluetooth is not set up to handle the rigors of realtime voice data.

However, problems have been inherent in all Bluetooth voice devices we have tested previously. Their range is exceedingly short, and although a momentary break in communications might not hurt when sending a document to your printer, it will be noticeable if the person you are chatting with drops out. In the past, quality of the voice signal degraded with most devices within just a few feet.

Enter the Dragon CDHS-0001, a Bluetooth headset from Callpod designed for hands-free phone operation over a long distance.

Although still subject to many of the flaws we have seen in the past, the Dragon has some extra features and tests better than any previous device of this type. If your distance needs are not great ' basically, if you stay within 50 feet of your phone ' the Dragon might suit your needs.

The Dragon is a $129 Bluetooth Version 2.0 headset designed to stick directly into your ear or hang there on a circular hook. It weighs less than an ounce ' 0.89 ounces, to be exact ' so it would seem to rest lightly on your ear.

However, the shape of the Dragon is almost perfectly round, which is unusual. There is no extension for a microphone, and it turns out that it's rather uncomfortable to wear in either of its configurations.

Of the two, sticking the Dragon directly into your ear feels better than the seemingly huge hook. A long rubber tube comes out of the center of the device in the back and squeezes into your ear to hold the device in place by friction. As a bonus, the buildup of earwax will discourage anyone from swiping your headset.

Separate ways

However, even being wedged tightly into your ear is not always enough to keep the Dragon in place. More than once during our testing, a quick turn resulted in me going one way and my Dragon ' and the person I was talking to ' going the other. The alternative is to use the hook, which I suppose you could get used to, but it felt to me like an angry spider trying to claw its way into my skull.

The Dragon shone in performance tests communicating with other Dragons or a standard BlackBerry 8800, one of many phones with which it's compatible. We were able to get clear calls without any problem within a 50-foot radius of a base station phone. The trigger to take a call is a large button on the center of the circular headset, so finding it is a breeze, and we could make calls by voice dialing.

The Dragon doesn't have a plastic arm to aim toward your mouth so it feels a little weird at first talking to thin air. Other than appearing to talk to yourself, we didn't find any disadvantages compared with other headsets that have a microphone arm incorporated into their design.

Calls sound good to the person wearing the Dragon. The sound tube goes right into your ear, which helps you understand speech clearly.

However, communication the other way isn't so great. To the person on the other end, the Dragon user sounded distant with an occasional echo effect. Noise cancellation technology ' so room noise is not picked up and transmitted ' is a must for any device not right at a speaker's mouth, but our guess is that it led to the Dragon's echo effect. The echo decreases call quality, but it's not bad enough to ruin a conversation.

Beyond 50 feet, you also start to hear some static. And outdoors, wind noise tended to creep into the conversation at all distances, apparently unaffected by the cancellation technology.

One of the Dragon's most innovative features is its ability to link with other Dragon headsets in the area.

We tested this feature with two Dragons and found range and call quality unsurpassed with linked units. Point-to-point communications indoors between two Dragons sounded great even at 80 feet and with several walls between them. This is less than the advertised 328-foot range, but it far exceeds any other Bluetooth headset we've tested. And calls still worked past 80 feet but began to break up, making it difficult to follow the entire conversation. The signal was clear past the 110-foot mark outdoors and acceptable as far out as 140 feet.

Including a car charger in addition to a USB and standard AC charger in the package leads us to believe that the Dragon could be intended for people traveling as part of a group or convoy.

Dragons in convoy

If members of a convoy have Dragons, they could stay in hands-free contact without being charged for cell phone minutes. And they could keep their Dragons charged for the entire trip.

The car charger is a great addition to the standard package, but even without it, the battery life is impressive for such a tiny device. It charges from dead in about two hours. After that, we talked and talked and never seemed to run out of battery life. We drained it four times, and the average talk time was 7 hours, 39 minutes with standby time extending well past our 72-hour test.

The Dragon CDHS-0001 proves that Bluetooth phone devices have come a long way ' and that they still have a way to go.

Still, the Dragon is one of the best examples we have seen of performance and signal quality over distance. If you tend to stay within 50 feet of your phone, it works well. And it's perfect for direct, Dragon-to-Dragon talk.

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