Rolling My Own iPhone

No, I'm not going to pester you with more rumors. As it happens, I've been meaning to write about this for a good while, but with all that's been going on in the past few weeks I completely forgot about it.

My iPod Shuffle has been my faithful companion at work for many months now (it is the only way to survive the incredible waste of productivity and endless entropy brought on by the "open space office" concept), but the recent gift of a black 2G nano made it somewhat obsolete.

Now, as anyone will tell you, one of the hassles of using an iPod at work is having to deal with constant phone calls. The phone rings, you reach for the iPod, pause it, free one of your ears, reach for the phone, answer it (with or without a headset), talk for a while, hang up, search for the earphone, untangle it from your shirt/tie/mouse cord, replace it in your ear, reach for the iPod again, hit play, and try to figure out precisely what else you were doing before you got interrupted.

This is the stuff that fuels the quest for the iPhone, and it happens to me a bazillion times a day. Except that I don't think you need to merge two devices in one (at least not while they work better separately, but that's another matter entirely).

Getting back to the topic at hand, since we're a mobile outfit to the letter (most of us don't even have desk phones) and we usually have to actually do stuff while on the phone, I usually carry a Bluetooth headset.

Which means that for me, the sequence above is ever so slightly more complicated, what with me having to search my suit/jacket/shirt pockets for the headset, having to ensure it's powered on, trying to get it on without snagging it on the earphone cords, and promptly putting it back somewhere else I quickly forget.

So I decided to get myself a Gear4 BluEye:

The BluEye and its (proprietary) cable next to my nano.

It's slightly smaller than the new Shuffle or the ancient iPod remote, and the packaging also includes a small USB-to-proprietary-connector dongle for upgrading its firmware (which doesn't seem to have been necessary yet, for I can find no trace of any software to do so).

Straight Up

Basically, what it does is this: When you get up a call, it pauses your iPod, displays the caller ID on the iPod's screen and acts as a Bluetooth headset. You can pick up the call by hitting pause, and it then starts piping the phone audio to your earphones. When you're done, you hit pause again, and music resumes.

Simple, no-frills, and incredibly effective. I can now go for hours without needing to fiddle about with wires of any sort, and Bruno lent me a set of Sony earphones with an extra short cable (roughly 15cm), which means that I can clip the remote next to my collar and loop the wire around the back of my neck.

It also lets you do voice dialing (with compatible phones), and besides working as a Bluetooth headset, it includes a simple, no frills FM radio tuner (invoked via a small side button below the lock switch).

The Nitty-Gritty Details

When I was using a SonyEricsson phone, the headset I used had the added nicety of being able to display the caller name (not caller ID, but the contact entry name corresponding to that number). The BluEye is limited to displaying the raw MSISDN sent by the network, and doesn't seem to understand the extra signaling SonyEricsson phones employ or (and this is what I get most questions for) try to find a match in your iPod's contacts folder.

This happens to be fine by me, since the iPod spends most of its time inside a sock for protection (I only look at the display when I want to search for something specific or skip to a given point in a podcast) and I leave it on the desk beside my Blackberry, which displays incoming caller IDs, names (and, guess what, contact photos) in a very bright, easily readable display (names, in particular, are displayed in 7-to-8mm tall letters, which I can read pretty far away).

The FM radio has had very little use, since my office is somewhat of a Faraday cage and it's pretty damn impossible to pick up any radio signals. The resident audio geeks were expecting the BluEye to have RDS, automatic station search and whatnot, but I find the basic frequency selection enough for the use I make of it.

Audio quality is good (at least good enough for me, although that is always subjective), and the only thing I noticed was that I usually needed to punch up the volume a bit (which is only natural, given that earphones usually have a different dynamic range from the crap manufacturers stick in most Bluetooth headsets). I had no complaints from my callers, and a short test revealed that the BluEye microphone tended to pick up a little ambient noise, but wasn't worse than the Motorola earpiece I've been using.

As to battery life, the BluEye is powered by the iPod, which means I have zero extra gadgets to charge (minus one, actually, if you count my previous Bluetooth headset). So far a charge seems to last me three to four days, and the only hassle is that I have to unplug the BluEye to charge my nano - again, not much of an issue for me, since I do it at home on my Mac, and take occasional advantage of the opportunity to refresh my playlists.

The Bottom Line

The BluEye could be a bit better (both where it comes to handling Caller IDs and FM radio stations), but it does the job the way an Apple accessory should: Effectively and unobtrusively. If you haven't bought your own Xmas present (as every geek is prone to doing), you might want to consider it.