Bluetooth is a short-range personal area network technology which is used for transferring files, contact information, connecting hands free sets and stereo headsets to mobile phones, tablets and PCs wirelessly.
While generally touted as easy to set up and get working, for a variety of reasons often related to the quality of the software Bluetooth stack provided with many USB Bluetooth devices, users have often found frustration in getting things beyond just basic file transfer working. This can be because of outdated software without profile support for newer devices, or a lack of software altogether, leaving the user to rely on the operating system’s default (and often somewhat limited) Bluetooth stack.
Over the years, it has made the evolution through numerous revisions each with new benefits. The initial Bluetooth 1.0 was superseded by 1.1 which offered more robustness against interference through adaptive frequency hopping, and higher transfer rates in practice. Bluetooth 2.0 bought newer modulation modes which allow for higher speed data transfer and practical battery life savings for portable devices. New pairing modes were introduced which simplified and secured pairing. Bluetooth 3.0 bought the ability to use Bluetooth as a signalling channel to use Wi-Fi as a higher-speed transfer medium (although this functionality is often problematic). Finally, we come to Bluetooth 4.0 (also known as Smart and/or Low Energy) which introduces a new physical layer system altogether which enables super-low-powered devices that run for years off a single battery.
Users running on older Bluetooth 1.0/1.1 dongles have many incentives to upgrade. Thanks to Mobilezap, I’ll be looking at the Avantree Bluetooth 4.0 Micro USB dongle (priced at AU$18.99 at time of review) and seeing if it is a worthy upgrade!
The Avantree Bluetooth 4.0 Micro USB Dongle came packed in a transparent plastic clamshell which was held together with clear tape seals. The dongle is clearly visible from the front and measures about 23mm from tip to tip, with the black section measuring about 8mm. That’s pretty small!
It claims to have support for Bluetooth 4.0, as a dual mode (i.e. classic and low-energy) device. It also supports file transfer, audio and is a Class 1 device with a 50m claimed range. Typically most Class 1 devices advertise a 100m range (whereas Class 2 devices with lower output power typically advertise a 10m range), however, it seems that the 50m claim may be related to the efficiency of its antenna (due to small size) and possibly to be more in-line with real-world expectations.
The rear of the box extols its various features and specifications. It appears to support the majority of the Bluetooth profiles available today, through the use of the CSR Harmony Bluetooth stack. The default Windows Bluetooth stack is not this capable!
Included in the package is an 8cm mini-CD with the drivers, the USB dongle itself and a Quick Install Guide. Please heed the instructions in the install guide! Also, you will need to use the CD, so if you don’t have a drive in your laptop, please copy the files off onto a USB flash drive using another computer. You will not derive the full benefit of the dongle simply just by plugging it in (but it will work for basic uses, but please don’t do this – you’ll find out why later).
It is supplied with CSR Harmony version 126.96.36.199. The software is for Windows only – users of Linux will have to rely on their OS’s included bluez stack.
Unusually, the dongle itself has its flashing LED indicator on the bottom of the device where it’s not in plain view. It’s not particularly bright, and will not distract you too much. The dongle protrudes about 1cm from the body of the USB port, and the antenna (a printed circuit board antenna) is on the extreme end of the dongle.
The dongle feels quite solidly built – I didn’t feel confident enough to try taking it apart for fear of damaging it, so there won’t be any photos of the internals unfortunately.
The dongle itself has a Vendor ID of 0A12, Product ID of 0001 and a Firmware Revision of 8891. It’s HCI and LMP version is 6.8891. Its MAC address starts with 00:1A:7D, corresponding to Cyber-Blue (HK) Ltd. It identifies itself as a CSR8510 A10.
Getting this dongle installed is no drama (in most cases) if you follow the instructions carefully. Start by NOT plugging in the dongle into a USB port, however tempting that might be.
The first step is to remove all previous Bluetooth stacks and driver software. This is important to prevent the previous stacks from controlling your new Bluetooth device, causing conflicts or limiting its abilities.
You can achieve this by removing it via the Add/Remove Programs applet inside the Control Panel. If you have IVT Bluesoleil installed, or Broadcom/Widcomm Bluetooth Software installed, they should be removed along with any other Bluetooth software.
Then, you can execute the set-up from the disc which involves following the prompts …
At this point, it is best to restart your computer to ensure that the software starts up correctly, despite the wizard not requesting it. Don’t be lazy – do it!
Then, you can now plug in the USB dongle, which should be detected and result in the installation of a few devices and the appearance of a new Bluetooth icon in your task tray. It should also, after the installation, pop a balloon that tells you that your Bluetooth Device is Available.
If you have Skype installed and running, it will also install a Skype plugin which allows the CSR Bluetooth software to integrate with Skype – just one of the “perks” of a proper Bluetooth stack, as compared to the Windows default stack.
You can now explore the settings within the Harmony stack and commence adding devices to your system. The settings within the Harmony stack allude to many more possibilities than offered by the default operating system Bluetooth stack, or indeed, some aftermarket ones as well including support for Bluetooth 4.0 low-energy security tokens. This may come in extremely useful in the future as low-energy devices become more popular.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any supported way to update the software, aside possibly by visiting the Vendors’ web site in the future. As a result, when devices using newer profiles not supported by the software need to be used, you may need to upgrade or purchase a new software stack (or dongle and software stack together).
Pairing devices compared to using older Version 1.0/1.1 dongles is relatively simple thanks to the Secure Simple Pairing. Many newer devices display a code for you to check and accept the pairing, or pair without needing to enter any codes, making it much more painless.
To initiate pairing, one must put their Bluetooth device into pairing mode before initiating a device scan (either by category or all). The time-out on the scan is relatively quick, so be sure to initiate pairing mode on your Bluetooth device before starting a scan.
For example, to pair a headset, you would choose audio/video device, and your device should show up in the scan shortly.
Select the device, and click next, and secure simple pairing takes care of the rest.
Drivers for your specific device should install automatically without trouble. If not, please see the next section.
Once that succeeds, you should see a bubble indicating the connection has been established. If you have paired a headset, the Skype integration will change the audio devices for you automatically.
I’m glad to report no audio problems at all with this stack and the Native Union Pop Retro Bluetooth Handset. Great stuff!
Integration with Skype also allowed for double-tapping the button to initiate a call, and single tap to hang up.
I also had no trouble pairing my Jabra BT-135, Samsung Galaxy SIII and my Bluetooth Keyboard to it, although A2DP Media Audio streaming from the SGSIII to the computer curiously refused to function (even with SCMS-T turned on during installation). This may be a compatibility issue.
File transfers to the S3 are easily accomplished by right clicking on a file and navigating to Send To, followed by Bluetooth Device. Other than that, buttons are added into Microsoft Office as well so that you can send a file directly from the ribbons interface.
Sending with the Bluetooth 4.0 dongle (at v2.1 EDR rates) is about three times faster than sending with my old Bluetooth v1.1 dongle.
To test its Low-Energy radio abilities, I was able to scan for and pair with my Adonit Jot Touch and Jot Script, although as there is no profile support, the connections are not usable.
I later tried a serial Bluetooth GPS unit with no dramas, however, unfortunately as I don’t have an A2DP Bluetooth Stereo set, I can’t comment on how that would perform. However, the manual states there is apt-X support, and I would hence expect the best Bluetooth Stereo quality you can expect.
So you ran into trouble … try this!
While pairing a device, like the handset, you may have experienced a problem in installing the device which looks like this:
As a result, the device does not work, and Harmony will not connect nor disconnect from your device …
It turns out, it’s not only you. Further inspection of the problematic device gives you the following:
“The name is already in use either as a service name or a service display name.” A dreaded error. Maybe you’ve tried hitting the update driver button many times, and installed another driver over the top which results in it claiming to be okay but still not working …
… and now any attempt to remove it, or uninstall the Bluetooth stack never finishes!
The reason why this might occur is if you have used a CSR Bluetooth Dongle in the past with the Microsoft default Bluetooth Stack, and paired a device (e.g. Handset/Handsfree) which requires a driver and allowed the installation of drivers from Windows Update. These drivers come from CSR as a courtesy to CSR dongle users so that they can have audio with older dongles, but these courtesy drivers conflict with the proper drivers provided in Harmony as they use the same service name. Unfortunately, “removing” and “uninstalling” the old dongle through Device Manager or Devices will not solve it.
Quite a few people have this problem online, and there hasn’t been a clear way to solve it. However, by learning a little bit about the driver framework, I’ve managed to devise a method which seems to be able resolve this issue. Please note that working with the Registry can cause serious damage to your system if you make any unintended alterations. I take no responsibility for any damage you might cause to your system – but this did work for me.
Please carefully follow these steps:
- If your problem device is stuck with the “The name is already in use either as a service name or a service display name” error, please proceed directly to Step 3.
- If you have somehow forced the wrong driver to install anyway (e.g. the Bluetooth Hands-Free Audio device), you will need to go to Device Manager and remove it first. The computer may seem to be removing the driver but will never finish. Remove power to the computer and restart it. Check that the Bluetooth Hands-Free Audio device doesn’t show under Sound, video and game controllers. It’s okay if it shows up with an exclamation mark somewhere else. If it still shows up, try rebooting into Safe Mode (press F8 on booting) and back to regular mode.
- Remove the CSR Harmony stack using the Add/Remove Programs in Control Panel. Be a little patient, it should take 5 minutes at most. If you have the wrong driver installed (Step 2), but failed to remove it, CSR Harmony will not uninstall and will hang during uninstall.
- Restart the computer.
- If the dongle has been removed, plug it back in and go to Devices and Printers. Find any Bluetooth devices except the dongle and right-click Uninstall and select to delete drivers.
- Go to Device Manager and delete the Generic Bluetooth Radio.
- Get out Registry Editor by pressing Win+R and typing regedit and clicking OK. You will need to grant administrative privileges for this to work.
- Navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\services (, backup the entire tree to a file using the Export command, if you wish) and delete all the folders named the following under this path (as they are CSR dongle driver remnants, as determined by reading through the CSR Harmony stack .INF files):
- While you are there, also look for folders starting with bth that have sub-folders. In the case of Bluetooth Hands-Free Audio, this is the BthAudioHF entry – delete that too. Do not go deleting things randomly – you will mangle something serious. Delete Bth* entries which are named with the problematic device name or contain a driver file name which is used by the CSR provided drivers – in the case of BthAudioHF, it points to the driver with conflicts with HFGService.
- Reboot your computer and reinstall Harmony as before. Re-pair the device. You should find it functions correctly.
While not officially supported by the manufacturer for use with Linux, I threw it in with my Linux machine running Lubuntu 13.10, and it detected the dongle immediately and blueman was able to help me run a few file transfers just fine. Unfortunately, audio stubbornly refused to work, but this is quite a common issue with blueman and bluez.
A comparison of file transfer speeds between the new and old dongle was made under Linux:
Lets just say, while not as speedy as Wi-Fi, it’s a pretty decent speed increase.
The Avantree Bluetooth 4.0 MicroUSB dongle is a solidly built Bluetooth dongle supporting the latest Bluetooth Smart/Low Energy modes. It is based around a quality Cambridge Silicon Radio CSR8510 A10 bundled with a fully licensed (some lower priced dongles have issues here) and fully featured CSR Harmony Bluetooth Stack offering full support for both 32-bit and 64-bit Windows XP through to 8 installations.
The dongle also had no problems functioning under the bluez Bluetooth stack under Lubuntu 13.10 Linux, although support for profiles beyond just file transfer (OBEX) will depend on your distribution of Linux and troubleshooting skills (as there are many little compatibility issues between certain Bluetooth managers (e.g. blueman) which may cause problems).
Additionally, the software supports the apt-X codec which allows for higher quality Bluetooth stereo audio (A2DP) with compatible CSR apt-X enabled speakers and headsets. This is a feature which you won’t find anywhere else, although I wasn’t able to test this given the peripherals I currently own.
The software is quite easy to use and installs correctly first time on a “fresh” machine which has never seen Bluetooth devices before. It also installs correctly on machines which have previously used other Bluetooth chipsets, but have had their software removed cleanly (e.g. IVT Bluesoleil, Broadcom/Widcomm).
Unfortunately, if upgrading from a prior CSR Bluetooth device using the operating system’s Bluetooth stack and also CSR drivers from Windows Update for Headsets/A2DP, you may encounter driver conflicts as I did. This seems to have affected a few others, and although I managed to work out a method to resolve this, it doesn’t make for a seamless user experience. This is seems to be a problem with CSR Harmony’s installer/uninstaller.
Given its capabilities, I would recommend this product based on the strength of the Bluetooth stack software, its compact size and decent range. And as usual, Mobilezap was quick to deliver, flawlessly as always.
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