Conferencing in the 21st Century: Parrot Conference

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Parrot Technologies is one of the foremost manufacturers in Bluetooth related accessories today. Based in France, they pump out innovative yet tested and stable products on a regular basis. At CTIA, they launched 3 brand spanking new products- the “Parrot Conferenceâ€, “Parrot Boomboxâ€, and “Parrot Photo Viewer 7â€. Parrot also updated part of their existing product line.

The updates announced at CTIA were the:

1) 3200LS-Color PLUS (Adds BEAMFORMING technology and a detachable screen to the 3200- for more on BEAMFORMING, check out the forthcoming MK6000 post).
2) CK3000 and CK3100 colors changed to black (Is it just me, or is the entire mobile world going black)?

Parrot was kind enough to send the Boombox and Conference my way to look at, as well as two of the older products, the MK6000 and 3400-LS. In this post, we will look at the Conference, and how it interfaces with you, the Windows Mobile user.

When I first saw the Conference concept at Parrot’s booth, it took a while for me to wrap my head around it. I couldn’t figure out why someone would need or want to use something like it- either use the cellphone’s built in speaker, or, if available, a fixed landline. After thinking about it, however, and using it for a bit, I “saw the lightâ€. Well…not really, but at least I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. That is, while I personally didn’t find much use for it (although I’ll not say that I think it’s completely useless), I can certainly understand where and when many may find a use for a tool like this. Hit the jump for some Windows Mobile info on this and more.

PC Main

Its primary intended purpose seems to be for a conference room/boardroom scenario, where a standard landline conference system is either not available or not hooked up. Teams that often find themselves in mobile environments or on the road could also make use of the Conference. For me, I found it to be more of a glorified speaker than anything else-albeit a wonderful and surprisingly convenient speaker. Then again, I wasn’t working with a team, mobile or otherwise. The microphone quality wasn’t optimal, but definitely passable- it seemed to fade in and out occasionally. The speaker is where the device really shines: loud and clear (5W) from quite a distance away. Parrot says that there are actually three microphones to cover a 360 degree radius- one in each of the pods on the base. Underneath each pod is a battery pack- and with an impressive battery life of up to 10 hours, the Conference should last through the most grueling meetings.

PC Boardroom

The units face is actually quite simplistically designed. You’ll find a basic number keypad, a Send/End key, the signature Parrot scroll dial, and two fancifully named “Magic Buttonsâ€. When an incoming call is detected, these Magic Buttons flash, so they are good for more than their primary purpose, which is to launch a nearby device discovery of any available Bluetooth phones to pair with. Also, the Magic Buttons will Mute a call once connected.

Before we get to the Windows Mobile side of things, a brief note concerning two small issues with the layout-

Issue 1) The keypad. For some reason, Parrot didn’t see fit to equip the number pad on the unit with an alphanumeric layover, thus making “word†numbers (e.g. 1-800-FLOWERS) difficult to dial. Perhaps the thinking behind this was that the user would always have the mobile device to refer to anyway when dialing, since the Conference needs the mobile to use as the phone line.

Issue 2) The so called “Magic Buttonsâ€. I don’t see why they need to be quite so large, nor why two are required. One would suffice, as would a smaller size- I would have preferred to see the Send and End keys replace those, or at least enlarged Send/End keys. Certainly, the Send/End keys are more frequently used…

Since Bluetooth HFP based car kits and non-headset units traditionally have trouble reading/deciphering Windows Mobile data, I thought it would be interesting to see how the Conference would fare- and it blew me away! I was VERY impressed with the amount of work that has obviously gone into compatibility and such. Granted, I didn’t test S60, UIQ, or “dumb†phones, but after all, WM is “what makes the world go ‘round- right?

Understand before reading the below section that Bluetooth technology is still not universally standardized. Different OEMs/ODMs use different stacks with differing implementations. Dealing with a Windows Mobile device in particular requires much engineering; I explain to clients that one doesn’t expect to understand a genius immediately- much time and effort may be required to comprehend what he is saying! In fact, the Parrot forums are rife with many such (WM compatibility) issues. I expect that Parrot will soon setup a Conference section in their forums- although I suggest you check or post your question in the “English†sections as opposed to the “American/Canadian†forum- the English forum seems to be monitored far more closely than the North American ones, and generate much more user activity.

Now, for the WM tests-
(Please note that I didn’t as much time as I would have liked to test these more extensively for more accurate results, although the below results should be correct enough. Basically, don’t buy one of the units below and when it isn’t compatible come running to me…:)

The devices used to test the Conference were:

1) Cingular 8525 running the latest AKU 3.x update- (WM 5.0 Phone Edition)
2) HTC TyTN (WM 6 Professional)
3) Cingular 3125 (WM 5.0 Smartphone)
4) HTC Cavalier running AKU 3.x- with RemoteSAP (WM 5.0 Smartphone)
5) HTC Vox/S710 (WM 6 Standard)

In general, the Conference worked as advertised. Pairing was painless (thankfully), although on one occasion I had to manually “Set as Hands-Free†in the “Devices†section of the Bluetooth menu on the phone to avoid a Connect/Disconnect loop that occurred. After pushing the Magic Button, a list of available BT devices show up (make sure your phone is set to “Visible†or “Discoverableâ€. Scroll to the device name, depress the dial or hit the Send key to select the device, upon which a menu offering a number of different choices of phones will appear. All WM devices (5.0/6) should be the “Windows CE†option. The PC (Parrot Conference) will randomly generate a unique PIN (different each time). Enter it in on the phone, wait a sec, hit “Finishâ€, and you’re done. Simple really. I will briefly discuss compatibility between the PC and various flavors of WM, but please note that this list may not be totally accurate- for instance, I tested mostly with GSM phones, but found the Sprint Treo 700wx (WM 5.0) to be an anomaly. It paired and showed signal strength, without any extra apps- albeit with inaccurate signal representation on the PC.

Since, potior est, qui prior est, my latin quote of the day dictates that we cover WM 5.0 compatibility first. [I did not notice any differences between Smartphone and PPC Phone Edition regarding the below details.]
WM 5.0 is an interesting beast here, and tumbles into three categories:

a) Vanilla- without any added apps.
b) RSIM app from HTC
c) Jetware

Apparently, there is a Bluetooth profile or setting called “Remote SIM Accessâ€. This allows Bluetooth devices to read information from the SIM card, such as the network name and the signal strength. On many more recent HTC devices (generally AKU 2.x and later I believe), HTC has added an applet that enables this functionality, since Windows Mobile 5.0 did not include it. Unfortunately, Cingular did not include it in their shipped devices.
This applet, however, (I tested the version on the HTC Cavalier- which is not a shipped ROM), did not work in my tests at all. Should you want the Conference or Bluetooth device to be able to read the above information, check out a third party program, developed particularly for these situations, called “Jetware Mobile Extenderâ€. The application adds the RSIM profile, and numerous other extras that add features to your Bluetooth Windows Mobile device vis-à-vis Bluetooth car kits and units like the Conference. We hope to cover the app in greater detail in our coverage of the 3400LS or MK6000.

WM 6 devices (both Standard and Professional) are far simpler- they paired beautifully, and the PC read the SIM info without any extra apps straight off the bat.

All WM devices synced my 900 plus name contact book without a hitch. Average time to sync was about 7 minutes. The idea here is that the Conference should be able to store the phone’s phonebook in its internal memory, allowing you to dial the contact directly from the PC. Then, when different devices connect with the PC, it loads the phonebook stored in memory based on the BT ID of the device. These phonebooks (where they are phone specific) are labeled “Privateâ€. A “Public†phonebook is also available, where you can push contacts from your phone directly to the PC, and this phonebook is supposed to be viewable regardless of which phone is connected atm.

A few features that I didn’t play around with much but seemed to work were:

Binding a photo (user selectable, pushed to the PC by Bluetooth, of course) to a contact name for Caller ID.

Skype integration. Parrot heavily promotes this in their product literature. In order to use this feature, you will need to have Skype installed on a host computer, and the computer will also need a Bluetooth radio- either USB or internal. Parrot recommends a WidComm stack, and the official Parrot USB adapter I tested worked perfectly with it.
You will also need to install an additional Parrot Conference application on the computer, which must be running along with Skype to allow the Conference to interface with Skype. From the documentation, it sounds like the eventuality for additional VoIP software is being prepared for (Gizmo anyone?), but the manual clearly states that for now, only Skype is supported.

PC Skype

The PC supports firmware updates over Bluetooth, which, while important, doesn’t do much for users without BT adapters on their computers. Obviously, at the time of testing the PC had just been released, so no updates were available.

A few software issues I encountered were:
The phonebook did not allow “Surname†sorting. Although this is an option, it was grayed out, and I couldn’t get it to come alive.

I couldn’t manage to pull up the Public phonebook- it was always grayed out, even after pushing more than one contact to it.

When the 3125 got too close to the unit (3†or so), a screen warp occurred- only while in the 3†range. Simply moving the 3125 away remedied the issue- no biggie, but odd. This didn’t occur with any other phones.

Conclusion:
Overall, I’m happy using the Conference- although personally, I probably wouldn’t justify the $300 price tag. I can, however, see a real need for a device like this, and for those who need it, the pricing is fair.

Parrot did a wonderful job with the Conference, and the build quality is fantastic. Unfortunately, the UI feels clunky, and many tasks took longer than they should to accomplish. Without doubt, Parrot needs to focus on improving their menu system- as it stands, although it’s simple to use, many options are buried and will never get used.

It is available now online directly from Parrot here for $299. Other big box retailers may carry the unit in the near future as well.
There is also a PhoneLink attachment that allows regular landlines to be connected. Currently, I could not obtain a release date or pricing on it.

Bottom Line Score: (Out of 10).
For the average consumer: little more than a toy- 5.9.
For the road warrior/mobile team: potentially productive and workflow enhancing- 7.1.
Disclaimer: Many of the units/applications I review are sent to me at no charge. Sometimes I keep these, and sometimes they are loaner unit/trial applications. Whatever the case, I do my level best to remain impartial- however, we are all only human- me included:).

The Parrot Conference does a

The Parrot Conference does a good job in setup and call quality. Assuming the handset already has Bluetooth switched on and is visible you can be connected up and dialling in under twenty seconds, most of which time you will probably only spend waiting for the Bluetooth to connect.Thanks for the valuable information.
Conference Centre Peterborough

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