February 10, 2010

Bluetooth, a Cell Phone and a Netbook


Moving files, music and pictures from your cell phone to your netbook is useful for most busy people.

With eeeBuntu on the Asus Netbook, this capability is available through the on-board Bluetooth radio. It's theoretically possible to transfer files and browse the directories on most Bluetooth-equipped phones. Today, we'll look at how some of the features work and explore some of the quirks of using Bluetooth that might trip you up.

My tests were carried out running eeeBuntu 3.0 (kernel version 2.6.29-1-netbook) on an Asus eeePC 1000HE with a 130 GB disk and 2 GB of memory. The little machine also had a Logitech Nano notebook mouse and uses the Atom N280 processor.

The test cell devices included a sleek late-model LG Xenon slider phone and my beat-up old Motorola V557 flip relic.  My daughter bought the LG with her own money. I'm just cheap and holding out for a new smartphone.

Results with the phones were definitely a mixed bag. Some areas worked without a hitch, while some turned out to be moderate headaches.


You'll need to make sure a few things are working before trying to copy or browse files.

First, look at the upper right corner of the task bar and right click on the Netbook Eee PC Tray icon to make the drop down menu visible (see figure #1 for a view of the tray items). This appears as a small laptop computer on the main task bar. Look for the Bluetooth menu item and if it reads "Enable Bluetooth," click on it to start up the Bluetooth radio.  You should also see the Bluetooth applet (an oval blue tray icon with what looks like a couple of vertical "W"'s). If you don't see it, click on System, then Preferences, and select the Bluetooth menu item.

Using the Bluetooth applet is pretty straightforward once the radio is operational. Right click on the applet then "setup new device" to pair up the Netbook with your phone. The device search screen will appear and you can highlight your phone from the ones that show up. Sometimes it took a minute or two for the netbook to see my phone. You can then use an automatically generated PIN or choose your own.  I usually just use the fixed PIN code of 1234.  It is easy to remember and works for me.  Click the Forward button to continue.

The netbook's Bluetooth radio will then try to connect with the phone. You'll see an acceptance message pop up on the phone.  Click ‘Yes’ on the phone and enter the PIN number, and then ‘OK’. The acceptance window will disappear from the phone and the netbook will indicate that pairing was successful.  If you wait too long, the connection attempt will fail and you'll have to go back to the PIN selection screen and try again.  Close the Bluetooth window when you've successfully connected.

The above description illustrates connecting with the LG. I used a similar process to get the Motorola phone to pair with my netbook. The Moto asks if you want to bond with the netbook. I clicked ‘Yes’ and received the successfully configured new device message.  One quirk was that the Motorola phone had to announce its presence with the "find me" button under the Bluetooth menus before it would show up on the netbook's available device list.  In other words, this phone is “Bluetoothically” invisible, by default.

Doing Something with Bluetooth

File transfers are the mainstay function for using Bluetooth between your netbook and phone.

A phone may hold pictures, video, audio, music and other files. The files may simply reside in the main phone memory or on a memory card of some sort. Bluetooth is supposed to make it easy to copy or move the files between the devices.  It is a great idea, in theory.  Putting it into practice reliably was a challenge with my phones.

After bonding, I could go to the Bluetooth applet tray icon, right click and select browse files on device to see the various directories on the Motorola. I had three directories that included audios, pictures and videos. Clicking on a directory, in the standard Nautilus file browser showed me all the files under that directory. I was easily able to copy files from and to the phone by highlighting the desired onesand then cutting and pasting to the appropriate locations. Highlighting the appropriate files and hitting the delete key easily accomplished removing files from the phone.  See figure #2 for a screen-shot of the picture files on my Motorola phone.

Pairing worked fine with the LG phone, but browsing failed with a "couldn't parse data" error message. I was not able to browse directories, copy or delete files using this method on the LG.  My daughter had a bunch of pictures and short videos on the phone and after searching on the Web, I found a couple of command-line tools that worked. 

First, I had to run the hcitool command to find out the LG phone's MAC address. The MAC address is six pairs of number separated by colons.

    rreilly> hcitool scan

After 30 seconds or so the MAC number will show up, so you may have to be a little patient.

Next, we need to find out what files are on the phone. You can use the obexftp command with the MAC address to do that job. Obviously, this MAC address is bogus.

    rreilly> obexftp -b 00:11:22:33:44:55 -c /Videos -l

This command will use the MAC address with the -b option, change directories on the phone to /Videos with the -c option, and list the files using the -l option. Obexftp has quite a number of options that you can use for various purposes.

Downloading files from the phone is pretty easy.  Use the -g option.

    rreilly> obexftp -b 00:11:22:33:44:55 -c /Videos -g 0909091823-01.3gp

This command sequence will download the 0909091823-01.3gp file from the /Videos directory to the netbook.

Between the Bluetooth applet icon menu items and the obexftp command line, you should be able to manipulate the files on your Bluetooth cell phone from your netbook. It isn't always pretty. I am questioning the convenience in some respects. I also don't have any other way to move files from my Motorola phone to my netbook, other than with Bluetooth. My daughter's modern LG phone has a mini-SD card, which may not be all that convenient considering you have to use an SD card adapter to insert the mini-SD into the Netbook card slot.

Roadblocks to Progress

Several situations might prevent using Bluetooth altogether when connecting a cell phone to a netbook.

Make sure Bluetooth has been enabled in the Netbook BIOS. Boot the machine and then press the F2 key to get to the BIOS setup screens. Select the Advanced menu item, and then choose the Onboard Devices Configuration menu item. Scroll down to the Onboard BlueTooth item; hit return; and then use the arrow key to Enable the device. Use F10 to save the settings and continue booting the netbook.

Another problem you might experience is when Bluetooth has not been enabled in the netbook's Eee PC tray.  Right click on the Eee PC icon, which looks like a little notebook and enable Bluetooth, if it is turned off.

If everything on the netbook seems to be configured correctly and you can't pair with the phone, see if the phone needs to announce its presence.  The LG worked without any adjustments. The Motorola acted a little more paranoid and made me scroll down through the menus to say, "find me".

I wanted to mention that there is a big speed difference between Bluetooth 1.0 and 2.0 radios. The netbook has a built-in 2.0 radio. I also tried using a cheap 1.0 USB adapter. A download of videos in the 7 MB range probably took ten minutes with the 1.0 adapter.  Downloading on the internal 2.0 radio took about four minutes. All the USB sockets on the netbook are 2.0 compliant, so I have to assume that the Bluetooth 1.0 adapter is just old and slow.

Lastly, I had some spotty pairing and sometimes could not see the Motorola phone. On occasion, I'd get an "obexftp server error" message and had to restart the phone and/or the Bluetooth server. I have not narrowed down a cause or a permanent solution and just wanted readers to be aware of this in case they ran into the condition.


Bluetooth works between the netbook and my cell phones. The process may not be as smooth as I'd like. In the case of the Motorola phone, I either use Bluetooth to copy files or not, since no other way exists to move files from or to the device. Phones with mini-SD cards or some type of cable don't necessarily need to use Bluetooth for transfers.

Give it a try with your phone and netbook. There is plenty of information on the Web about Bluetooth and Linux. 

Rob Reilly is a emerging technology consultant, writer, and portable computing expert.


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