Many of you reading this may remember the bad old days when any two gadgets talked to each other. All cell phones (not smartphones!) Had their own proprietary cables. Computers had not yet adopted the universal serial bus, so they too had a variety of different connectivity standards. Wi-Fi didn’t exist yet, although some phones had infrared connections.
They were slow, you needed to align the two emitters perfectly, and they only worked in range when the phones were practically touching! So thank goodness for Bluetooth! This is a name that you have no doubt heard, but not a name that can explain a lot of what it really is.
Well, what is bluetooth?
As you can see from the first paragraph, Bluetooth is a wireless digital communication technology. It allows two Bluetooth devices to connect to each other and exchange data using radio waves.
What data? Well, it depends on the developers of each device. It can be streaming video, audio, files, or something else. If possible with available bandwidth.
Bluetooth is designed so that devices can quickly create their own small wireless networks without additional infrastructure like a router. While the earlier versions of the technology were a bit rough, these days it is nearly flawless in day-to-day use, with a high level of reliability and a low level of operational complexity.
It’s also important to understand that Bluetooth is a separate technology from Wi-Fi or cellular technologies such as LTE. Bluetooth can only be used to communicate with another Bluetooth technology.
What’s with the strange name?
The name “Bluetooth”, admittedly, can sound strange if you don’t know what is behind it. It is named after the Danish king Harald Bluetooth. In fact, the Bluetooth symbol is Harald’s initials!
King Harald is known for uniting various Danish tribes, which is what the inventors of Bluetooth were trying to achieve. Okay, even if you know the story behind the title, it’s anyway a little weird, but the title stuck, so it’s a moot point.
There are five major versions of Bluetooth, starting with 1.0. At the time of this writing, most new devices have some version of Bluetooth 4, but here is the complete list of versions:
- Bluetooth 1.0 and 1.0B
- Bluetooth 1.1
- Bluetooth 1.2
- Bluetooth 2.0 + Enhanced Data Rate (EDR)
- Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
- Bluetooth 3.0 + HS (High Speed)
- Bluetooth 4.0
- Bluetooth 4.1
- Bluetooth 4.2
- Bluetooth 5.0
Bluetooth has sufficient backward compatibility. You can expect anything with Bluetooth 2.1 or newer to still play ball with anything else from the same release year. It is unlikely that older devices using these early versions of Bluetooth are still in working order.
It is not particularly important for you to know what improvements each version of Bluetooth technology brings. Overall, each new version of Bluetooth delivers faster speed, longer range, and better energy efficiency. Of course, when versions are mixed, they can only operate at the maximum power of the lowest common denominator.
If at all possible, you should buy a device using the latest Bluetooth version at the time, but it’s not so important that you ditch something like a nicer screen or faster processor for a slight boost in Bluetooth performance!
So where can you find Bluetooth? Almost every modern smartphone, tablet and laptop has built-in Bluetooth. You can also expect to find it in many modern desktop motherboards, although Bluetooth is not as common on desktop platforms. Fortunately, you can easily add a Bluetooth USB receiver to just about any computer.
Apart from the usual suspects mentioned above, Bluetooth is also found in many peripherals. Keyboards, mice, headphones and speakers are commonplace. This means that many things that you used to connect to your computer with a cable are now wireless.
For example, if you want to connect your keyboard and mouse to your Android TV, Bluetooth is the most convenient way to do this.
Bluetooth is also an important part of the Internet of Things revolution, where many items and devices are able to connect to the Internet to make them more useful. For example, digital scales and blood glucose meters now often come with built-in Bluetooth so that they can send data to a smartphone app, making it easier to share information with your doctor or track your health.
Likewise, you can see that household appliances such as refrigerators and ovens have a Bluetooth connection so that you can control or otherwise operate them using a smartphone app.
What is the benefit of Bluetooth?
Most often, Bluetooth is used for wireless audio. Many modern car stereos support Bluetooth, Smart TVs with Bluetooth can connect to Bluetooth headphones and of course, Bluetooth speakers are incredibly popular.
As mentioned above, peripherals such as mice and keyboards can also have Bluetooth. You can also send files, for example, from a smartphone to a laptop using Bluetooth file transfer.
However, Bluetooth is not suitable for connecting devices over long distances or at very high speeds. As such, you won’t find any wireless displays using this technology. Likewise, Wi-Fi is commonly used to stream video from smartphones. Traditionally, Wi-Fi requires a router, but new technologies like WiFi Direct are the alternative to Bluetooth.
How do I use Bluetooth?
Pairing two devices via Bluetooth is generally pretty painless. A host device, such as a smartphone, scans the area for Bluetooth devices ready to be “paired”. Typically, you will need to put devices such as Bluetooth headphones, speakers, or keyboards into “pairing mode” so that the host devices know that they are open for connection.
How you put your device into pairing mode depends on the device. This usually requires holding the button on the device for a certain amount of time. When it is in pairing mode, you simply select it from the list on the main device and the process should be complete.
In some cases, the device will need a password to complete the pairing process. Typically, the password is printed on the inside of the battery compartment of the peripheral device, in the manual or on a sticker. You will be prompted for a password on the host device in almost all cases.
The exception is devices such as the Apple Magic Keyboard, where the password is actually entered from the keyboard, but displayed on the host device.
Modern Bluetooth is simply amazing. It is reliable, has a decent range and is easy to operate. However, this is not ideal! Bluetooth is sensitive to certain pins.
Modern Bluetooth uses sophisticated frequency hopping to avoid interference, but if there are many BT devices around, this limits the possibilities. Wi-Fi, microwave ovens, and other devices that also emit radio waves in the 2.4 GHz band can cause problems.
In many cases, Bluetooth can have a delay. This is especially noticeable when using Bluetooth headphones to watch video. You get a “kung fu” effect when words and mouth movements are not perfectly synchronized. There are dedicated Bluetooth headphones such as Apple AirPods that are designed to minimize this. You also get dedicated low latency Bluetooth TV receivers that do the same.
Despite these limitations, Bluetooth is becoming the standard connection technology. This is one of the main reasons why phones are losing headphone jacks. Clearly, the future is with wireless, and it’s great.