What is Bluetooth and what is it most commonly used for?

Many of you reading this may remember the bad old days of making two gadgets talk to each other. Cell phones (not smartphones!) all had their own proprietary cables. Computers hadn’t yet embraced the Universal Serial Bus, so they also had a jumble of different connection standards. WiFi wasn’t a thing yet, though some phones had infrared connections.

These were slow, you had to match the two transmitters perfectly and they only worked at a range where the phones were almost touching! So thank goodness for Bluetooth! It’s a name you’ve no doubt heard, but not one that does much to explain what it actually is.

Okay, what is Bluetooth?

As you may have inferred from the opening paragraph, Bluetooth is a wireless digital communication technology. It allows two Bluetooth-equipped devices to connect and exchange data over radio waves.

What kind of data? Well, that’s up to the developers of each device. It can stream video, audio, files or anything else. If possible with the available bandwidth.

Bluetooth is designed to allow devices to quickly form their own small wireless network without additional infrastructure, such as a router. While it was a bit difficult with early versions of the technology, today it is virtually flawless in everyday use, with a high degree of reliability and a low level of technical difficulty to operate.

It is also important to understand that Bluetooth is a different technology from Wi-Fi or cellular technologies such as LTE. Bluetooth can only be used to communicate with other Bluetooth technology.

What’s with the weird name?

The name “Bluetooth” is admittedly weird if you don’t know the story behind it. It is named after the Danish king Harald Bluetooth† In fact, the Bluetooth symbol is actually Harald’s initials!

King Harald is known for uniting different Danish tribes, which is what the inventors of Bluetooth were trying to achieve. OK, even if you know the story behind the name, it’s still kinda weird, but the name stuck, so it’s a moot point.

Bluetooth versions

There are five main versions of Bluetooth, starting with 1.0. Most new devices have an iteration of Bluetooth 4 at the time of writing, but here’s the full 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 a fair amount of backwards compatibility. You can expect anything with Bluetooth 2.1 or newer to still play with something else of the same vintage. It is highly unlikely that older devices using these early versions of Bluetooth are still in working order.

It is not particularly important for you to know the specific improvements that each version of Bluetooth technology brings. In general, each new version of Bluetooth brings faster speeds, longer range and better energy efficiency. Of course, when versions are mixed, they can only operate at the maximum capacity of the lowest common denominator.

If at all possible, you should buy a device with the latest version of Bluetooth at the time, but it’s not that important that you give up something like a nicer screen or a faster processor for a small improvement in Bluetooth performance!

Devices with Bluetooth

So where can you expect Bluetooth? Almost every modern smartphone, tablet and laptop has built-in Bluetooth. You can also expect it in many modern desktop motherboards, although Bluetooth is not that common on desktop platforms. Fortunately, you can easily add a Bluetooth USB receiver to almost any computer.

Aside from the usual suspects mentioned above, Bluetooth can also be found in plenty of peripherals. Keyboards, mice, headphones, and speakers are common. That means many things that you would traditionally connect to a computer with a cable are now wireless.

For example, if you want to connect a keyboard and mouse to an Android TV, Bluetooth is the most convenient way to do it.

Bluetooth is also a big part of the “Internet of Things” revolution, with many items and devices getting an internet connection to make it more useful. For example, digital scales and blood glucose meters now often have built-in Bluetooth so they can send data to a smartphone app, making it easy to share information with your doctor or monitor your health.

Likewise, you may find that devices such as refrigerators and ovens have Bluetooth connections so that you can control or otherwise interact with them using a smartphone app.

What is Bluetooth used for?

Probably the most common use for Bluetooth is wireless audio. Many modern car stereos come with 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 support Bluetooth. It is also possible to send files from, for example, your smartphone to your laptop via Bluetooth file transfer.

However, Bluetooth is not suitable for connecting devices at great distances or at very high speeds. So you won’t find wireless displays that use the technology. Likewise, when casting videos from smartphones, Wi-Fi is often used. Traditionally, WiFi requires a router, but new technologies such as WiFi Direct are an alternative to Bluetooth.

How do I use Bluetooth?

Connecting two devices via Bluetooth is generally a pretty painless affair. The host device, such as a smartphone, scans the environment for Bluetooth devices that are ready to “pair”. Usually, you need to put devices such as Bluetooth headphones, speakers, or keyboards into “pairing mode” so that host devices know that they can connect.

The method of putting a device into pairing mode varies by device. This usually involves holding down a button on the device for a certain amount of time. Once it is in pairing mode, just select it from the list on the host device and the process should be complete.

In some cases, the device requires a passcode to complete the pairing process. Usually, the access code is printed on the inside of the battery compartment of the peripheral, in the manual or on a sticker. In almost all cases, you will be prompted for the passcode on the host device.

Exceptions are devices such as the Apple Magic Keyboard, where the passcode is actually entered on the keyboard, but displayed on the host device.

Bluetooth Restrictions

Modern Bluetooth is pretty amazing. It is reliable, with a decent range and simple operation. It’s not perfect though! Bluetooth is sensitive to certain kinds of inferences.

Modern Bluetooth uses advanced frequency hopping to avoid interference, but having a lot of BT devices around limits your options. WiFi, microwave ovens, and other devices that also emit radio waves in the 2.4 GHz range can cause problems.

In many cases, Bluetooth can have latency. This is especially evident when using Bluetooth headphones to watch video. You get that “kung-fu” effect where the word and mouth movements are not quite in sync. There are dedicated Bluetooth headphones, such as the Apple AirPods, that are designed to minimize this. You also get special “low latency” Bluetooth receivers for televisions that do the same thing.

Despite these limitations, Bluetooth is taking over as the standard connection technology. It is one of the main reasons why phones lose their headphone jacks. The future is clearly wireless, and it’s glorious.

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