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What Is Bluetooth?

Tech Talker answers a listener question about bluetooth.

By
Eric Escobar
3-minute read
Episode #211

This week, a listener named Tina wrote in to ask me, "What exactly is bluetooth?" I thought this was a great question, and I couldn't believe I hadn't already answered it on my show. So, without further ado ... 

What Does Bluetooth Do?

You’ve probably seen Bluetooth advertised on almost every smartphone and most small electronics. This is because Bluetooth is a form of wireless communication made specifically for close range, low power communication. You’ll see Bluetooth in wireless headsets, cameras, fitness trackers, smart watches, laptops, and most small electronic items. Bluetooth is very similar to WiFi in that it allows devices to communicate with one another. However, Bluetooth is meant for devices where battery life is more important than high data transfer speeds.

For example, say you have a FitBit, the amount of data it has to send to your phone about steps taken is extremely small, which means you could send it slowly via Bluetooth and the time to transfer would be instant because there is so little data. Bluetooth also has the benefit of being incredibly energy efficient, which means devices use very little power transmitting and receiving information and can last much longer without needing a charge.

Why Is It Called That?

One of the most interesting things about Bluetooth, though, is how it arrived at its name. Way back in the 1990’s, an Intel Engineer (Jim Kardach) was working on creating Bluetooth as a standard technology that could be used by everyone. This would be a united way different devices and companies could build wireless devices that talked to one another.

As he was working on Bluetooth, he was also reading about the second king of Denmark, who unified Scandinavia all the way back in the 10th century. The king’s name was Harold Bluetooth. Kardach originally used Bluetooth as a just a name to refer to the project, but it became extremely popular in the news and somehow it stuck. What’s even more interesting is if you ever look at the symbol for Bluetooth (It looks like a jagged capitol B in a round blue circle), those are actually the kings initials in Scandinavian runes.

What Are the Specs?

Bluetooth is not very fast and doesn’t have a very long range. You can communicate with other Bluetooth devices about 25 ft away if they have an unobstructed view of one another, and at max transfer speeds, you can see about 25 MBs per second, which pales in comparison to something like WiFi, which has speeds of 1900 Mbs+. However, like I mentioned before, they were designed for different purposes.

The newest version of Bluetooth is actually so energy efficient that device manufacturers have been creating devices that can gather small amounts of energy from the environment in order to generate power. For example, there are some watches and pedometers (step trackers) that are actually being powered by the movement of the person wearing them.

The Beacon

The Bluetooth beacon has been extremely slow to gain popularity, but has some pretty cool features. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of a Bluetooth beacon because their use has been pretty limited. Basically a Bluetooth beacon is a way of communicating with your device with special apps. Say for example you have the Target store app, there might be a Beacon on a sales rack in Target, as your phone goes by the rack the app gets a message from the Beacon saying, “Hey, look at this great sale just for you.”

Special apps make use of these beacons for close range communication that is location-based. There has also been progress in using these Beacons for maps of large indoor facilities like malls and stadiums, where GPS may not be really accurate. The Beacons would be little pin points to help get a much more accurate location of where you are, which could then guide you to the nearest hotdog stand. As of right now this hasn’t really seen widespread use but who knows you might see more of it later on!

File Transfer

Bluetooth is also used for file transfers (if you’ve ever used AirDrop on an Apple product). It’s great for sharing videos and files device to device. Unfortunately, it’s an Apple technology that can only be used between Apple devices. The answer to this was for a completely different type of technology called WiFi direct to be used, which connected devices over WiFi. There’s a bit of a battle between Bluetooth 4.0 and WiFi direct about file transfer, but once a large player like Google, Samsung, or Apple embrace one of these technologies, the industry will likely move in that direction.

Be sure to check out all my earlier episodes at techtalker.quickanddirtytips.com. And if you have further questions about this podcast or want to make a suggestion for a future episode, post them on Facebook.com/QDTtechtalker.

Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker, keeping technology simple!

About the Author

Eric Escobar

Tech Talker demystifies technology and cutting edge devices so that even the most tech illiterate can understand what's going on with their computer or gadget — and what to do when something goes wrong.

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