With Bluetooth 5 gaining traction and more manufacturers adopting the standard, you’re probably asking yourself what it is and how it affects you. Luckily, we’ve swotted up on the wireless standard. Here’s what you need to know
The slogan for Bluetooth 5 is ‘go further, go faster’. While that sounds like the tagline for MCU film Captain Marvel, the fifth iteration of the Bluetooth protocol aims to supercharge the connection between devices.
But before we get started, what exactly is Bluetooth?
What is Bluetooth?
Bluetooth is a wireless connection standard that allows for the exchange of data over short distances. It’s named after the 10th-century Danish king Harald Bluetooth, who united Denmark’s tribes into a single kingdom.
The actual technology was brought into being at Ericsson in the early nineties, but it wasn’t until 1998 that the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (Bluetooth SIG) was established by Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Toshiba and Nokia. 1999 was the year it became standardised.
Since then, the Bluetooth SIG has grown to include some 25,000 member companies and has overseen the progress of Bluetooth ever since.
Before the most recent update, the last major version of the standard was all the way back in 2011 with Bluetooth 4.0. The last iterative update to that version was Bluetooth 4.2 in December 2014. With the introduction of Bluetooth 5, it offers improvements well beyond what previous standards were capable of.
What is Bluetooth 5?
Research conducted into how we use devices forecasted that by 2021/22 there will be 48 billion devices connected to the Internet. Of those devices, 30% are expected to include Bluetooth technology, which we can safely say is a lot.
That huge number calls for a wireless standard that can connect devices quickly and efficiently without gumming up the works. Step forward Bluetooth 5.
The standard was released back in 2016 and its presence has been steadily growing ever since. Bluetooth 5 offers significant improvements over what came before with 2x the speed, 4x the range and 8x the amount of transferable data.
That expansion of Bluetooth’s capabilities has the potential to change how products interact with each other, and in turn, with us.
What can Bluetooth 5 do?
Bluetooth 5 has been developed not only with current technical standards in mind, but the end user too.
For instance, if people used Bluetooth to download security patches, while the rapid transfer of data is useful in a technical sense, it also works in saving the user time. A slower connection could cause the user to either give up or alert them that something went awry, when in fact there’s nothing wrong other than it’s a slow connection.
Data is passed between devices more often than ever before (e.g. smartwatch to a smartphone) and so Bluetooth 5 needs to handle data accrued over an extended period of time. With the increase in the amount of data it can handle, that means more data can be transferred.
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And with the range increased, data can be sent over longer distances without data lost or errors. Devices can be further away (say 800ft) and still maintain connectivity. This has been done without increasing power usage, with Bluetooth 5 less power-hungry than classic versions of Bluetooth, saving battery life as a result.
Other improvements include better detection of Wi-Fi and LTE connections, avoiding possible interference for a smoother connection. It’s a welcome feature considering the sea of wireless connections we’re currently submerged in now that 5G has turned up.
Perhaps most excitingly, Bluetooth 5 has enough bandwidth at 2Mbps – double that of Bluetooth 4.2 – to support two sets of wireless devices at the same time.
You could have speakers in different rooms playing music from one device, switch the volume on speakers independently of each other or have the ability to listen to music on two sets of headphones without having to share a bud with your friend (as romantic as that can be).
All that said, these upgrades are optional and it’s up to the manufacturer to decide whether to include them.
And while Bluetooth 5 is backwards compatible with older versions, other devices need to support it otherwise you won’t get any of the advantages mentioned above. So while a smartphone using Bluetooth 5 can talk to a wireless speaker that uses Bluetooth 4.2, you won’t get the benefits of better speeds or increased range.
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Bluetooth 5: The Age of IoT
Bluetooth 4.2 added features to help grease the wheels with the ‘Internet of Things’, and Bluetooth 5 places this type of functionality front and centre.
Its extra range means that it can work in a similar fashion as Wi-Fi does in the home. As Mark Powell, executive director of the Bluetooth SIG explains: “increasing operation range will enable connections to IoT devices that extend far beyond the walls of a typical home.”
The added capacity helps more smart household devices talk to each other, but the increase in broadcast capacity means it can communicate much more easily too.
And the speed, of course, should help matters. That data can be transferred that bit faster means devices spend less time interacting with each other, therefore reducing power consumption. In that sense, the use of Bluetooth 5 is a win-win-win for IoT devices.
Powell adds: “Bluetooth will be in more than one-third of all installed IoT devices by 2020. The drive and innovation of Bluetooth will ensure our technology continues to be the IoT solution of choice for all developers.”
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Bluetooth 5 products
We’ve seen a number of products include Bluetooth 5 in their specifications, and expect the rate of adoption to increase as need for it grows.
For smartphones, Samsung has implemented Bluetooth 5 into several of its devices. 2017’s Galaxy S8 was the first smartphone to feature it and that was followed by the S8 Plus and Note 8. With appearances in the Galaxy S9 and S10 ranges, it’s become a standard feature in Samsung’s premium smartphone lineup, with the Dual Audio feature only possible because of Bluetooth 5.
And they’re not the only smartphones that carry it. Apple has jumped in on the fun with its iPhone 8, 8 Plus and XR smartphones. Chinese smartphone manufacturer OnePlus has plugged it into its 6, 6T, 7 and 7 Pro phones, as has Huawei’s P30 Pro, although recent news has thrown up a few roadblocks with that manufacturer.
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We’re seeing it crop up in wireless speakers with Marshall’s Kilburn II, Stanmore II, Stockwell II and Tufton including it. The Apple HomePod has Bluetooth 5 listed in its features, but does not use it for streaming audio.
It’s also infiltrating headphones, though progress is slower and the majority of them are of the true wireless variety. Cambridge Audio’s new Melomania 1 true wireless earbuds are compatible, as are Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless and Apple’s 2019 revision of its AirPods.
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Bluetooth 5 boosts location services
Bluetooth 5 isn’t just about being faster and going further than before, it also helps facilitate additional location-based functionality. In particular, it can boost the uptake of Beacon technology for improved indoor navigation in areas such as shopping centres.
That’s thanks to Bluetooth 5 adding “significantly more capacity to advertising transmission”, conveying more information to other compatible devices without having to form an actual connection.
Previous Bluetooth standards did this to notify you about the name and nature of other open Bluetooth networks, but Bluetooth 5 can do much more with it. As the Bluetooth SIG puts it: “with the major boost in broadcast messaging capacity, the data being transferred will be richer, more intelligent.”
Bluetooth 5 also adds location and navigation functionality, allowing Beacons to transmit custom information without connection and application barriers. In other words, you won’t need to install an app or go through connection set-ups to receive specific location-based information from Bluetooth Beacons.
What does the future of Bluetooth 5 look like?
Bluetooth is constantly evolving and the latest update, Bluetooth 5.1, has been available to developers since January 2019.
Location services, specifically Bluetooth’s “direction finding” capabilities is the focus here. When engaged, devices can be used to track another to the nearest centimetre. More accurate tracking, especially indoors, could mean even more widespread use of Bluetooth products than previously thought of.