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Bluetooth Technology 101

The Future Of Bluetooth

The phenomenal commercial success of Bluetooth means that neither the standard nor its inherent problems are going anywhere. Vendors will introduce support for a wider range of device classes, especially ones that feature Bluetooth 4.1 Low Energy, designed for the Internet of Things. Bluetooth 4.2 was released in 2014—Apple, Samsung, TI and everyone else is already using this latest iteration that allows for better privacy, speed and IPv6. From the vendor side, expect to see better power management, faster data rates and the possibility of a more advanced modulation schemes in high-end devices.

In terms of the standard itself, there are a number of challenges looming on the horizon for Bluetooth. Congestion in the 2.4GHz band is getting worse. Some of the interference is mitigated by Bluetooth’s adaptive frequency hopping capabilities, and Wi-Fi growth is mostly happening in the 5GHz band. But there should be more emphasis on cooperative interference mitigation strategies in the future. The responsibility (or framework required) to implement such strategies is currently in the vendors’ court, but we hope that eventually the standard will present some recommendations on how to standardize those approaches.

We interviewed Mark Powell, executive director of the SIG, and he believes that Bluetooth is the key to tying together the changes we're going to be seeing in wireless communications. Bluetooth is evolving and building up the strength of its low-energy modes—in February 2016, the SIG announced a new architecture and toolkit to enable “smart” Bluetooth functionality where IoT devices are connected over an Internet gateway. Then, in March 2016, the Bluetooth SIG announced the addition of a Transport Discovery Service (TDS), which provides a common framework for low-energy IoT devices.

Older data exchange applications for Bluetooth are coming under pressure from faster technologies like WiGig. But the SIG envisions Bluetooth as a key enabling technology for such applications. Under a cooperative scenario, Bluetooth could be used to page devices capable of WiGig and other high data-rate technologies, perhaps even controlling the wake/sleep state of those power-hungry radios and establish connections. The low power consumption and ubiquity of Bluetooth makes it ideal for enabling such an adaptive “only when needed” operation scenario for data transfer.

The growth of Bluetooth-enabled devices is accelerating, and 2016 promises another iteration of the specification. By lowering the modulation rate of the Bluetooth signal (and therefore its sensitivity to noise), the standard will improve the data rate and range of Class 2 and Class 3 devices. And, for the first time, we expect to see a large number of new network topologies—for instance, mesh networks and decentralized host-to-host networks directly accessing the WAN. This could lead to a complete shift in the kinds of applications, profiles and capabilities that Bluetooth addresses.

The Internet of Things is at the core of this paradigm shift—Bluetooth-equipped light bulbs, Bluetooth door locks, devices acting as relays without a “master”—devices capable of networked operation will hit the market in droves, and soon. Perhaps foreseeing the problem of Bluetooth devices without any capability for input (how do you enter a PIN into a light bulb?), the SIG’s newly released architecture and Bluetooth gateway services will enable the setup and control of these networks over the internet.

We anticipate smart-bulbs and smart appliances, and perhaps smartphone and Web-based apps for control, similar to the capabilities of smart Wi-Fi router apps. This does mean that, in certain cases, Bluetooth’s greatest security strength, the fact that attacks need to come from a physically proximal source, will be negated by direct access of Bluetooth-enabled devices to the Internet. The specification requires 128-bit AES encryption, but the responsibility for dealing with more involved security scenarios is probably going to remain at the application layer, and firmly on the shoulders of device vendors.

Bluetooth mesh network for low-power devices, courtesy of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group

Still, we believe that the most exciting developments in Bluetooth will come from the new network topologies. Mesh networking...mesh networking for everything! New topologies open up a vast array of possibilities for information sharing, research and data transport protocols. With a 400% increase in the range of Bluetooth Smart, and a 2.5x increase in data transfer speeds, with battery demands met by button cell batteries, 2016 and 2017 hold the possibility for new classes of end-products we have never seen before.

MORE: Wireless Routers 101
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Gene Fabron is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. Follow her on TwitterFollow us on FacebookGoogle+, RSS, Twitter and YouTube.

Gene Fabron is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He writes reference material across a range of components.
  • Faheemahmed125
    wow! all we need is bluetooth with hih range like wifi!!!
  • Fernando_engen
    Bluetooth is pretty much the future. I have just started developing Bluetooth Low Energy Services/profiles for specific use cases along with the application layer. Its an awesome new world.
  • YunFuriku
    Actually hearing aids with button cell batteries these days can use Bluetooth Smart or to be exact
    bastardized proprietary version of it by Apple and GN Resound which enables them to have wireless audio streaming from
    various devices with Bluetooth. Comes with expense of range naturally because hearing aids need to use low power version of it (1,5V doesn't give much choice on this )
    Max 10m in ideal conditions.
    Sadly, the audio stack they use is Apple Exclusive so direct connection is Apple devices only.
    Non-apple devices require intermediary devices such as TV streamer or Phone Clip to other Bluetooth Capable phones. These devices are relatively cheap compared
    to old FM tech hearing aids used to use where transmitter prices were measured in 0,5-2k range, about ~$200-300 at most.

    Unfortunate side is that if you want to use it with non-Apple phones you'll have to have intermediary device which serves as bluetooth handsfree mic/answer/volume
    buttons too beause of the audio stack which Apple won't license to others.
    At the same time Apple is pushing their made for iPhone hearing aid tech to FCC to be recognised as standard.
    Here's to hoping hardcore android fan like me won't have to buy iPhone as my next phone if this doesn't come to other phones directly because of silly audio stack :P
  • RIluske
    Is the graphic about memberships correct? I thought the article said the third tier was free to join, but the graphic has it costing the same amount as second tier.
  • zodiacfml
    I feel WiGig has a better future eventually. Bluetooth will be left to activation or turning on devices or IoT as already mentioned in the article.
  • DotNetMaster777
    Very useful article !! bluesniping can be done over one km away wow !?!?

    Are there any performance tests between wifi and bluetooth ??
  • exnemesis
    Just give me bluetooth tech that can allow me to walk away 40-50m from my phone and penetrate better through walls and objects and still retain the quality of whatever it is I'm listening to on my phone.
  • TripleHeinz
    This is the best article I've ever read in Tom's. Didn't have a clue that bluetooth was related with Thor the god of thundervolt ;)
  • Mpablo87
  • yasminpriya15
    Welcome to Bluetooth 101. Here are the top things you need to know about Bluetooth technology.

    My Bluetooth doesn’t work. What do I do?
    The Bluetooth SIG does not make, manufacture or build any Bluetooth products. We simply support our membership and help them to help make the best products on the market. The best way to solve your problem is to contact the manufacturer directly or start by researching solutions on the Internet.

    What is Bluetooth?
    Bluetooth is a global wireless communication standard that connects devices together over a certain distance. Think headset and phone, speaker and PC, basketball to smartphone and more. It is built into billions of products on the market today and connects the Internet of Things (IoT). If you haven’t heard of the IoT, go here.

    How does Bluetooth work?
    A Bluetooth device uses radio waves instead of wires or cables to connect to a phone or computer. A Bluetooth product, like a headset or watch, contains a tiny computer chip with a Bluetooth radio and software that makes it easy to connect. When two Bluetooth devices want to talk to each other, they need to pair. Communication between Bluetooth devices happens over short-range, ad hoc networks known as piconets. A piconet is a network of devices connected using Bluetooth technology. The network ranges from two to eight connected devices. When a network is established, one device takes the role of the master while all the other devices act as slaves. Piconets are established dynamically and automatically as Bluetooth devices enter and leave radio proximity. If you want a more technical explanation, you can read the core specification or visit the Wikipedia page for a deeper technical dive.

    Are there different kinds of Bluetooth?
    There are actually several “kinds”—different versions of the core specification—of Bluetooth. The most common today are Bluetooth BR/EDR (basic rate/enhanced data rate) and Bluetooth with low energy functionality. You will generally find BR/EDR in things like speakers and headsets while you will see Bluetooth Smart in the newest products on the market like fitness bands, beacons—small transmitters that send data over Bluletooth—and smart home devices.

    What can Bluetooth do?
    Bluetooth can wirelessly connect devices together. It can connect your headset to your phone, car or computer. It can connect your phone or computer to your speakers. Best of all? It can connect your lights, door locks, TV, shoes, basketballs, water bottles, toys—almost anything you can think of—to an app on your phone. Bluetooth takes it even further with connecting beacons to shoppers or travelers in airports or even attendees at sporting events. The future of Bluetooth is limited only to a developer’s imagination.

    What makes Bluetooth better than other technologies?
    The short answer is because Bluetooth is everywhere, it operates on low power, it is easy to use and it doesn’t cost a lot to use. Let’s explore these a bit more.

    Bluetooth is everywhere—you will find Bluetooth built into nearly every phone, laptop, desktop and tablet. This makes it so convenient to connect a keyboard, mouse, speakers or fitness band to your phone or computer.
    Bluetooth is low power—with the advent of Bluetooth Smart (BLE or Bluetooth low energy), developers were able to create smaller sensors that run off tiny coin-cell batteries for months, and in some cases, years. This is setting the stage for Bluetooth as a key component in the Internet of Things.
    Bluetooth is easy to use—for consumers, it really can’t get any easier. You go to settings, turn on your Bluetooth, hit the pairing button and wait for it start communicating. That’s it. From a development standpoint, creating a Bluetooth product starts with the core specification and then you layer profiles and services onto it. There are several tools that the SIG has to help developers.
    Bluetooth is low cost—you can add Bluetooth for a minimal cost. You will need to buy a module/system on chip (SoC)/etc. and pay an administrative fee to use the brand and license the technology. The administrative fee varies on the size of the company and there are programs to help startups.