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What is Bluetooth?

03 August 2020

Make wirelessly connecting to your devices easy with our guide to using Bluetooth.

Smartphone resting on a table
Bluetooth is used by a range of devices, including smartphones

Fed up fighting a spaghetti-like tangle of cables strung between your devices, or having to hunt down a specific cable to connect one device to another? 

Bluetooth can banish cables when connecting digital devices, providing easy and instant connections between mobile phones, audio equipment, TVs and computers.

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What is Bluetooth?

Bluetooth is a wireless technology that easily connects together devices over short distances of up to 10m. 

First launched in 1999, Bluetooth uses low-power radio waves to transfer data between devices – such as photos between a mobile phone and a computer – without stringing a cable between the two devices. 

You might remember Bluetooth being referred to as 'hands-free' in the early days, due to the popularity of the technology in earpieces for speaking on phones while driving or walking, but the use has massively expanded in recent years and now most modern digital devices include Bluetooth as standard, although it might not automatically be switched on.

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How does Bluetooth work?

Bluetooth uses low powered radio waves to connect with devices in the immediate vicinity, usually up 10m (33ft) on most devices sold for home use. They use 79 different bands so once two Bluetooth devices are 'paired' they stay on the same frequency as each other, although the frequency is constantly changing as a safety precaution. Because of the range of frequencies you can have multiple devices connected each using a different band so they don't interfere with each other. If you leave your Bluetooth on you will also find they can repair automatically once you come back in range.

What devices use Bluetooth?

Bluetooth is used by computers, laptops, tablets, printers, digital cameras, TVs, speakers, car music systems and smartphones. 

After an initial set-up – called ‘pairing’ – Bluetooth connects devices automatically when they’re in range of each other. For example, the Apple Watch connects via Bluetooth to the Apple iPhone, allowing the watch to display information such as text messages and email received by the iPhone.

If you're listening to music or audiobooks on your mobile phone and have a Bluetooth compatible stereo system you can simply pair them up for the sound to come through your stereo, for example. This can be very useful if you want to listen to music while you're moving around the house and have paired your phone or stereo with some Bluetooth headphones, or if you want to listen to music outdoors or in the shower (waterproof Bluetooth speakers are readily available).

What's the difference between Bluetooth and WiFi?

Bluetooth and WiFi are both ways of sending information wirelessly but that's really where the similarity ends. Bluetooth does not download information from the internet directly, although it can do so via a WiFi or cellular connected device, and is primarily used for wirelessly connecting gadgets like speakers, headphones, keyboard and mice. You don't need a WiFi connection if you're not using any web based data, such as if you're watching a film on a local drive or playing music from a CD, but you will if you're streaming from Spotify, Netflix or similar.

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Should I use Bluetooth?

If you’ve lots of digital devices, Bluetooth lets you get the best from them. For example, you can connect your smartphone via Bluetooth to a TV soundbar or portable speaker and play music from your phone.

You may be using Bluetooth already. For example, if you’ve a hands-free kit in your car, it uses Bluetooth to wirelessly send and receive sound to and from your mobile phone to the ear piece.

It is also used to wirelessly control devices, such as computer mice and keyboards, which use Bluetooth to connect to a computer.

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How do I use Bluetooth?

While setting up Bluetooth differs between devices, you’ll need to initially pair one device with another. 

Typically, this means:

  • Turn on Bluetooth – on an iPhone, for example, tap Settings > Bluetooth and toggle Bluetooth on. On an Android phone go to Settings> Connected devices and either scan for Bluetooth to pair with or go to Connected Devices and see what is already paired. On other devices, you might simply have to push a button on the device itself to start the pairing process. The Bluetooth button looks like a runic X and B combined.

  • Scan for Bluetooth devices – from the list of Bluetooth devices, choose the device you’d like to connect to.

  • Enter Bluetooth code – some devices may show a code that you’ll need to enter on the other device, such as a PC, to confirm the connection.

Is Bluetooth safe to use?

Only connect to Bluetooth devices you own and use, and turn off Bluetooth when out and about, and not in use. Turning off Bluetooth when not in use will also help conserve battery power.

As Bluetooth can be used to transmit data and files, ensure any Bluetooth connection you use to transmit data is one you trust. If in doubt, use another method.

Most Bluetooth connections are limited to a single role, such as transmitting audio from one device to a set of wireless speakers, which limits any potential dangers.

What’s the future of Bluetooth?

Early versions of Bluetooth drained battery power and were fiddly to set up. The latest versions of Bluetooth use less power and are simpler to set-up, making wireless connections between your devices at home simple and faster.

Who invented Bluetooth?

The invention of Bluetooth was a group effort spearheaded by Nils Rydbeck, CTO at Ericsson Mobile, in 1989. The task was to develop a short-link radio technology to be used on wireless headsets. The team assigned the project consisted of Tord Wingren, Jaap Haartsen and Sven Mattisson, with Örjan Johansson becoming project lead in 1997.

When did Bluetooth first come out?

The first Bluetooth device, a hands-free earpiece, was released to the public in 1999, with the first Bluetooth mobile phone (an Ericsson T39) available to the public in 2001. During the early years of Bluetooth devices struggled to handle the power needed, but it's fair to say Bluetooth has well and truly become ubiquitous, perhaps largely thanks to Ericsson and development partner IBM making the technology an open industry standard.

Why is it called 'Bluetooth'?

The name 'Bluetooth' is actually derived from Harald 'Bluetooth Gormsson, a 10th Century king of Denmark and Norway, and the logo is made up of his runic initials  H (ᚼ) and B (ᛒ). It was named after him because King Harald I united the tribes of Denmark, while Bluetooth is a way of uniting devices.

Can you use Bluetooth on a plane?

As we all know, you have to be very careful using your mobile phone on a plane, and always put it in flight mode when instructed to do so. So what about Bluetooth headphones or keyboards? Bluetooth is short range and does not interfere with a plane's electronics so some airlines allow it, although the use might be restricted, for example currently British Airways, EasyJet and Virgin allow Bluetooth as long as it is switched off during take-off, taxi and landing and your device is kept on flight mode. The best thing to do is to check with your individual airline for up-to-date information before you travel, and if you have any doubts ask the cabin crew and follow their instructions.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.