The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (or SIG) announced a new version of the wireless standard in June 2016. Since then, more and more devices have been released that support the new protocol, like Samsung’s Galaxy 8 smartphone, which launched with Bluetooth 5.0 support in April 2017. Bluetooth 5.0 has many advantages and benefits over the old 4.2 standard, with features geared toward the continually emerging Internet of Things, the shorthand name that encompasses the plethora of devices, smart home appliances, and vehicles that support the new technology.
There are some features that have yet to see wide deployment, like Bluetooth 5.0’s broadcast without connection ability, and others that most casual users are not that likely to notice or draw direct benefit from (at least not yet).
What Is Bluetooth 5.0?
The Bluetooth protocol was invented by the Swedish telecommunications and networking company Ericsson over twenty years ago. It’s now perhaps the most widely utilized networking protocol used to connect two or more devices—in practice, eight devices—that are within about thirty feet of each other, through walls and other obstacles.
It hasn’t edged out Wi-Fi for generally connectivity, but the protocol was never intended to do that. It’s in every smartphone, many vehicles, and in an ever-growing assortment of gadgets and devices from lightbulbs to door locks.
What's Changed since Bluetooth 4.2?
The last major version of Bluetooth was 4.0, released in 2011 and followed up by a new version, 4.2, in 2014. Prior to the announcement of version 5.0, there was only one major iteration (Bluetooth v4.2) in 2014. The newer Bluetooth 5.0 is the specification agreed upon by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, a consortium of over thirty thousand different companies, all of whom rely on the common standard.
Without a common standard, Bluetooth 5.0 and earlier devices wouldn’t be universally compatible, which defeats the purpose of the protocol entirely. The common standard ensures that B5.0 devices can talk to each other and earlier Bluetooth 4.x devices more easily than ever before. Version 5.0 improves almost every aspect of the protocol, most notably increased range, faster transfer speed, lowered power consumption, and markedly increased bandwidth improvements.
Has Much Longer Range
The biggest and most noticeable improvement in the new version is its range. It’s also arguably the new version’s most useful feature, increasing the working range of Bluetooth connections dramatically. Anyone who has used earlier Bluetooth devices is familiar with the old range limitation of about thirty feet, sometimes less, between connected devices.
This could sometimes mean a loss of connection between devices, such as a smartphone sending audio to wireless speakers. If you moved out of range, the signal would drop and the speakers would go silent, a problem exacerbated by too many solid obstacles, especially metallic ones, that could block the low power radio transmissions. The distance two or more devices can maintain contact is increased to a theoretical range of nearly one thousand feet, which is impressive (if not quite accurate).
That range is likely only possible in ideal conditions—with no obstructing walls and a direct line of sight between connected devices. The early 4.2 standard had a theoretical range of seventy-five meters, but that was also under perfect conditions and with no interfering obstacles. Of course, what works in ideal or theoretical conditions doesn’t translate to actual, real-world application, but the range boost is still remarkable.
The previous standard’s claim of 75 meters, or around two hundred and fifty feet, was something that few users were able to replicate. The actual range of 4.2 devices was much smaller than that, functionally about thirty to forty feet, less with solid walls and other obstacles between devices. With that in mind, that thousand-foot ideal should be considered a maximum possible range, with an actual operating range that falls somewhere short of that under normal working conditions in the real world.
Still, it is a massive improvement and not one to be dismissed or downplayed. While a thousand-foot range would be a great change to the protocol, even half of that is a vast improvement over the earlier 4.2 range standard. It isn’t terribly likely that most users will need to connect two or more Bluetooth 5.0 devices at such a great distance, but there are practical uses for the boosted signal.
The increased range of 5.0 devices should be sufficient for most applications, including the increasingly varied and diverse range of smart home appliances, various smaller smart devices, wearables, and home accessories like smart, color-changing, dimmable lightbulbs. Until recently, the most common use of Bluetooth was playing music over wireless speakers from a smartphone or tablet, but the new standard promises to provide many more opportunities to use Bluetooth connectivity for a variety of purposes.
Bluetooth 5.0 Has Twice the Transfer Speed
With more and more wearable devices and a greater array of smart gadgets, Bluetooth transfer speeds are increasingly important and something that every user will be able to benefit from. Bluetooth 4.2 supported a maximum speed of 1 Mbps, which could get painful when transferring large files over Bluetooth, say from a smartphone to a PC or printer.
Bluetooth 5.0 doubles that speed, which will make updating and transferring data much faster. While the older standard was perfectly acceptable for playing music over wireless speakers, more and more people are finding the need to transfer larger files—especially photos and video—over Bluetooth. With Bluetooth 5.0, sending pictures to a Bluetooth enabled digital picture frame or transferring video from your smartphone or camera-equipped smart watch will be much less of an ordeal.
Bluetooth 5.0 Uses Much Less Power
Bluetooth has been energy-efficient for a while now, starting with the introduction of the Bluetooth Low Energy Module, also known as Bluetooth Smart. With transmissions using less than 1 milliwatt, the idea that Bluetooth saps your phone’s battery life is a bit of a myth. That said, Bluetooth 5.0 drastically improves power usage, now using two-and-a-half times less power than Bluetooth 4.2.
That’s an incredible improvement and one that the engineers behind the new standard must be very proud of. Though both connected devices will be required to use Bluetooth Smart to see this increase in efficiency, nearly every gadget and device now uses this standard by default, so the gains should be nearly universal.
Bluetooth 5.0 Transfers More Data than Before
This is one improvement that most users may still not have noticed outright, but which promises to bring future usability and versatility to Bluetooth 5.0 enabled devices. Though this feature still isn’t widely used yet, it’s an interesting and promising change that is sure to be adopted by more and more software developers and end users. Bluetooth 5.0 has increased data transfer bandwidth, which can be used to passively receive information. Bluetooth 5.0 utilizes a new feature called connection-less broadcasting”. This would enable passive tasks like downloading a mall directory or restaurant menu.
Though this hasn’t seen widespread use, there are applications like Google’s Nearby app that make use of it. You don’t need to connect to a Bluetooth beacon in order to receive information from it, and the security of your device is in no way affected by this feature. Previously, Bluetooth 4.2 would only allow advertisers or other beacon services to send 31 bytes of data, which was restrictive. The new standard increases that data bandwidth to 255 bytes, which allows much more leeway in transmitting useful location-specific information.
A statement released by the Bluetooth SIG regarding this change used the examples of airport navigation, emergency response data, and warehouse asset tracking. While this passive reception of information is safe, it could theoretically be hijacked by malicious software, but this would still require user interaction to activate. If you’re not sure of the source of a transmission, don’t tap any links and your device will remain safe.
Bluetooth 5.0 is backward compatible, so existing 4.2 devices will not be adversely affected. However to use the new features of 5.0, each connected device will have to be using the protocol. Existing 4.2 hardware can’t be upgraded, but more and more devices are coming with 5.0 standard.
To recap, Bluetooth 5.0 brings increased functionality and ease of use to the innovative protocol. Using Bluetooth 5.0, you will be able to connect to devices at much longer ranges. Smart appliances, wireless speakers, lightbulbs, etc. will be able to communicate faster and more easily. Transferring larger amounts of data between devices becomes much faster and easier as well—a great feature for wearable devices.
You can leave Bluetooth enabled on your devices without having to worry about battery life. The Bluetooth SIG made great changes and needed improvements to the protocol, and Bluetooth 5.0 and the devices that run the protocol are more numerous and popular than ever. The lower power consumption and markedly increased range are benefits that all Bluetooth 5.0 users are sure to appreciate, and some of the other, slightly more esoteric improvements promise to see increase use in years to come.