Over the next year, we’re going to start seeing devices with Bluetooth connections that are faster and work over much longer ranges than what can currently be achieved.
That should all happen thanks to the changes in Bluetooth 5, a new standard that’s launching today. Companies are now able to begin building and certifying devices that work with Bluetooth 5, the first round of which are expected to begin rolling out in the next two to six months and could include major products by the end of the year.
The details of Bluetooth 5 largely haven’t changed since they were first announced earlier this year. When in its common low-energy format, Bluetooth connections should be able to reach up to twice the speeds and up to four times the distance of what they can today, according to Bluetooth SIG, the special interest group that oversees the standard.
What Bluetooth 5 devices will reach in real-world use remains to be seen. But even modest gains to both speed and range would improve two of the standard’s biggest shortcomings: it’s notoriously slow for transferring data, and it’s not very good at staying connected to devices more than a room away. That’s a problem for Bluetooth, especially as more and more connected devices begin talking to each other throughout our homes.
Bluetooth 5 is meant to work better alongside other IoT connections
Even though Bluetooth 5 is launching today, it may be several years before we really start to notice any difference it makes. First, device manufacturers have to adopt the new standard; and then, you actually have to go and buy those devices. Until you’re using a smartphone, laptop, fitness tracker, and so on that take advantage of Bluetooth 5’s changes, any improvements may be slight.
The new spec is also supposed to make Bluetooth beacons — the small radios that let stores and stadiums push ads and other targeted info to your phones — work more efficiently. And it’s supposed to let Bluetooth’s wireless signal adapt on the fly to avoid Wi-Fi and LTE, steering clear of congested airwaves as a way to help all of a device’s wireless connections maintain their performance.
Chuck Sabin, Bluetooth SIG’s director of business strategy, says the goal of these improvements is to “increase the overall quality of the connections and the interoperability of these connections,” making Bluetooth a better option for the growing number of Internet of Things devices trying to fill up your home. The reliability of Bluetooth connections has been another trouble point over the years, and it sounds like this update is doing at least some amount of work to correct for that.
Mesh networking is coming next year
One major IoT-focused upgrade that won’t be part of Bluetooth 5 is mesh networking — the ability for Bluetooth devices to act as hubs that help one another reach farther and farther distances. Mesh networking is in the works and is expected to arrive early next year, but it’s a separate technology that isn’t strictly a part of Bluetooth 5. It is, however, supposed to work with devices using both Bluetooth 4 and 5.
For the time being, Bluetooth devices will have to obtain longer ranges using the abilities afforded by the new standard. The changes aren’t expected to impact battery life, Sabin says. Though Bluetooth devices may drain more power by broadcasting over a longer range, he says, that should be made up for by their faster speeds, allowing radios to be on for shorter periods of time.
The upgrades may also help Bluetooth fend off Wi-Fi’s slow attempt to move in on its low-power turf. A new Wi-Fi standard called HaLow is supposed to offer a Wi-Fi alternative to what Bluetooth has always been great at — fitness trackers, sensors, and other small gadgets — but it’s not supposed to be ready for at least another year. And by then, if these coming rounds of upgrades work as promised, Bluetooth may already have addressed two of its biggest shortcomings: short range and slow speeds.
Update 12:25PM ET: This story has been updated with additional context around the changes to Bluetooth 5.