It was nearly a decade ago, when a pretty blue gadget arrived in my mailbox and fundamentally changed my understanding of wireless technology. The gadget was a Jawbone Jambox – arguably the first popular Bluetooth speaker – that let me play music from my phone from across my backyard. Like most Bluetooth contraptions at the time, the Jambox was barely usable at times, but this idea of wireless living, it was exciting! Now, ten years later, Bluetooth is actually good.
In 2009, the year before the Jambox hit the market, Bluetooth standards saw major updates that would begin to transform the ecosystem, such as higher data transfer speeds and Bluetooth Low Energy. My Jambox didn’t support those standards when I bought it, and surely as a result, it was a nightmare to use. Rocking Bluetooth 2.1, the Jambox struggled to stay connected to any of my devices, so much so that I ended up plugging my phone directly into the speaker most of the time. Even then, the damn thing seemed to die after an hour of cruddy music playback.
Fast forward a decade, and it seems like every gadget I use daily is powered by some sort of Bluetooth. My laptop, my desktop, my mouse, my keyboard, my headphones, my smartwatch, and yes, my non-Jambox speaker all stuffed with Bluetooth technology that lets them talk to each other and exchange data at lightning speeds. The real miracle, nowadays, is that they’re all incredibly dependable. They connect quickly and stay connected. Their batteries last a long time. It’s the opposite of how crappy Bluetooth was ten years ago.
“Bluetooth Low Energy ultimately made it possible for anything and everything to be a connected device. It kicked off what you would consider the modern day internet of things.”
The extent to which I don’t even think twice about using Bluetooth these days is evidence that the technology is not only good now, it’s incredible. And it’s about to get better. How we got here is essential to understanding what’s coming next.
Bluetooth is fairly still a new technology. Believe it or not, both cellular and wi-fi have been around since the 1970s, and today, they’re undeniably the most prevalent wireless technologies. The first consumer device with Bluetooth – a hands-free headset made by Ericsson – didn’t hit the market until 1999. As the new kid on the wireless block, Bluetooth was laughed at.
In its early days, Bluetooth’s bandwidth was crap, which is part of the reason why it was primarily used for telephone headsets. That changed dramatically with the introduction of Bluetooth 3.0 in 2009, but the real game-changer was a new technology called Bluetooth Low Energy which arrived with the 4.0 standard in 2011. This essentially split the standard into two segments: Bluetooth Classic and Bluetooth Low Energy. This was a big deal.
“Bluetooth Low Energy ultimately made it possible for anything and everything to be a connected device,” Chuck Sabin of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) told me recently. “It kicked off what you would consider the modern day internet of things.”
Part of the reason why this happened is that, at that time, Bluetooth was built into pretty much every phone on the market, and Bluetooth LE made it easier for developers to build apps that took advantage of Bluetooth’s capabilities. Whereas Bluetooth Classic specialised in higher bandwidth connections and required cumbersome pairing operations, the newer Low Energy technology dealt in smaller bursts of data, which was ideal for devices like smart watches, beacons, and smart home gadgets. As the name implies, Bluetooth LE also used less energy, so those devices could be powered by on-board batteries. The new Bluetooth standard also allowed the pairing process to happen in the background, which encouraged even more developers to come up with new tricks for the tech.
These upgrades blew the lid off Bluetooth adoption in many ways. Since its low-cost chips could be powered by coin cell batteries for months or even years, Bluetooth LE started showing up in all kinds of new gadgets, from blood pressure monitors to little tile-shaped tracking devices that you can attach to your keychain. Bluetooth LE’s streamlined pairing process also made it a handy alternative to near-field communication (NFC) devices. One key advantage, however, is that Bluetooth LE can get devices dozens of feet apart to talk to each, while NFC only works over a few inches. Bluetooth LE can also support dual connections with Bluetooth Classic, which has led to new features and better battery life all around. (Bluetooth LE beacons can also spot Bluetooth devices as they’re passing by which is terrifying to privacy advocates but a gold mine for retail.)
It was about five years ago that I started reviewing Bluetooth headphones. The challenge, at the time, was figuring out if any of them were dependable for daily use. Even the most expensive sets were prone to cutting out or simply seizing up in the presence of interference.
This was also an era when plenty of people had their doubts about the audio quality on Bluetooth. These were somewhat warranted when it came to early Bluetooth standards. The original 1.0 specification could handle a maximum throughput of 721 Kbps which would work fine for phone calls but probably wouldn’t do your FLAC files much justice. As new Bluetooth versions came out, however, bandwidth increased, and codecs like aptX and LDAC offer improved compression for audio files. To be honest, five years ago, it was hard to tell the difference in audio quality when listening through Bluetooth versus wired headphones.
In my experience, performance also varied widely by brand as some companies were simply better equipped to navigate the standards and integrate the technology into their products. Jabra, for instance, was an early standout. This pioneer of hands-free headsets was one of the first companies to produce Bluetooth products in the early aughts, and its popular Jabra Move was one of the first sets of wireless headphones I tested that offered almost flawless connectivity.
This was back in 2014, when most Bluetooth headphones were still a nightmare to use. (Jabra would later blow my mind with its Elite 65t truly wireless earbuds, which I still use on a daily basis.) Within a couple years, everyone from Bowers & Wilkins to Sony was making Bluetooth headphones that could stay connected, play high quality audio, and in some cases, last longer than eight hours on a single charge.
“That middle of the decade delivery of Bluetooth 5 kicked off the revolution and evolution of Bluetooth into industrial, commercial, smart buildings, smart home, smart city type applications for the technology.”
Then, in 2016, Apple came along with its W1 chip. This system-on-a-chip (SOC) made its first appearance in the original AirPods as well as a few Beats models. The W1 helped maintain a remarkably good Class 1 Bluetooth connection between the earbuds and any Apple device. (Class 1 is the strongest, most power-intensive Bluetooth available.) This sort of proprietary tweaking meant that you could pair the AirPods to an iPhone without digging through settings menu, and then, the magical little wireless earbuds would connect to the device immediately and unflinchingly. Bluetooth suddenly, for some, was easier than plugging in a wire.
Around the same time as AirPods started upending the market in early 2017, devices with Bluetooth 5 support started pouring in. While this standard didn’t create entirely new categories of products like Bluetooth LE did, the performance improvements stand to change what existing Bluetooth devices can do. The longer range, higher speeds, and better locations services capabilities helped Bluetooth 5 grow out of consumer devices and into massive new systems.
“That middle of the decade delivery of Bluetooth 5 kicked off the revolution and evolution of Bluetooth into industrial, commercial, smart buildings, smart home, smart city type applications for the technology,” Sabin recalled. He added that sensor networks can make use of new mesh networking capabilities in Bluetooth that can enable thousands of devices to communicate with each other.
The improvements seen in Bluetooth 5 are also transforming how the technology works in consumer devices. Because it’s more efficient, Bluetooth 5 is boosting battery life in many devices. Master & Dynamic, for instance, added Bluetooth 5 to a new generation of its popular MW07 truly wireless earbuds, and battery life nearly tripled from 3.5 hours in the old version to 10 hours in the new one.
Combined with efficiency, the improved bandwidth of Bluetooth 5 is making new features possible, like always-on microphones for voice assistants in earbuds and headphones.
You’ve probably noticed that I’m talking a lot about Bluetooth headphones and speakers. That’s partly because I spend a lot of time testing these things out, and I can speak to how dramatically Bluetooth updates have improved the way they work. But it’s also important to realise that Bluetooth got its start in audio and will continue to be audio-focused in years to come. The folks at Bluetooth SIG told me that we can look forward to new codecs for high quality audio, more hearing aid capabilities, and some broadcasting features as the next decade approaches.
Otherwise, it will be interesting to see Bluetooth battle it out with technologies like wi-fi in our future of connected everything. We’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what Bluetooth 5 can accomplish in commercial and industrial spaces, but it’s important to note that wi-fi remains the ruler of wireless because wi-fi is everywhere. While a growing number of devices use Bluetooth to talk to each other, wi-fi gives gadgets the ability to connect to other devices as well as to connect directly to the internet. So as we’re seeing Bluetooth-powered lightbulbs become popular devices, the wi-fi-powered bulbs may ultimately be more capable.
“Wi-Fi will be a very strong contender for just about any connectivity scenario in the home, because the wi-fi network is already there in almost all homes,” Kevin Robinson of the Wi-Fi Alliance told me. “When you talk about the Internet of Things, one of the key words there is ‘Internet.’”
Robinson is not wrong. Bluetooth technology also faces a number of limitations that make Wi-Fi more attractive to developers. Speed is the big one. While data transfer speeds doubled from Bluetooth 4 to Bluetooth 5, the latest standard can still only handle 48Mbps. The upcoming Wi-Fi 6 standard tops out at 9.6Gbps. Range and battery draw are two more issues that have always plagued Bluetooth, and while they’ve improved over time, Wi-Fi is still better in some circumstances.
But ultimately, as these technologies converge, the people win. Bluetooth is good for things that Wi-Fi is not and vice versa. The simple fact that wireless connectivity is becoming the standard is an exceptional leap forward. In the coming years, we’ll also see more innovation in the 5G space, so it’s not entirely absurd to believe that we won’t be worried about wireless in a decade because wireless will be everywhere. The only question then is how to make the most of it.
Featured illustration: Benjamin Currie (Gizmodo)