Bluetooth has been one of the most underrated features of current day smartphones. Gone are those days, where having a Bluetooth in a phone was something to be proud of. It has now gone on to become a ‘taken for granted’ part of smartphones. Well, that said it’s no longer limited to smartphones either and has made it ways to wearables, wireless keyboards, IoTs and much more. Possibilities are endless, especially when it comes to Internet of Things or IoT in short. With that in mind, the Bluetooth SIG (Special Interest Group) announced the next generation Bluetooth 5.0 a few months back.

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Image: Futurezone.at

The Special Interest Group has now officially adopted Bluetooth 5 as the latest version of Bluetooth core specifications. That aside, they have revealed details of what all changes have been made in the latest Bluetooth standard. Talking about Bluetooth 5, Mark Powell, Executive Director of Bluetooth SIG remarked, “Bluetooth is revolutionizing how people experience the IoT. Bluetooth 5 continues to drive this revolution by delivering reliable IoT connections and mobilizing the adoption of beacons, which in turn will decrease connection barriers and enable a seamless IoT experience.”

Bluetooth has come a long way ever since its launch back in the mid-1990s. For those unaware, the technology was invented by telecom vendor Ericsson back in 1994. Well, it’s same Ericsson that had tie-ups with Sony and sued Apple for patent infringement regarding iPhones. The Bluetooth 5 isn’t really the fifth iteration of this once revolutionary technology. Rather there have been around ten updates with the last one being Bluetooth 4.2. That said, Bluetooth 4.0 was the last major upgrade and came in three forms to be precise – Classic Bluetooth, Bluetooth high speed and Bluetooth low energy (abbreviated as LE). The Bluetooth 4.0 LE, however, was primarily focused on wearables and IoT hardware whereas the classic version was mainly for wireless gadgets like keyboards. With Bluetooth 5 though, the SIG has decided to make things simple and have removed all such high and lower power terminologies.

What are the key changes in Bluetooth 5?

According to Bluetooth SIG, the latest standard promises four times range, two times speed and about eight times broadcast message capacity. While it isn’t really tough to apprehend the first two, the third part may sound little too complex in case you aren’t aware of the concept of beacons. Talking of range, it is estimated that Bluetooth 5 will deliver an approximate functional range of 200 meters outdoors and 40 meters outdoors, considering the fact that it was 50 meters and 10 meters respectively for the Bluetooth 4.0. That said, these aren’t really real life range as the one we observe in daily lives vary quite a lot from theoretical range, especially in indoor conditions. Nonetheless, with four times increase in range, you need not worry about a drop in the signal while using the Bluetooth connection in your home.

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Apart from the range, Bluetooth 5 also promises faster speed. It is now marked at 2 Megabits/sec, up from the 1 Megabit/sec in the last generation Bluetooth 4.0. That said, these are again theoretical speeds which would eventually decrease in the real world due to the number of protocols, data checking procedures etc.

Will my Bluetooth 5 device be backward compatible?

Yes, just like any other piece of hardware starting from WiFi, Bluetooth 5 will be backward compatible with all devices running on older version of the same. This means that you can still transfer data from Bluetooth 5 devices to a Bluetooth 3.0 smartphone, but you won’t be able to make use of the latest generation’s improved range, speed etc.

How will Wearables benefit from Bluetooth 5?

Wearables stand to benefit from the increase in speed and range of Bluetooth 5. Higher speeds enable devices to receive information faster and be more responsive. This is something that’s vital for wearables especially smartwatches and fitness trackers which are directly paired to the smartphone via Bluetooth connection. Faster Bluetooth connections will help reduce the lag between the time your phone starts ringing and the time the band starts vibrating on your wrists to let you know about the incoming call. That aside, it may enable us to stream video directly from the mobile onto the display of a smartwatch without experiencing any sorts of micro-lags. The greater range, on the other hand, will help make features like ‘Find my Phone’ more useful.

How will Bluetooth 5 Impact ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT)?

Bluetooth SIG has been closely working on their technology to help aid the development of IoT (Internet of Things) devices. The main issue bottleneck with Bluetooth 4.0 with IoT devices was the slow and unreliable connections. However, with Bluetooth 5, the range has not only quadrupled but the reliability has said to improve by leaps and bounds. With increased range, now the Bluetooth controller in your home can easily communicate with all the IoT gadgets in your house and co-ordinate their activities. Apart from that, the fact that it consumes less power than its previous generation is a blessing as well. The new standard is also said to reduce potential interference with other wireless technologies to ensure Bluetooth devices can co-exist within the increasingly complex global IoT environment.

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Image: Tom’s Hardware

The global wireless connectivity market is growing rapidly, with an anticipated 10 billion annual IC shipments by 2021,” said Andrew Zignani with ABI Research. “The introduction of Bluetooth 5 will create new opportunities in various verticals of the IoT market by reducing complexity and cost and giving manufacturers greater flexibility in targeting multiple applications and use cases.

What are Bluetooth Beacons?

Bluetooth Beacons are compact hardware devices which you can pretty well assume are powered by Bluetooth technology. These are little devices that can transfer information packets to your device. This is based on the technology called Connectionless Broadcasting, wherein the beacons provide you relevant information depending on your current situations. These piece of hardware are especially useful for advertising purposes, but that said they aren’t limited to only that. Before diving deep into the concept on Beacons let’s first tell you about the terminology called “Connectionless Broadcasting”.

Well, the concept is pretty simple and you can probably assume how the thing works going by the terminology used. Think about transferring a file from your laptop to your smartphone. In such a case, you would be required to first pair your devices (transmitter – laptop and receiver – smartphone) before you get on with transferring the file packets or data. However, it isn’t true when it comes to a device like Bluetooth beacon. Here, the Beacons are basically acting as transmitters wherein they are sending a signal all around their physical origin and any Bluetooth receivers around them, be it the smartphones or wearables can access information transmitted by them, without the need of any sort of pairing. That said, for Beacons to work, you need to download a specific app that’s designed for those beacons. Say, for example, you were passing by a grocery store whose app you have on your smartphone; the Bluetooth Beacons located inside the store send you a custom discount coupon urging to enter the shop and check out what’s on offer.

The beacons can even tell you whether the product you bought the last time is available for a special discount. The possibilities are endless, and it’s worth noting that the Bluetooth Beacons don’t store any information regarding your history and your previous shopping records. On the contrary, it is sourcing all its data from a central server it is connected with, the store records and billing server in this case. Besides, Bluetooth Beacons can have a number of use cases like in parking lots with automated bill payments, police booth with automatic fine payment from your stored debit/credit cards and even from your digital wallets. It can also be used in hospitals and hotels during check-in and so on. That said, with the Bluetooth 4.0 the use of beacons was really limited due to a major bottleneck.

How will Bluetooth 5 Impact the Use of Beacons?

With Bluetooth 5 though, those limitations have now been solved. The latest Bluetooth standard is apparently capable of a larger broadcast message capacity. As explained above, this is the technology Bluetooth Beacons use for transmitting information to nearby Bluetooth supported gadgets, especially, the smartphones. Previously, the size of broadcasted messages was limited to 31 bytes and there was no real standard on how these bytes were formatted. That said, the two main schemes available for controlling these bytes arrangements are iBeacon and Eddystone from Apple and Google respectively. It’s worth noting that after adding all sorts of protocols and security, the remaining space for the main data was nearly limited to 17-20 bytes. This was a huge limitation considering the fact that many URLs will not fit within this allocated size.

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Bluetooth 5, however, increases this allocated size to a whopping 255 bytes. This will allow the beacon to send out even a sophisticated URL. Imagine walking past the office of your electricity supplier, and the beacon inside the office will now send you a complex URL where you can simply log in from your phone and pay the bill, thereby helping you to avoid the unnecessary queue. It not only saves you time but also saves some extra work and money for the electric supplier, who otherwise would have been forced to recruit an extra guy just for answering simple queries like these. For those unaware, Amazon recently announced a modern age physical grocery store of their own known as Amazon Go. Here, you can simply step into the store using the Amazon Go app and just pick up things you want and walk out of the store when you are done. Yes, you don’t need to stand in a queue for billing; as the things buy will be automatically debited from your virtual card once you step out of the store. While Amazon hasn’t yet revealed how this technology works, Bluetooth Beacons can be a possible part of this tech framework. With Bluetooth 5, these implementations would be more functional and robust.

When can we Expect to See Smartphones Ship with Bluetooth 5?

Bluetooth SIG has now revealed that we can expect smartphones with Bluetooth 5 to hit the market within two to six months from now. That means, expect all 2017 flagships including the likes of Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6, Apple iPhone 8 to come with Bluetooth 5. Possibly, we may see the first range of Bluetooth 5 supported smartphones at the MWC later this month. It’s worth noting that the two to six months period is mainly because of the fact that Bluetooth 5 isn’t merely a software update. It is rather based on a new hardware; hence it would require some time before the OEMs receive the new wireless chips.

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Will Bluetooth 5 be able to compete with WiFi?

Despite all the hype around the upcoming Bluetooth 5, it hasn’t yet reached a stage where we can assume it to take on WiFi. Rather, both Bluetooth 5 and WiFi will have different use cases. There’s no doubt that the future IoT products would use Bluetooth more thanks to the improvements in the new standard. That said, it still offers comparatively lower range and slower transfer rates as compared to a WiFi connection. Besides, there’s still some niggles regarding the security of the same. On the other hand, the easy to setup and low battery usage of Bluetooth 5 will make it a connection medium of choice in a number of future gadgets including wearables. Frankly speaking, comparing Bluetooth with WiFi is just like comparing an Android with iOS.


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Author

Sayan is a technology aficionado who shares a keen interest in the booming startup scene in India. Prior to joining TechPP, he has had stints at GizBot and IBTimes UK. Currently based in Kolkata, Sayan is pursing a degree in Dental Surgery.