Bluetooth vs. Wi-Fi: What's the Difference?

Yes, they're both wireless, but they serve very different purposes.

Bluetooth is a standard that allows computer peripherals to connect wirelessly to a host device. The most common uses are for connecting speakers, head units, keyboards, printers, and headsets to a phone, tablet, or computer.

Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is a standard that enables wireless internet access for all devices on a local area network (LAN). While still dependent on modems, Wi-Fi networks use wireless routers instead of Ethernet cables to connect devices to the internet.

Bluetooth vs Wi-Fi

Overall Findings

Bluetooth
  • Mostly for connecting devices to each other.

  • Wirelessly connects speakers, head units, keyboards, printers, and headsets to control devices—usually a phone, tablet, or computer.

  • Lower power, shorter range, slower data speeds.

  • Operates on RF (radio frequency) spectrum.

Wi-Fi
  • Mostly for connecting devices to the internet.

  • Wirelessly connects a device to a modem, which connects to the internet. Can also connect to other devices in a LAN.

  • Higher power, wider range, faster data speeds.

  • Operates on RF (radio frequency) spectrum.

Bluetooth is a wireless networking protocol that allows two devices to communicate with each other through a radio frequency (RF). This allows you to wireless control a speaker through an app on your phone, or to print documents on a printer that is not physically connected to your computer. Bluetooth is also used to allow hands-free headsets, wireless navigation systems, and remote mouse and keyboard control.

Bluetooth connections typically range up to about 30 feet, but in most situations the effective range is much shorter. Bluetooth uses comparatively little energy and is fit for what's called a personal area network, or PAN. PANs are generally used for communication among personal devices, and they contrast with what's known as a "local area network," or LAN.

A Wi-Fi network is the LAN through which devices can connect to a modem and, in turn, the internet. The term Wi-Fi is sometimes used interchangeably with the internet. But that is not accurate. Wi-Fi is merely the wireless connectivity protocol used in lieu of a wired connection (such as Ethernet). It requires use a wireless router, through which all Wi-Fi devices on the network are channeled.

Wi-Fi is not the same as the internet. Wi-Fi is the networking standard used to connect devices to a modem in lieu of a wired connection. It's the modem that connects to the internet itself.

Both wired and wireless devices need to be routed through a modem, which is your actual portal to the internet. As long as the modem is connected to the internet then any device connected to the modem is (or has the capacity to be) connected to the internet.

For that reason, it's possible to use a wireless router to establish a Wi-Fi network without any internet connection involved. This allows devices on the network to share data with each other, though they will not be able to connect to the internet without a modem.

Both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth operate via radio frequency, though the range of a Wi-Fi network is typically much larger than a typical Bluetooth connection. Although many Wi-Fi networks use the same 2.4 GHz band as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi uses a lot more power.

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Comparison Chart
  Wi-Fi Bluetooth
Availability Since 1994 Since 1991
Frequency 2.4, 3.6 and 5 GHz 2.4 GGz
Bandwidth 11 Mbps 800 Kbps
Range Up to 92 meters 1 - 100 meters depending on class
Latency 150ms 200ms
Bit-rate 2.1 Mbps 600 Mbps
Typical devices Computers, game consoles, phones, smart TVs, internet of things (IoT) devices, etc Computers, phones, input devices like mice and keyboards, fitness trackers, headsets, smart speakers, etc
Required hardware Wi-Fi adapter connected to each device, and a wireless router or wireless access points. Built-in bluetooth radio or a Bluetooth adapter connected to each device.
Typical use Networking Connecting one device to another device

Speed: Higher Power Delivers Higher Speeds

Bluetooth
  • Slower.

  • Most use cases don't require super fast data speeds.

Wi-Fi
  • Faster.

  • Capable of fast data transfers for high-bandwidth streaming media.

Bluetooth is typically much slower and offers less bandwidth than Wi-Fi. This is one of the reasons why Bluetooth audio quality is considered inferior, while Wi-Fi can be used to stream high-quality music, video content, and other large data streams.

Bluetooth 4.0 offers greater speeds than previous versions of the technology, but it is still capped at 25Mbps, and the effective rate will be much lower than that. Wi-Fi network speeds vary depending on the protocol, but even the slowest tolerable connections will be faster than the theoretical limit of Bluetooth 4.0.

Use Cases: Peripherals vs. Whole Home Internet Access

Bluetooth
  • Mostly for connecting peripheral devices like speakers, printers, keyboards, and headphones.

  • Shorter operational range than Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi
  • Mostly for connecting to the internet.

  • Establishes a wireless LAN (Local Area Network) accessible by any device with login credentials.

Bluetooth is primarily used to connect two devices over a short range using low energy. This makes it ideal for transmitting audio from a phone or tablet to a speaker system, or for enabling hands-free calls in your car. Bluetooth also provides an easy way to listen to music while driving, functioning as a sort of wireless auxiliary cable.

Wi-Fi isn’t used in these situations, as the main purpose is to create a network for other devices to access the internet. Accordingly, it's more useful in home and office settings than in cars.

To Sum Up...

Comparing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth is like comparing apples and oranges. Wi-Fi is superior to Bluetooth in terms of range and speed, but Bluetooth is favored specifically for its low energy and narrow RF range, which Wi-Fi lacks.

Wi-Fi is the favored standard for establishing wireless home networks. Bluetooth is the favored standard for wirelessly connecting computer peripherals. It's also increasingly found in head units, speakers, and home theater receivers. It's hard to conceive of much competition for either, but the closest would be Wi-Fi Direct.

Wi-Fi Direct is a newer take on the device-to-device standard that Bluetooth has dominated for the last couple of decades. Like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi direct is designed to allow devices to “find” each other without need for the user to go through the hassle of setting up an ad hoc network. The biggest difference between traditional ad hoc Wi-Fi connections and Wi-Fi Direct is that the latter includes a discovery tool. The other issue with Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Direct is power consumption, which is heavy and always an issue with mobile devices.