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

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

Bluetooth is a standard that connects computer peripherals wirelessly to a host device. The most common uses connect speakers, head units, keyboards, printers, and headsets to a phone, tablet, or computer. Wi-Fi is a standard that enables wireless internet access for devices on a local area network (LAN). While dependent on modems, Wi-Fi networks use wireless routers instead of Ethernet cables to connect devices to the internet. We take a deep dive into the similarities and differences between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Bluetooth vs Wi-Fi
Lifewire  

Overall Findings

Bluetooth
  • Mostly for connecting devices to each other.

  • Lower power, shorter range, and slower data speeds.

  • Operates on the RF (radio frequency) spectrum.

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

  • Higher power, wider range, and faster data speeds.

  • Operates on the RF (radio frequency) spectrum.

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

A Wi-Fi network is the wireless extension of a wired modem connection. Wi-Fi is the wireless connectivity protocol used instead of a wired connection such as Ethernet. It requires a wireless router, through which all Wi-Fi devices on the network are channeled.

The term Wi-Fi is sometimes used interchangeably with the internet. Wi-Fi is not the same as the internet. The modem connects to the internet.

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

  Wi-Fi Bluetooth
Availability Since 1994 Since 1991
Frequency 2.4, 3.6 and 5 GHz 2.4 GHz
Bandwidth 11 Mbps 800 Kbps
Range Up to 92 meters 1 to 100 meters depending on class
Latency 150 ms 200 ms
Bit-rate 2.1 Mbps 600 Mbps
Typical devices Computers, game consoles, phones, smart TVs, and internet of things (IoT) devices. Computers, phones, input devices like mice and keyboards, fitness trackers, headsets, and smart speakers.
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 devices

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 slower and offers less bandwidth than Wi-Fi. This is one of the reasons why Bluetooth audio quality is considered inferior. 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. However, it is capped at 25 Mbps, and the effective rate is lower than that. Wi-Fi network speeds vary depending on the protocol, but the slowest tolerable connections are 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 a car. Bluetooth also provides an easy way to listen to music while driving, functioning as a 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.

Networking: All Route to the Modem

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

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

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

Bluetooth connections can stem from either an Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection. A successful Bluetooth pairing will range up to about 30 feet. However, in most situations, the effective range is shorter. Bluetooth uses comparatively little energy and is fit for a personal area network, or PAN. PANs are used for communication among personal devices and contrast with a LAN.

A Wi-Fi network is the LAN through which devices can connect to a modem and, in turn, 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 these devices won't be able to connect to the internet without a modem.

Final Verdict

Comparing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth is like comparing apples and oranges. Wi-Fi is superior to Bluetooth in terms of range and speed. Bluetooth is favored 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. Bluetooth is 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 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.