What Is Bluetooth Wireless Networking?

What Bluetooth wireless technology can (and cannot) do for you

Bluetooth
Bluetooth. David Becker / Getty Images

Bluetooth is a radio communication technology that enables low-power, short distance wireless networking between phones, computers and other network devices. The name Bluetooth is borrowed from King Harald Gormsson of Denmark who lived more than 1,000 years ago. The king's nickname meant "bluetooth," supposedly because he had a dead tooth that looked blue. The Bluetooth logo is a combination of the two Scandinavian runes for the King's initials.

Using Bluetooth

Bluetooth technology was designed primarily to support networking of portable consumer devices and peripherals that run on batteries, but Bluetooth support can be found in a wide range of devices including:

  • Cell phones
  • Wireless headsets (including hands-free car kits)
  • Wireless keyboards
  • Printers
  • Wireless speakers
  • Computers

How Bluetooth Works

Two Bluetooth devices connect to each other by a process called pairing. When you press a button or select a menu option on the unit, a Bluetooth device initiates a new connection. Details vary depending on the type of device. Here are some examples:

Many mobile devices have Bluetooth radios embedded in them. PCs and other devices can also be enabled through the use of Bluetooth dongles.

Bluetooth networks feature a dynamic topology called a piconet, which contains a minimum of two and a maximum of eight Bluetooth peer devices. Devices communicate using network protocols that are part of the Bluetooth specification. The Bluetooth standards have been revised over many years starting with version 1.0 (not widely used) and 1.1 on up to version 5.

Radio signals that are transmitted with Bluetooth cover only short distances, typically up to 30 feet until the most recent standard. Bluetooth was originally designed for lower-speed wireless connections, although technology advancements over the years have increased its performance considerably. Early versions of the standard supported connections below 1 Mbps while modern versions are rated up to 50 Mbps.

Bluetooth vs. Wi-Fi

Although Bluetooth utilizes the same standard signal range as conventional Wi-Fi, it cannot provide the same level of wireless connectivity. Compared to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth networking is slower, more limited in range and supports fewer peer devices.

Bluetooth Security

As with other wireless protocols, Bluetooth has received its fair share of scrutiny over the years for network security weaknesses. Popular television dramas sometimes feature criminals pairing their Bluetooth phone to an unsuspecting victim's, where the criminal can then eavesdrop on conversations and steal private data. In real life, of course, these attacks are highly unlikely to happen and sometimes even not possible in the way they are portrayed.

While Bluetooth technology incorporates its fair share of security protections, security experts recommend turning off Bluetooth on a device when not using it to avoid any small risk that exists.