From wireless Bluetooth headphones to the ever-growing and mutating “Internet of Things”, more and more of the data we’re collecting and using is coming from hardware that wouldn’t exist without a standard solution for short-range device-to-device communication. That’s why it’s interesting when these standards change, and that’s especially true for the huge ecosystem of devices that will be impacted by the shift to Bluetooth 5.
Initially released in 2016, Bluetooth 5 offers data transfer speeds twice that of Bluetooth 4.2, and data transfer ranges four times what was available on Bluetooth 4.2. It also offers multi-device support that increases the options available for audio streaming.
This upgrade from the already impressive Bluetooth 4.2 has allowed more robust solutions for internet-of-things devices (due to the higher ranges) and has helped usher in the new generation of wireless earbuds that have unprecedented battery life at higher and higher quality audio streaming rates.
Bluetooth 5 Improvements
First and foremost, the newest standard has allowed for higher data transfer rates. The maximum advertised rate of 2 Mbps is nothing to sniff at, especially when you consider the type of applications you usually use Bluetooth in, and the range increase is really incredible:
|Bluetooth 4.2||Bluetooth 5|
|Data Transfer Rate (kbps)||650||2000|
|Data Transfer Rate (mbps)||0.65||2|
Compared to Bluetooth 4.2, you still get low energy connections that are easy on the battery, but the dramatic rate and range increases make the signal more reliable and more useful. With the dramatic increase in range, new applications will be possible, such as networking your home or backyard with wireless Bluetooth speakers.
Currently, almost all internet-of-device equipment you have needs to connect to the WiFi to work, but with the longer-range, these devices could start shifting to Bluetooth. And with the increased data transfer rates, the quality of streaming audio can increase for wireless earbuds and other headphones, but there will also be less obvious applications that benefit.
With the newer standard, there may be more wearable devices that now make sense when it comes to health monitoring. Devices that don’t make sense right now from a cost and hardware perspective might become normal, like expanding fitness tracking to pets or using Bluetooth trackers in your car to let your house know when your home instead of GPS.
It’s hard to imagine just how these new features will impact our day-to-day lives, but a good place to look is at how we use Bluetooth today, and how those experiences will be augmented. In the area of streaming audio, which is a mainstay of Bluetooth transfers, Bluetooth 5 is doing even more than increasing the bottom-line specs: It also offers new interesting features to the Bluetooth standard in how audio streams are managed.
New Audio Management Options
One of the most exciting changes with Bluetooth 5 is the addition of more flexible audio stream management options. The new standard allows for multi-device streaming, meaning that your phone or tablet can be connected to more than one receiving device and you can potentially network a home speaker system off Bluetooth.
And this feature can be reversed as well: headphones using Bluetooth 5 now have the ability to stream audio from two sources. You could connect your phone as well as your laptop, and overlap and mix the audio at the multiple sources.
These features, until now restricted to high-end solutions like SONOS (for multiple home speakers) or other proprietary standards and devices, will start to become basic features for everyone. But it’s important to remember that it still takes time for the standard to propagate and for developers to start using it.
Beyond this audio sharing, there are also a few ways that developers can tweak the performance of Bluetooth 5. The higher range and higher data transfer rates are really more like different modes a device can operate in: for smaller peripherals that don’t need an 800ft range, the transfer rate can be optimized, and for Internet of Things devices that don’t need a 2Mbps connection, the range can be favored, so that the Bluetooth 5 performance is customized for each use case.
What Mainstream Devices Have Adopted Bluetooth 5?
At this point, you’re probably sold on the new features and benefits of Bluetooth 5, and the obvious next question is how do you get it. Looking at your phone, you may be wondering if you already have it! Right now, some of the most popular flagship phones equipped with Bluetooth 5 are:
- All high-end Samsung phones from the Galaxy S8, up to the latest model have Bluetooth 5. The S20 and new models even have the audio sharing discussed above baked in (you can share audio with a friend’s earbuds while still listening on your own).
- iPhones: Everything from the iPhone 8 and up has Bluetooth 5 included.
- Many other Android flagships like Google’s Pixel 3a and Pixel 4, and the Oneplus 7T.
- Bluetooth 5 will likely be a standard feature on all flagship smartphones from here on out.
But it’s not just about the phone, is it? The whole point of the Bluetooth 5 standard is you need more devices running it because you only get the advanced features when there’s a Bluetooth 5 chip at both ends of the data transfer. So it’s worth talking about a few more broad categories of devices, and what Bluetooth 5 availability looks like in those niches:
- Wireless Earbuds/Headphones
- The good news here is that almost any high-end option you choose, whether it’s the Airpods Pro or the Galaxy Buds, will use Bluetooth 5. However, you should always check because the premium price-tag doesn’t exactly guarantee the feature. The Sony WH-1000XM3, the current gold standard of over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones, only has Bluetooth 4.2.
- At the budget end of the spectrum, there are plenty of cheaper wireless options that have Bluetooth 5 like the Soundcore Sprit X (on Amazon) or the TaoTronics over-the-ear Active Noise Canceling Headphones (on Amazon).
- Wireless Speakers
- Lots of wireless speakers are emerging with the Bluetooth 5.0 standard, but it’s by no means ALL of them, so, the same advice above applied: check before you buy. Units like the Marshall Kilburn II Portable Speaker (on Amazon) have Bluetooth 5, and they should at that price point, but there are also budget options like the Udison Portable Speaker (on Amazon).
- Yes, you should care about the Bluetooth in your laptop as well. It’s not as obvious as your phone, but you never know when you’ll want to connect up your laptop to a portable speaker or your headphones.
- Any premium option, like a Surface Laptop 3, the 2018 MacBook Pro, or the Galaxy Book S, will have Bluetooth 5, but, again, always check.
So now you know a little bit more about Bluetooth 5, what it offers you, and why you should care. These are features that are nice to have, sometimes really nice to have, but it’s not necessarily worth upgrading your whole suite of equipment to get everything up to the standard. Just let it guide you: as you consider a new laptop or new phone, factor this capability in.