Bluetooth: how it works

Bluetooth technology is now part of our daily life. We use it every day to exchange files between our devices, to listen to music wirelessly (via Bluetooth headphones and earphones ) and for many other purposes that would be almost impossible to list completely, given their vastness.

But  how does Bluetooth work from a technical point of view? How does it connect so many devices? Have you ever asked it to yourself? I really think so. But I also believe that, given your lack of training in the IT field, you are looking for an exhaustive explanation but at the same time simple and free from unnecessary technicalities.

Did I guess? Well, because I am happy to let you know that you are in the right place, at a time that could not have been better.

In fact, in the following lines I will explain to you in detail what Bluetooth is, how it works and how you can use it using the numerous compatible devices available on the market. Finally, I will show you how to activate this technology on smartphones, tablets and computers equipped with the most disparate operating systems: Android, iOS, Windows and macOS.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to be a technological genius to learn everything: you simply have to get comfortable, carve out some free time for yourself and read everything I have to say about this very comfortable technology allows communication and exchange of data between devices wirelessly. I am sure that, at the end of the guide, you will be perfectly able to take advantage of the devices equipped with Bluetooth and also to explain to your friends how they work! Having said that, I just have to wish you good reading and have fun!

What is Bluetooth and how it works

Before getting to the heart of the matter and understanding in detail  how Bluetooth works , it is good that you acquire some theoretical knowledge about this type of technology. First of all, Bluetooth is a  short – distance wireless communication standard , conceived by the Ericcson company in 1994 and managed to date by the  Bluetooth SIG ( Special Interest Group ), which includes, in addition to Ericcson, large technology companies such as  Nokia , Toshiba and  Intel .

Unlike many other names belonging to the world of technology, the term Bluetooth has nothing to do with its literal translation from English (the meaning of the term would in fact be » blue tooth» ), but finds its origins, in a rather metaphorical, from a character of the Middle Ages:  Harald Blåtand .

Harald Blåtand, in English Harald Bluetooth , was a Danish king who lived in the tenth century after Christ: with his military and diplomatic skills, he managed to unite the various tribes of his land, different in customs and cultures, in a single and compact group » national». The metaphor desired by the creators of the technology is precisely this: to develop a system that, just like Re Bluetooth, was able to communicate and combine completely different devices, such as  smartphones, cars, computers, audio devices, input devices.  (eg keyboards and mice) and so on.

Going into a little more detail, each device compatible with Bluetooth technology is equipped with a particular low energy consumption chip  capable of creating a private wireless network (PAN in jargon) that can connect devices within a radius of relatively small action: to be precise, the physical coverage of a Bluetooth PAN varies from 1 to 100 meters, depending on the class  of Bluetooth used in the chip. At the time of writing, the available classes are as follows.

  • Class 1 – has a power of 100 mW (or  milliwatts ) and can cover a maximum operating distance of  100 meters as the crow flies.
  • Class 2 – with a power of 2.5 mW, this version of Bluetooth can cover a maximum operating distance of  10 meters as the crow flies.
  • Class 3 – is the version with the least wide coverage: with a power of only 1 mW, it can cover an operating distance of about  1 meter .

Generally speaking, the higher the Bluetooth class, the higher the power consumption. Most “common” devices, such as notebooks and smartphones, have a class 2 Bluetooth chip.

Another distinction that is made between the various types of Bluetooth is that of the  version : currently, the Bluetooth versions available range from  1.0  (the least advanced) to  5.0  (the most recent).

Clearly, to exploit the potential of each version, the chips involved in the communication must have support for the same versions of the technology: for example, to take advantage of the efficiency of Bluetooth 3.0, both devices must be equipped with chips of that version, or later version (recent generation Bluetooth chips, in fact, are backwards compatible with older Bluetooth standards). You can find the differences between the various versions of Bluetooth on this Wikipedia page .

As for the «material» transmission of data, the Bluetooth standard uses the shortwave radio band (UHF) on frequencies ranging from  2.4 GHz to  2.485 GHz and uses a  master / slave approach : the  master device is the one that it creates the PAN network, while the  slave device is the one that remains “listening” while waiting to be added and, if placed in detectable mode , sends “signals” at regular intervals to notify its presence to the neighboring masters.

In practice, the connection operation between two Bluetooth devices is called  pairing  or, in Italian,  pairing : the  master device (e.g. the computer) scans the other Bluetooth devices within range and, under the order of the user, sends a “connection request” to the  listening slave device (eg the Bluetooth mouse).

When the slave accepts the request, it is added to the PAN network created by the master and communication begins. In some cases, it is necessary to enter a security code on both devices to finalize the pairing procedure. In some cases, the pairing between two Bluetooth devices can also be performed by  physical contact  (in other words, by making  the affected devices touch each other), using NFC technology.

At this point, you have begun to wonder how you can take advantage of this practical technology: Bluetooth is used to transfer data  of different «types» between two devices. This means that a Bluetooth network can be used both for  exchanging files  between two devices and for carrying out input / output operations between the devices involved. The tools that make use of it are really numerous, below I will list some categories of use.

  • Laptops, smartphones and  tablets – most of these devices are equipped with a Bluetooth chip and mostly function as masters. If you have a computer not equipped with Bluetooth, know that there are external adapters, even very small ones, equipped with a dedicated chip and can be connected to the computer via USB. You can find them in major physical and online electronics stores, including Amazon .
  • Mice and keyboards  – how ugly are cables in plain sight on the desk? Well, using a Bluetooth mouse and / or keyboard you will see them magically disappear! In addition, these devices can also be connected to «masters» not designed for use via such inputs, such as TV Boxes , Smart TVs or game consoles.
  • Earphones, headphones and speakers – in order to avoid cables that «fall» from the ears, sometimes very annoying, there are several devices on the market that can play audio and have Bluetooth connectivity. To get an idea, I invite you to consult my guides to buying the best Bluetooth headsets , the best Bluetooth headphones and the best Bluetooth speakers .
  • Car satellite navigators and on-board computers – to date, more and more  satellite navigators  are equipped with Bluetooth connectivity. In addition, in many cars, you can connect your smartphone via Bluetooth, to use it via the integrated display and play its sounds through the speakers installed in the car. In particular, some such systems have an Android Auto  or CarPlay operating system .
  • Smartwatch and smartband / fitness tracker – if you love to always have your notifications in view, or do physical activity that requires continuous monitoring, these are definitely the solutions for you. And, I’ll tell you, these devices connect to the smartphone or tablet from which they are managed via Bluetooth! In this regard, I highly recommend that you check out my guide to buying the  best smartwatch .

How to activate Bluetooth

Now that you have fully understood what Bluetooth is for and how this technology can be useful to you, it’s time to take action and understand how to activate Bluetooth on the  most popular master devices, such as smartphones , tablets and computers .

Android

If you have an Android smartphone or tablet  , activating Bluetooth is quite simple, however the procedures may be different between one version of Android and another. In general, to activate Bluetooth , just call up the Android notification area , swipe from the top of the screen to the bottom, and press the  Bluetooth icon (a stylized «B») until it lights up. You can turn off Bluetooth connectivity by simply repeating the operation.

If the icon is not present, proceed as follows: press  the Settings icon located in the application list of your device, select the  Bluetooth item located in the  Wireless and networks section and move   the switch located at the top right to ON . At this point, a search for nearby Bluetooth devices is performed: press the icon of the device you are interested in pairing and follow the procedure suggested on the screen.

Unfortunately I cannot be very detailed on the pairing procedures, as they can be different depending on the device you use. What I recommend, however, is to consult the user manual of your slave device (headphones, speakers, mouse, keyboards and so on) to receive the necessary information on finalizing the pairing. To unpair a device, all you have to do is press on its icon and select the Unassociate item from the proposed menu.

In order to make your Android device discoverable for other devices, or to prepare it to  receive files , simply keep the aforementioned panel open. If, on the other hand, you want to change the name with which your device is recognized from the outside, always on the  Bluetooth screen , press the  button located at the top right and select the  Rename this device item .

iOS

Do you have an iPhone , iPad or iPod Touch  and you want to connect external Bluetooth devices, for example the AirPods or the Apple Watch? Perfect, the procedure to activate Bluetooth on iOS is very simple! First, press  the Settings icon located on the main screen of your device, tap on the  Bluetooth item  on the screen that opens and move   the switch proposed in the next panel to ON.

Within a few seconds, you will be shown all the Bluetooth devices located nearby: then touch the item relating to the device to be connected and follow the on-screen instructions to complete the pairing procedure. The device will remain in discoverable mode as long as the Bluetooth settings panel is open. If you want to completely disable Bluetooth connectivity, go to the screen shown above and move the switch to  OFF .

Once enabled, you can temporarily disable Bluetooth also from the Control Center : all you have to do is call up the aforementioned area with a  swipe from bottom to top and press the  Bluetooth icon (a stylized «B»), until the outline turns white.

In this way, the Bluetooth will be deactivated, but only partially: the existing connections, in fact, are interrupted  until the next day and it is not possible to start new connections, except for  Apple Watch and  Apple Pencil  (which remain connected and possibly associated). , for  Handoff and for the personal hotspot .

Windows

Your Windows PC has Bluetooth connectivity but you have no idea how you can activate it? Don’t worry, this is extremely simple and can be done in just a couple of clicks.

If Bluetooth connectivity is «natively» integrated into your PC, the first thing you need to do is activate it by moving the switch or pressing the dedicated physical button, which is marked with the Bluetooth symbol (the stylized «B»): depending on the type of computer, the switch or key can be  independent  (which therefore requires a simple press to be used), or «included» in the keyboard  (in this case, almost certainly you have to hold down the Fn key on  the keyboard to use it).

If, on the other hand, your computer does not have built-in connectivity and you have purchased an external Bluetooth adapter , connect the device to  the USB port of the PC and wait a few seconds for its  drivers  to be installed correctly. If the Bluetooth activation or installation operation is successful, you will see the  Bluetooth symbol appear in the system notification area (the one next to the clock, so to speak) . In some cases, the Bluetooth icon is present in the notification area but not immediately visible: to view it, click on the arrow pointing upwards to show all the elements of the notification area and look for it in the box that opens.

If the Bluetooth icon does not appear even by clicking on the arrow in the notification area, follow the instructions provided by your manufacturer for installing the adapter drivers or, alternatively, leave the device connected to the PC and rely on a program for installing missing drivers on Windows.

Is your PC equipped with  Windows 10? Then know that you can activate Bluetooth connectivity in an extremely simple way: press the icon of the notification area located at the bottom right of the screen (the one in the shape of a «cartoon») and look for the  Bluetooth button (denoted by a «B» stylized) between the buttons located at the bottom of the panel. Once identified, click on it and wait for it to turn blue: from this moment, Bluetooth will be active. To access the Bluetooth settings, right-click on the button mentioned above and select the item  Go to settings from the proposed menu.

If, on the other hand, the button is not present in the notification area, click on the  Start button (the flag icon) located at the bottom left, then press the  wheel button  on the left of the menu that opens and, in the next window, select first the Devices icon  and then the  Bluetooth and other devices item : once this is done, set the Bluetooth switch to  On and Bluetooth connectivity will be activated on the PC.

Through the aforementioned panel it is also possible to associate new devices to the computer: to do this, click on the  (+)  button located at the top of the window, then select the  Bluetooth item from the proposed panel, wait for Windows to detect the device to be associated, click on the its icon and follow the on-screen instructions to proceed with pairing. For more information on managing Bluetooth devices in Windows 10, I urge you to check out my guide on how to turn on Bluetooth on Windows 10 .

If you have an older version of Windows, however, you can access the Bluetooth features by right -clicking on the icon located in the notification area  already mentioned above: in the panel that appears, you can send or receive a file by pressing the  File Transfer item or add a new device by selecting the  Add a Bluetooth device item .

If the menu associated with the icon does not offer you these options, proceed as shown below.

  • To  receive or send files , open the Start menu (or the Start Screen, if you are on Windows 8.1) by clicking on the relative icon located at the bottom left, type the words  bluetooth file transfer in the search field, click on the first result obtained and, after selecting whether  to send or  receive a file, follow the on-screen instructions to complete the operation.
  • To  associate a new device , start the  Control Panel by calling it from the Start menu (or by typing the words  control panel in its search area), then click on the Hardware and SoundDevices and Printers sections  and, finally, click on the  Add a button. device located at the top left, select the Bluetooth device to pair and follow the instructions provided on the screen.

macOS

You don’t use a Windows computer but do you have a Mac available? Don’t worry, turning on Bluetooth is just as simple, it can be done in a matter of seconds. Usually, this type of connectivity is included in MacBooks and iMacs but, if not, you can safely buy a USB adapter (I told you about it before), connect it to your computer and follow the instructions I am about to give you.

To activate Bluetooth on macOS, first click on  the System Preferences icon located in the Dock bar (the gear), then select the  Bluetooth item in the proposed window and then press the  Activate Bluetooth button , located on the left. Once this is complete, you can use your Bluetooth to send files, receive them and pair them with other devices.

Then click on the Bluetooth icon (the stylized «B») located on the right side of  the menu bar (if you don’t see this icon, go back to System Preferences> Bluetooth  and put the check mark next to  Show Bluetooth in the bar of the menus ) and choose the option  Send file to device …  to send a file or  Browse file on the device … to receive a file «taking it» directly from the device on which it resides, then follow the instructions on the screen to complete the operation.

Finally, to pair a new Bluetooth device, access once again the  System Preferences> Bluetooth panel as I explained above, wait for the device you intend to pair with is visible in the  Devices pane , select its icon and press on the Pair button  , following any additional instructions shown on the screen. Easy, right?

If you still have any doubts about how to activate Bluetooth from your computer, Windows or macOS, I urge you to consult my guide on how to activate Bluetooth on your PC , in which I have dealt with the topic in more detail.

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