Modern smartphones and other devices, from the iPhone 8 and iPhone X to the Samsung Galaxy S8, advertise support for “Bluetooth 5.0” on their specifications list. Here’s what’s new in the latest and greatest version of Bluetooth.

What is Bluetooth?

Bluetooth 5.0 is the latest version of the Bluetooth wireless communication standard. It’s commonly used for wireless headphones and other audio hardware, as well as wireless keyboards, mice, and game controllers. Bluetooth is also used for communication between various smart home and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

A new version of the Bluetooth standard means various improvements, but only when used with compatible peripherals. In other words, you won’t see any immediate benefit from upgrading to a phone with Bluetooth 5.0 if all your Bluetooth accessories were designed for an older version of Bluetooth. Bluetooth is backwards compatible, however, so you can continue using your existing Bluetooth 4.2 and older devices with a Bluetooth 5.0 phone. And, when you buy new Bluetooth 5.0-enabled peripherals, they’ll work better thanks to your Bluetooth 5.0 phone.

Bluetooth Low Energy for Wireless Headphones (and More)

Importantly, all the improvements being made to Bluetooth are to Bluetooth Low Energy specification, which was introduced back with Bluetooth 4.0, and not to the classic Bluetooth radio that uses more power. Bluetooth Low Energy is designed to reduce the energy usage of Bluetooth peripherals. It was originally used for wearables, beacons, and other low-power devices, but had some serious restrictions.

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For example, wireless headphones couldn’t communicate over Bluetooth Low Energy, so they had to use the more power-hungry Bluetooth classic standard instead. With Bluetooth 5.0, all audio devices communicate over Bluetooth Low Energy, which means reduced power usage and longer battery life. Many more types of devices will be able to communicate over Bluetooth Low Energy in the future.

Notably, Apple’s AirPods don’t use Bluetooth 5.0. They use Bluetooth 4.2 and the special Apple W1 chip for an improved connection. On Android, Bluetooth 5.0 should help make Bluetooth headphones something you’d want to use.

Dual Audio

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Bluetooth 5.0 also enables a cool new feature that allows you to play audio on two connected devices at the same time. In other words, you could have two pairs of wireless headphones connected to your phone, and them stream audio to both of them at once, all via standard Bluetooth. Or you could play audio on two different speakers in different rooms. You could even stream two different audio sources to two different audio devices at the same time, so two people could be listening to two different pieces of music, but streaming from the same phone.

This feature is known as “Dual Audio” on the Samsung Galaxy S8. Just connect two Bluetooth audio devices to your phone, turn on the Dual Audio feature, and you’re ready to go. However, this shouldn’t be a Samsung-only feature. It’s enabled by Bluetooth 5.0 and will hopefully appear on other manufacturers’ devices, too.

More Speed, Distance, and Throughput

Bluetooth 5.0’s primary benefits are improved speed and greater range. In other words, it’s faster and can operate over greater distances than older versions of Bluetooth.

The official Bluetooth marketing material from the Bluetooth standard organization advertises that Bluetooth 5.0 has four times the range, two times the speed, and eight times the broadcasting message capacity of older versions of Bluetooth. Again, these improvements apply to Bluetooth Low Energy, ensuring devices can take advantage of them while saving power.

With Bluetooth 5.0, devices can use data transfer speeds of up to 2 Mbps, which is double what Bluetooth 4.2 supports. Devices can also communicate over distances of up to 800 feet (or 240 meters), which is four times the 200 feet (or 60 meters) allowed by Bluetooth 4.2. However, walls and other obstacles will weaken the signal, as they do with Wi-Fi.

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The aptX compression standard already promises CD quality audio over lower 1 Mbps speeds, so 2 Mbps speeds should enable even better wireless audio quality.

Technically, devices can actually choose between more speed or a longer range. That “two times the speed” benefit is helpful when operating at short range and sending data back and forth. The increased range would be optimal for Bluetooth beacons and other devices that only need to send a small amount of data or can send the data slowly, but want to communicate at greater distances. Both are low energy.

Devices can choose which makes the most sense. For example, wireless headphones could use the increased speed for high bitrate streaming audio, while wireless sensors and smarthome devices that just need to report their status information could choose the increased distance so they can communicate at longer distances. And, because they can use Bluetooth Low Energy and still get these benefits, they can operate on battery power for much longer than they would with the more power-hungry classic Bluetooth standard.

If you’re interested in the technical details, you can view the official Bluetooth 5.0 specifications online. Android Authority also has a good technical look at how exactly Bluetooth 5.0 is different from Bluetooth 4.2.

When Will You Get It?

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You can get devices that support Bluetooth 5.0 today, like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy S8, and future Android phones. You’ll also need Bluetooth 5.0 peripherals, however. They aren’t widespread yet, but many manufacturers are promising to release Bluetooth 5.0 devices in 2018.

Because Bluetooth is backwards compatible, your Bluetooth 5.0 and older Bluetooth devices will work together. It’s a bit like upgrading to a new, faster Wi-Fi standard. Even after you get a new router that supports faster Wi-Fi, you have to upgrade all your other devices, too. But your older Wi-Fi-enabled devices can still connect to your new router, just at a slower speed than the router supports.

If you can get your hands on an Android phone with Bluetooth 5.0 and Bluetooth 5.0 headphones, you’ll likely have a much better wireless audio experience than you would with the older Bluetooth standard.

iPhone users can get a good experience with Apple’s own AirPods or Beats headphones thanks to the W1 chip, but solid Bluetooth audio is easier to get on Android now, too. Bluetooth 5.0 should even improve wireless headphones on the iPhone if you choose to go for third-party Bluetooth 5.0 headphones instead of Apple headphones with a W1 chip.

We don’t recommend upgrading every last little thing, however. Even if you have a Bluetooth 5.0-enabled laptop, for example, upgrading to a Bluetooth 5.0-enabled mouse probably won’t be a big improvement. But, as support for Bluetooth 5.0 finds its way into every new Bluetooth device, Bluetooth peripherals will get better and Bluetooth will become more reliable and power-efficient.

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