The Bluetooth logo on a blue background

Bluetooth: You’ve probably seen it on your smartphone, tablet, Mac, or PC laptop, and you might know it has something to do with wireless communications or peripherals. But what is Bluetooth—and is it similar to Wi-Fi? We’ll explain.

What Is Bluetooth?

Bluetooth is a short-range wireless communications standard designed specifically for replacing wired connections in nearby peripheral devices like headsets, speakers, game controllers, mice, and keyboards. It can also be used to transfer files between devices in the same room.

Bluetooth originated as a project to link cell phones to laptop computers in the mid-1990s. With several low-power radio communications protocols in development at Intel, Ericsson, and Nokia, someone proposed that they merge into an industry standard. The standard solidified in 1998 as “Bluetooth” and has been managed by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, a not-for-profit corporation, ever since.

Why Is It Called Bluetooth?

Jim Kardach of Intel named the Bluetooth standard after Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, a king of Denmark and Norway in the 10th century AD. Some historians guess that Gormsson may have acquired his “Bluetooth” nickname from a bad, discolored tooth. In a 2008 editorial for EETimes, Kardach states that he chose Bluetooth name because the king was “famous for uniting Scandinavia just as we intended to unite the PC and cellular industries with a short-range wireless link.” Kardach originally intended the name to just be the code name for the project, but it stuck.

The name choice extended to the logo for Bluetooth, still in use today, which is a combination of two runic letters (“H” and “B”) that initialize Harald Bluetooth’s name.

Why Is Bluetooth Needed?

The key reason for all wireless technologies is baked into their name: wireless. Wires—or cables—are cumbersome and sometimes expensive. Cables reduce mobility and make devices less portable. Bluetooth uses radio waves to remove the need for cables for peripherals and short-range data transfers, and it does so while sipping power, which makes it great for small, battery-powered peripherals and mobile devices.

RELATED: Bluetooth 5.0: What's Different, and Why it Matters

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

Bluetooth is a common feature on modern tablets, PCs, and smartphones. But there’s another wireless feature that some may confuse with Bluetooth: Wi-Fi. Why are there two different wireless standards—why not just one?

In general, Bluetooth is designed for ad hoc, direct device-to-device connections. It supports lower data transfer speeds, but uses far less power than other wireless technologies (like Wi-Fi) as a result, so it’s great for mobile devices. As a result of the low power usage, it also has a far shorter communications range—usually around 30 feet.

In contrast, Wi-Fi uses a hub-based network designed especially for networking. It supports much higher data transfer speeds but uses more power than Bluetooth as a result. It also supports a much longer range—typically hundreds of feet.

So if you compare the two, the properties of Bluetooth make it great for small gadgets you want to wirelessly link together within the same room, but poor for high-speed network access. And Wi-Fi is great for high-speed wireless networking, but is too power-hungry (and not ideally architected) for ad-hoc connections between devices, although there are exceptions like Wi-Fi Direct.

Ultimately, standards live and die by how widely they get adopted. Bluetooth has wide device support for short-range connections so it will likely be the default method for wireless peripherals for some time to come. Happy linking!

RELATED: What Is Wi-Fi Direct, and How Does It Work?

Profile Photo for Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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