What Exactly Is Bluetooth, Anyway?

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Welcome to What The Tech?!, Refinery29's weekly column explaining the basics behind a buzzword or concept you've heard tossed around in conversation (but maybe don't actually understand).

Bluetooth is what connects your FitBit to your smartphone, or a pair of wireless headphones to your computer. You know it's a setting you can turn on and off, and you know you need it for a growing number of products. But what exactly is Bluetooth?

Bluetooth is a standard for a short-distance wireless connection between electronic devices. Instead of sending data through a cable (like when your EarPods are connected to your phone), it sends data over radio waves. A Bluetooth connection typically works over a radius of 100 meters (328 feet). So if you're listening to music over a pair of Bluetooth headphones in your apartment, and then walk outside to grab the mail, your music will stop playing when you get out of range (and start playing again once you're back in range).

For a device to be Bluetooth enabled, it must have a small, usually low-cost Bluetooth chip inside. (That low-cost is why we're seeing so many new Bluetooth devices crop up all over the place.) Then, for two devices to connect over Bluetooth, they need to be paired. Pairing establishes a wireless connection so your phone, for example, knows to accept the data being transmitted by a Bluetooth accessory. Your phone acts as the "master" in this Bluetooth connection, while the speaker, headphones, or wearable acts as the "slave" (yes, that is how the relationship is actually referred to).

Once your phone has gone through that initial pairing process, the device, when turned on, should connect to your phone automatically, as long as Bluetooth is also enabled on your phone.

Most phones, and many new products, now support Bluetooth LE, a variation on the Bluetooth standard where LE stands for low energy. This just means that the connection uses less power than the original Bluetooth standard. Most wearables use Bluetooth LE and you can use them all day without draining your phone's battery life.

Fun fact: Bluetooth got its name from the 10th century Danish King Harald Blåtand (which translates to Harold Bluetooth in English), who worked to unite warring factions in Scandinavia. Bluetooth (similarly?) is an open standard that unites electronic devices from hundreds of different product manufacturers.

Any other questions about Bluetooth? Head to the comments and we'll answer them.

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