What is Bluetooth 4.0?

Bluetooth is a technology people know but don’t necessarily love. That’s because Bluetooth gadgets can be tough to pair, and they tend to run out of juice too quickly. Bluetooth 4.0—or Bluetooth Smart—gives the standard a brain transplant. The new specification uses improved technology that helps everyday gadgets stay paired longer while using less power. Plus, Bluetooth 4.0 enables a new class of gadgets such as fitness trackers, medical devices, key fobs for your car, and even home lighting controls.

Want to get up to speed? Our guide to Bluetooth 4.0 explains all.

How is Bluetooth 4.0 Different?

This generation of Bluetooth is split into two groups: Bluetooth Smart Ready and Bluetooth Smart. To understand why the tech has been split, you first have to look at the challenges facing Bluetooth as we know it. Those challenges are  battery drain and the constant pairing and re-pairing of connected gadgets.

Bluetooth 4.0 is designed to be more intelligent (hence: Bluetooth Smart) about managing those connections, especially when it comes to conserving energy. The new generation of Bluetooth tech places less emphasis on maintaining a constant stream of information. Instead, it focuses on sending smaller bits of data when needed and then puts the connection to sleep during periods of non-use.

When two 4.0 devices are paired, they waste less battery power because the connection is dormant unless critical data is being shared. With the previous generation of Bluetooth, it was best to shut down your hardware when it was not in use. Now the Bluetooth Special Interest Group estimates between 1 and 2 years of battery power in some devices with Bluetooth 4.0.

What is Bluetooth Smart Ready?

Bluetooth Smart Ready gadgets are primary devices—think smartphones, notebooks, and tablets—that can receive and share Bluetooth signals from such accessories as speakers, headphones, fitness accessories, and even medical tools such as heart-rate monitors and electronic thermometers. Think of Bluetooth Smart Ready devices as a mothership, waiting to send and receive data from smaller drone ships around it.

What is Bluetooth Smart?

Using that analogy, the drone ships are Bluetooth Smart devices. These peripherals connect to Bluetooth Smart Ready smartphones, tablets, and notebooks. Bluetooth Smart gadgets can also remain paired with Smart Ready devices even when they’re not used for hours or days at a time. Thanks to Bluetooth 4.0’s emphasis on wake and sleep modes, Smart peripherals that aren’t in use can remain in sleep mode indefinitely; they can also wake from that sleep mode in an instant, paired and ready to share data with a Smart Ready tablet, notebook, or smartphone.

For instance, a heart monitor can be worn for hours yet only send data to a Smart Ready smartphone when a heart rate reaches a certain number of beats per minute during exercise. Likewise, a wireless thermometer can remain paired for days, but it will send temperature readings to a notebook only when that device is used to take a child’s temperature.

Does Bluetooth 4.0 Make Existing Bluetooth Products Obsolete?

Newer laptops, phones, and slates with Bluetooth Smart Ready radios built in will work with previous-generation Bluetooth peripherals. Essentially, if you have a Bluetooth Smart Ready smartphone or notebook, you can still use it to stream podcasts to your Bluetooth 3.0 wireless speaker system or headphones. So no need to throw out those headsets or portable speakers.

On the other hand, Bluetooth Smart peripherals only work with a Smart Ready counterpart. So if you want to take advantage of Bluetooth 4.0’s new low-power capabilities, get ready to go shopping—you’ll need a new Bluetooth Smart Ready phone, computer, or tablet in addition to a Bluetooth Smart accessory or peripheral.

What Products are Available with Bluetooth 4.0?

As of press time, the Apple MacBook Air and the Mac Mini desktop were the only Bluetooth Smart Ready computers. Compatible smartphones include the Motorola Droid RAZR and the Apple iPhone 4S.

Some Bluetooth Smart peripherals include the MotoACTV fitness tracker and music player, as well as an exercise heart-rate monitor from fitness gadget manufacturer Dayton Industrial. The Bluetooth SIG expects nearly every new smartphone and notebook shipping this year to include a Smart Ready radio.

What’s Next?

The Bluetooth SIG told us that many Bluetooth Smart peripherals will be released in 2012, including wireless 3D glasses, home entertainment remote controls, and medical devices. The Bluetooth SIG also hopes to see Bluetooth expand into ovens, refrigerators, thermostats, and lighting systems. If that happens, dimming the lights or checking on the turkey could be a simple matter of using an app on your phone.

Social Media Editor