Consumers see the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi logos on many electronic products. Both are registered trademarks, but what do they mean? Are they part of the same technology? Both systems transmit information through thin air rather than over cables, so what are the differences?
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One very fundamental difference between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi is that they are controlled by different industry bodies. Each validates new products to ensure that they comply with their own standards. Products that conform to Wi-Fi standards can only carry that term on their packaging if they are approved by the Wi-Fi Alliance. The Bluetooth logo can only appear on products with the approval of an organisation called Bluetooth SIG. The standards underpinning each technology are published and endorsed by two different committees of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Wi-Fi technology is based on the publications of the 802.11 committee and Bluetooth technology is controlled by the 802.15 committee.
Wi-Fi is usually used for wireless access to the Internet. Its transmissions follow encoding standards specified for the Internet because the journey of any data carried over Wi-Fi usually involves travelling over the Internet to its final destination, which may be on the other side of the world. Bluetooth-enabled devices are only meant to communicate with each other within a few meters range. The purpose for Bluetooth is to replace cables that would otherwise connect telephones to headsets and keyboards to desktop computers.
The difference in purpose of the two technologies dictates their differences in performance. Bluetooth devices have a lower range and a lower data rate than Wi-Fi devices. A typical Bluetooth device transmits up to 10 meters. Wi-Fi signal can reach up to ten times further. Bluetooth gadgets only cope with data rates of about 800 Kbps (Kilobits per second) Wi-Fi equipment can reach 11 Mbps (Megabits per second), which is more than ten times faster.
Bluetooth is a newer technology than Wi-Fi and has fewer updates. A Wi-Fi system must comply with one of four separate technology definitions, called 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n. There is a big difference in quality of service and performance of each of these standards. Bluetooth devices have only one level of service and so the expectation of performance does not vary from device to device.
Wi-Fi systems are more robust than Bluetooth systems. They involve more security and quality checking features. However, many Wi-Fi systems have the same weakness as Bluetooth, which is susceptibility to interference. Bluetooth and 802.11b and 802.11g Wi-Fi systems use the 2.4 Gigahertz frequency band for transmissions. This is a very crowded bandwidth and can pick up interference from many household devices, like microwave ovens and cordless phones. Greater distance transmissions are more likely to pick up more interference, and so Bluetooth has the edge in this category because it is not designed to transmit to any great distance. The Wi-Fi specifications have been improved with version 802.11n. These Wi-Fi systems operate on the 5 Gigahertz frequency band, which encounters much less traffic, and so suffers less interference.
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