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Differences Between Wi-Fi and Bluetooth – Everything That’s Important

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are two of the most popular connection protocols in use today. They both allow for devices to communicate over a shared network with electromagnetic radio waves. Additionally, some devices—like smartphones—can utilize both simultaneously. But, what makes these two technologies different, and how are they similar?

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are based on similar technologies but are used for different things. Wi-Fi is designed to give wireless access to a network. Bluetooth is focused on local device-to-device communication. Wi-Fi is capable of much higher data transfer speeds while Bluetooth is much slower.

If this all seems confusing, don’t worry because a lot of people feel the same way. Although, once you understand the fundamental difference between the two, you’ll see what sets them apart. While some devices like laptops and cellphones support both, that does not mean they are interchangeable. To find out more about what makes Wi-Fi different from Bluetooth, read on.

Is Wi-Fi the Same as Bluetooth?

Man holding mobile phone in hand outdoors on a sunny day with Bluetooth and WiFi icons

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are not the same, even though they have some similarities, although, there is a bit more to unpack than that. Once you get down to how these two technologies enable devices to communicate wirelessly, you’ll see why people get confused. For one, both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth utilize electromagnetic radio waves to transfer data wirelessly. Radio waves travel over specific industrial, scientific, and medical bands.

These ISM bands handle a lot more than just Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, though. Some other applications of ISM bands include microwave ovens, cordless telephones, and garage door openers. So what makes Bluetooth and Wi-Fi so different? One way of understanding it is to think of Wi-Fi as a means for your device—whether it’s a laptop, cellphone, or tablet—to communicate with your router. Then, your router gives that device access to the internet. 

Bluetooth, on the other hand, allows for devices to communicate with other devices instead of a singular source. It does not provide a jumping-off point to a larger network but rather a local one. In other words, Wi-Fi is connecting to a much larger network than Bluetooth, which is really only connecting a bunch of devices within a small area. To help you better grasp how these two are different, let’s explore them a little bit more.

How Does Bluetooth Work?

Bluetooth operates on lower-frequency radio bands. Most Bluetooth protocols will use bands between 2.4GHz and  2.483.5GHz. Because it utilizes these lower power bands, it makes power consumption for communicating low. This allows for devices to talk to each other without straining batteries—which is essential for mobile devices. There are two types of Bluetooth technology: Bluetooth Low Energy and Bluetooth Classic.

LE provides a more efficient power-saving protocol, while classic can facilitate higher data transfer rates. Bluetooth devices need to go through the pairing process. This procedure results in two devices trusting each other and allowing for data exchange over the network. This works when a Bluetooth device comes close to another.

They are in range and can initiate the pairing process. Different Bluetooth protocols may operate in slightly different ways. Some Bluetooth protocols broadcast packets to advertise the device’s connection. Others—like activity trackers—use piconets. Piconets are small personal-area-networks (PAN). These allow for constant communication among devices without interference issues.

How Does Wi-Fi Work?

Wi-Fi as we know it was developed in the 1990s. John O’Sullivan and his team at CSIRO stumbled upon the technology while researching radio waves and black holes. The underlying technology has come quite some way since then. For devices to communicate over a network, they all need to speak the same language. This is the aim of IEEE 802.11 Standards developed by O’Sullivan and his team.

Using the IEEE Standard, devices can communicate over both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Dual-band devices also exist that can use both bands. Devices that want to connect to the Wi-Fi router must have a wireless adapter. This will give them access to the network and the capacity to communicate over the radio bands.

Why Do Some Devices Use Bluetooth and Some Wifi?

Devices communicate in different ways. Some electronics need to connect with others around it to share data — like a Bose portable speaker (on Amazon). Other devices need access to the internet, like your desktop computer. These two situations require different communications applications. Other products need to be able to use both, for instance, two great examples are cellphones and laptops. In the case of the cell phone, you will need to access a network to download data packs for things like video or internet surfing.

Similarly, your phone will also need to have access to other devices around it, like a pair of wireless headphones. This is why both technologies exist together. Some applications are for Wi-Fi, others require Bluetooth, and some require both. In some cases, they may actually interfere with each other which we wrote more about in our tutorial. Using them in tandem allows you to stream music over our wireless network from apps like Spotify and then send that audio signal to a speaker using Bluetooth.

Is Bluetooth or Wi-Fi Faster?

When it comes to speed considerations—Bluetooth or Wi-Fi—you need to think about their intended applications. At the same time, Bluetooth does handle sending high data content like audio. For the most part, its low energy network limits what it can do. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, needs to be able to handle a whole lot more than just audio. Wi-Fi networks are meant to service entire homes or businesses. This takes a lot of bandwidth and a lot of data.

Moreover, Wi-Fi routers that utilize 5GHz bands can use higher frequency bands to transfer loads more data at a faster speed. To put it in terms of speed: Bluetooth—Maximum Data Rate: 3 Mbps, or 2.1 Mbps after protocol overhead and Wi-Fi—Maximum Data Range: 54 to 1300+ Mbps. Bluetooth just can’t compete with the speeds Wi-Fi is capable of. Upcoming Bluetooth V3 and V4 will handle more data than previous protocols. But, they still won’t handle the kinds of rates Wi-Fi can.

Is Bluetooth or Wi-Fi More Reliable?

Bluetooth vs WiFi - Smaller

When it comes to the question of which one is more reliable, it comes down to the devices you are using. For instance, as we explained in our article on Bluetooth and gaming, using a Bluetooth headset isn’t a great move due to latency issues. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi don’t have any physical products. It’s up to electronics manufacturers to come up with the hardware that uses this technology. In this way, reliability will depend on what products you are using. There is some concern with interference.

In that sense, Wi-Fi has an advantage. You see, the problem with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi is that they use a fairly popular frequency band. As we previously discovered, there is a whole lot more on the 2.4GHz radio band than just iPads and routers. Products can congest up the 2.4GHz band and cause interference. Some of the consequences of this are: less than a stellar connection, choppy audio for Bluetooth, and network dropouts as well.

If you have a newer Bluetooth device or a router that can utilize channel bands, devices will work around this congestion. They will hop around from channel to channel, looking for the least congested one. Similar to cutting in and out of traffic on a highway. 5GHz Wi-Fi aims to relieve a lot of this congestion by operating on a different band altogether. The downside is that this higher frequency band has trouble moving through solid material. This means the farther you are from your router, the worse your signal will get. 

Is Bluetooth or Wi-Fi More Secure?

Bluetooth was once known for security flaws, however, in recent releases, they have tried to plug up a lot of these security holes. In most cases—for both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth—the most stringent security standards just aren’t implemented. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, has always been concerned with safety. There are many security options for wireless networks. They are: WEP, WPA2, WPA, and WPA3. The preferred and newest of these protocols is WPA3.

These protocols are necessary due to the somewhat vulnerable nature of a router. It has to be connected to the outside world for proper operation. Additionally, there are loads of sensitive data stored on the devices connected to it. If you think about security, one thing to consider is what is at risk. While you can use Bluetooth to find security flaws in devices, a hacker is far more likely to crack your Wi-Fi. Because of this, standards for security for Bluetooth have never been a massive concern for consumer electronics. Things are changing, though, and with newer protocol releases will come more robust security standards.

Can You Add Bluetooth to a Device Without It?

If you want to add Bluetooth to a device that doesn’t have it, you may be wondering if there are any solutions. Well, it’s going to depend on what you need that connection for. If you are trying to connect a non-wireless keyboard to your computer, Bluetooth may not be your best bet. If you are trying to add Bluetooth functionality to an audio device, that is a different story.

You can easily add a receiver to a speaker input with a Bluetooth transmitter. Products like the Amazon Echo Link (on Amazon) can add wireless to your audio devices and much more. All you need is access to either a 3.4mm jack or RCA inputs to get things working. If you have a laptop you want to add Bluetooth, you can accomplish this as well. All you will need to do is add a Bluetooth Dongle (on Amazon) to an open USB port.