Bluetooth® and WiFi® are both wireless technologies that use radio frequency (RF) waves to create networks, but they’re used for fundamentally different purposes. Bluetooth®’s main purpose is to temporarily link an individual’s personal devices together over short distances, while the purpose of WiFi® is to link multiple computers together over longer distances.
Although Bluetooth® and WiFi® both create networks, Bluetooth® creates a Personal Area Network (PAN) by generating low frequency radio waves that all Bluetooth®-enabled devices in the immediate area can join to be interoperable. You might think of this as a “shroud” surrounding an individual user. A Bluetooth® headset, for example, allows hands-free cell phone use for driving or working. Other types of personal devices can swap files, synchronize data and even share access to the Internet through an Internet-enabled laptop, cell phone, personal digital assistant (PDA) or iPod®.
A Bluetooth® network can also be used to send files from your laptop to your desktop, or from your laptop to your printer. If a machine does not come with Bluetooth® capability built-in, adapters are available. Most adapters make use of a Universal Serial Bus (USB) port, but other types of adapters are also available.
WiFi® also uses radio frequency (RF) waves, but its protocols are designed to connect multiple computers. In the case of a business, WiFi® allows many computers to communicate with each other without stringing cable between them, saving considerable money and time in the installation process. Computers operating over the WiFi® LAN can share databases, files, programs and resources including printers, scanners and fax machines. The computers might also share Internet access, though this isn’t a requirement of a LAN.
A home WiFi® network is almost always setup to share Internet access among all computers in the household, while it may or may not be configured to share files and resources. Between Bluetooth® and WiFi®, Bluetooth® is much easier to use for swapping files between computers at home, and even for sending files to a nearby printer. There is virtually no setup involved in establishing a Bluetooth® network, while a LAN requires some configuration and know-how to allow sharing of files and resources.
Since Bluetooth® works with battery operated devices, it most commonly uses a low-powered Class 2 radio to broadcast the RF network, generating a weak signal that doesn’t extend effectively beyond 30 feet (~10 meters) or so. Class 1 Bluetooth® can reach 10x further, geared towards connecting home devices powered by electricity. WiFi® also comes in different flavors and architectures, currently meeting or exceeding the 300-foot (~100m) range.
Bluetooth® and WiFi® each follow specific protocols and standards that make it easy for manufacturers to design and market Bluetooth® and WiFi® products that will be interoperable with other brands and products that support the same standards. For example, as of winter 2008 the current Bluetooth® standard is 2.0 and the newest available WiFi® standard is 802.11n, faster than the previous standard, 802.11g. When shopping for network-capable devices, be sure they support the desired standard and version.
Another way that Bluetooth® and WiFi® differ is that WiFi® is supported by modems and routers, while a near-infinite range of products might support Bluetooth®. Personal devices and home entertainment products are forever evolving, making interoperability a highly desired feature. Perhaps the biggest commonality between Bluetooth® and WiFi® is that both technologies are incredibly useful and widespread; in homes, businesses, government, and in virtually every aspect of life.