By now, you’re almost certainly familiar with Bluetooth wireless technology and all its benefits—cable-free convenience, portability, two-way communication. But stop and think for a minute about what makes Bluetooth different from the other ubiquitous wireless technology you likely use on a regular basis: Wi-Fi. The two share quite a bit in common—both, for example, rely on radio waves to transmit data from one place to another without the use of wires. Both can be used to stream music in and around the home. And you likely use both technologies on your current smartphone or tablet. But no matter how, and on which, devices you use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, you probably use them for very different purposes.
You also definitely connected them in very different ways. That’s what we’ll be discussing in this blog post: a new, convenient way to connect your Bluetooth devices. Before we get to that, we need to discuss the reasons why Bluetooth is a different sort of wireless connection to begin with.
BLUETOOTH: A TWO-WAY STREET FOR TWO DEVICES
Getting back to the comparison between Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for a moment, consider how you use these technologies in and around your home. With Wi-Fi, you likely have multiple devices and multiple people sharing the same connection, all engaged in multiple different activities. You might be streaming Netflix to your smartphone while someone on the other side of the house is checking email on his or her laptop. Yet another family member might be playing online games on the PlayStation 4 in the den, while someone in the kitchen is surfing the web for recipes for tonight’s dinner.
What all these people and all these activities have in common is that they’re all connecting to the outside world (i.e. the Internet) via the same wireless router located somewhere in the house. In other words, Wi-Fi replaces a whole jumble of cables that would otherwise be strung from room-to-room.
Now think about how each of those family members might be using Bluetooth devices during those same activities. You might be wearing a set of wireless headphones to enjoy your Netflix binge. The gamer in the den probably has a wireless headset connected to the PS4. Both Internet surfers are probably using wireless mice or keyboards. The key takeaway is that in each case, the Bluetooth connection isn’t replacing a jumble of wires; each Bluetooth connection is replacing a single wire at a time. There are exceptions to that rule—notably something called Bluetooth multipoint, which we’ll discuss in a future blog post—but in most instances, a Bluetooth connection is an avenue of communication between two devices. Your smartphone and your favorite wireless headphones, for example. Or a TV and a soundbar. Or a computer and mouse. That’s why creating a new Bluetooth connection is called “pairing”—because you’re connecting a pair of Bluetooth devices together. That simple wireless connectivity is one of the things that makes Bluetooth less of a power hog than Wi-Fi. It’s part of the reason why Bluetooth devices can be battery powered and hence, portable.
However, it’s also why Bluetooth pairing can be a somewhat cumbersome process at times. Since Bluetooth is intended as a secure, private connection between two wireless devices, every step of the pairing process is designed to ensure that the devices you’re pairing are the devices you want to pair.
If you’re pairing your smartphone with your wireless headphones, for instance, the process involves putting the headphones into pairing mode (likely by pressing or holding a specific button for a certain amount of time), bringing up the Bluetooth settings on your phone, searching for available devices, deciphering the IDs of those devices if more than one is available, and possibly even entering a passcode. And if you want to share your wireless headphones with a friend or family member, it means going through that process all over again from the beginning.
Unless, that is, both wireless devices support NFC Bluetooth pairing.
NFC MAKES BLUETOOTH PAIRING AS SIMPLE AND EASY AS PLUGGING IN A CABLE
NFC stands for “near-field communication,” and you may already be familiar with it in some form thanks to mobile payment technologies like Apple Pay and Android Pay, which let you tap your smartphone or smart watch on a payment terminal instead of digging through your purse or backpack for your debit card and swiping it in the machine.
What makes NFC different from other wireless technologies is that its range is tiny (just a few inches) compared to the 33-foot range of most Bluetooth headphones—and the amount of data it transmits is infinitesimal. But it’s enough data to allow two Bluetooth devices to identify one another and establish a secure connection. That’s why some Bluetooth device manufacturers have started to use NFC for Bluetooth pairing.
The way it works couldn’t be simpler. With Bluetooth headphones, for example, you just need to make sure that the headphones are powered on, that your mobile device is unlocked and that both Bluetooth and NFC are enabled. Then tap the devices together, and you’re done. A secure two-way Bluetooth connection between them is now established.
Of course, as with most optional Bluetooth technologies, you’ll need to ensure that both your mobile device and your headphones support “tap-to-pair” functionality, as NFC pairing is often called. Luckily, Bluetooth devices that support NFC, like the Phiaton BT 100 NC earphones and BT 220 NC earphones with mic, are becoming more common all the time.
As for mobile devices that support NFC pairing? If you have a relatively recent Android phone, you’re almost certainly in luck. Windows 10 phones and select Blackberry devices also support NFC Bluetooth pairing. The news isn’t quite so bright for iOS fans, though. Even though the iPhone has had built-in NFC technology since the release of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Apple restricts the use of NFC to its Apple Pay service. This could, of course, change at any time, since it would require only a software update from Cupertino to make tap-to-pair work just as easily as tap-to-pay.