Bluetooth 3.0 and Wireless N speed test: Something in the air

GSMArena team, 29 December 2010.

Bluetooth 3.0 labels and why they matter

We researched the Bluetooth 3.0 issue and the reason for the low speeds we were getting became instantly clear – it’s a simple case of confusing labels. You’d think that Bluetooth 3.0 is Bluetooth 3.0, right? Wrong.

The Bluetooth 3.0 specifications detail three things – Unicast connection-less data, Enhanced Power Control and Alternate MAC/PHY.

The Unicast part specifies a way to send a little data without much delay (e.g. a remote control) and the Enhanced Power Control keeps a tighter reign on the transmitting power and makes the device a little more power-efficient.

But it’s the Alternate MAC/PHY section of the specifications that’s interesting – and also the section that’s not mandatory to get a Bluetooth 3.0 certification. It allows two BT3.0-certified devices to do a handshake over a Bluetooth link and then switch to a 802.11 link (the base technology for Wi-Fi) to achieve speeds of up to 24Mbps.

Devices that support Alternate MAC/PHY are certified as “Bluetooth 3.0+HS” (High Speed) and ones that don’t are certified as just “Bluetooth 3.0” and are limited to regular Bluetooth transfer speeds (no Wi-Fi magic).

A bit more digging reveals that Android 2.2 (and below) doesn’t even support Bluetooth 3.0 – the BlueZ library that it uses is old and works only up to Bluetooth 2.1+EDR. You can check Bluetooth support info for the other Android versions over at their dev site (there’s no info on Gingerbread though).

It’s possible that manufacturers (like Samsung) use a different software stack, but the transfer between the two Bluetooth 3.0 certified Samsung droids we tested was going at v2.1 speeds, so that wasn’t it.

The Bluetooth SIG website settled any remaining doubts we had. None of the phones we checked were Bluetooth 3.0+HS certified, they support just the vanilla v3.0. This put an end to this speed test – 24Mbps just wasn’t going to happen so when you come to pick your next uber-smartphone you can safely ignore the Bluetooth 3.0 specs as long as they don’t list HS explicitly.

Final words

Consumers like bigger numbers – it’s a fact of life. If you sit around the Internet fireplace long enough you’ll hear all sorts of stories of companies picking higher numbers for marketing reasons more than for actual benefit of the end user.

One tale of the Internet lore holds that Microsoft called their second Xbox “Xbox 360” so that it’s not Xbox 2 vs. Playstation 3 (which would seemingly put Sony’s console one generation ahead). Canon and Nikon have a similar game going on with their competing products too.

We don’t know if that’s true or not but as far as Bluetooth 3.0 is concerned, that’s pretty much the case – jumping from version 2 to version 3 is more for show than because of some tangible improvement.

New software might enable Bluetooth 3.0+HS on some phones (if the underlying hardware supports it) but right now we’ll have to settle for Bluetooth 2.1+EDR speeds no matter what the box label says.

As far as the latest Wireless N connectivity is concerned, we did see some improvement but the results weren’t as definitive as we thought they would be judging by the specs on paper. It was better in some cases and worse in others. In any case, you won’t get six-time speed up as the 54Mbps vs. 300Mbps numbers might lead you to believe. It’s nowhere close to even two times in fact.

Overall, Wireless N mode will help out in areas where the G protocol bitrate drops substantially, which can be quite useful if you’re using only one router to cover your home.

It pays to use a Wireless N router and phone – your laptop will certainly enjoy a speed-up from the new standard but if your phone has only Wi-Fi b/g support, it will drop the speed of the entire wireless network for N clients as well.

While both Bluetooth 3.0 and Wi-Fi 802.11n have their place in the mobile world, you won’t be missing out much if your phone doesn’t support either of them right now.