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Faster, longer-range Bluetooth 5 to reach devices soon

A new version of the Bluetooth wireless spec will be coming to devices soon, giving users faster connectivity among devices over longer distances.

The new version, Bluetooth 5, is a big upgrade over Bluetooth 4.2, the current specification. In a clear line of sight, the range of Bluetooth 5 could stretch to 400 meters, said analysts at The Linley Group in a research note this week. That means users could connect a smartphone to a Bluetooth speaker that may not even be visible.

Final Bluetooth 5 specifications will be disclosed by the end of this year or early next year, the Linley analysts said.

In a typical, realistic setting, Bluetooth 5 will offer a range of up to 120 meters, which is four times that of Bluetooth 4.2, and be two times faster, with data transfer rates of 2Mbps, said Chuck Sabin, director for business strategy at the Bluetooth-Special Interest Group, which sets the standards for Bluetooth.

Historically, once a final Bluetooth specification is released, devices quickly follow suit, Sabin said. So if the Bluetooth 5 specification is finalized and released late this year, devices that use it could come early next year, Sabin said.

Early versions of Bluetooth were used in audio equipment, headsets and cars. But Bluetooth has evolved; it's now central to the internet of things and is being used in smart home products, medical devices, drones, robots, smart meters and wearables. It is competing with wireless technologies like Wi-Fi and ZigBee.

The faster speed, longer range and error correction features in Bluetooth 5 will make it easier to push firmware to devices, Sabin said. That will be especially helpful for automobiles, smart meters and medical devices designed to be placed inside the body.

Bluetooth 5 will also have one-to-many messaging capabilities. For example, devices will be able to transmit data from a wearable to multiple devices. That capability will help in IoT, where a smart meter could transmit data to multiple computing and data sources.

Another improvement in Bluetooth 5 is the ability to broadcast richer data, including location information, URLs and multimedia files. For example, multiple sensors in a store could provide internal GPS-style navigation to a specific item. Bluetooth 5 could also be useful for self-driving cars, which have to communicate with many sensors and external sources like traffic lights.

Devices that support the latest Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low-Energy versions may be upgradeable to Bluetooth 5 via firmware. Otherwise, devices will require new chips and controllers, which are already being developed, Linley analysts said in the research note. For example, Texas Instruments' CC2640 wireless chip will support the Bluetooth 5 standard.

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