The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (Bluetooth SIG) announced Bluetooth 5 during the summer of 2016 and then towards the end of that year the new specification was officially ratified and we started to see Bluetooth 5 appear in hardware, first in development boards and then in consumer devices, most notably the Galaxy S8.
Last month I got hold of a couple of Bluetooth 5 enabled nRF52840 development boards from Nordic Semiconductor. Using these I was able to test the real world capabilities of Bluetooth 5 and also cut through some of the marketing hype about the new standard.
Most notably I was able to clear up the huge confusion around the ideas that Bluetooth 5 offers 4 times the range and twice the speed. In fact it turns out that Bluetooth 5 does offer (almost) twice the throughput when the two communicating devices are close to each other, but towards the edge of the possible range I demonstrated that Bluetooth 5 has the same throughput as Bluetooth 4.
At the same time I busted some of the myths about Bluetooth 5 offering 4 times the range. The way it has been presented is that the 4x range and the 2x throughput work hand-in-hand, whereas the truth is that the extra range is only available when using a special connection type built into Bluetooth 5, known as a CODED connection. These CODED connections offer a very low throughput, around 109Kbps, but with the advantage of greater range.
Bottom line, forget any dreams of taking your Bluetooth 5 enabled speakers out into the yard while your smartphone is in your bedroom and still getting a good connection speed. For more details on all this you really should watch my video the truth about Bluetooth 5.
After my testing with the development boards, I turned my attention to the Samsung Galaxy S8. My aim was to hack together a quick app which allowed me to test the throughput between two Galaxy S8 handsets over Bluetooth 5.
So I went to Samsung’s developer website to look for a Software Development Kit (SDK) or maybe some documentation about how to access the Bluetooth 5 features, but I found nothing. Thinking that maybe Android already supported Bluetooth 5 I headed over to the official Android Bluetooth documentation, but again nothing.
At this point I was becoming a bit worried, did the Galaxy S8 really support Bluetooth 5?
My first port of call was the Bluetooth SIG website. I was able to find there the official certificate that showed that from a hardware point of view the S8 does indeed support Bluetooth 5. But which bits of Bluetooth 5? Support for the 2 Mbps and Coded connections are optional in Bluetooth 5. The only connection that is mandatory is the 1 Mbps connection speed from Bluetooth 4. Fortunately the Galaxy S8 supports the 2Mbps connection speed, however it doesn’t support the CODED connections. This means there is no “4 times the range” support in the Galaxy S8.
I emailed the PR people at Bluetooth SIG to try to get some more information. They replied quickly and very nicely, however they weren’t able to add much information. The only information that they could share about the S8 was what is on the certification page.
This means there is no '4 times the range' support in the Galaxy S8.
While I was talking with the Bluetooth people we (as in the Android Authority team) tried to get some answers from Samsung and from Google.
At Google I/O, my esteemed colleague Kris Carlon sought out some clever engineers from Google to ask about Bluetooth 5. What we have found out is that Bluetooth 5 will be officially supported in Android O. In fact it is already in the developer preview versions of Android O and the source code has been published in the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). Android O will support the new 2Mbps connection and the new CODED connection type (for that extra range). It will also support the new longer advertising packets.
So it looks like Google’s support for Bluetooth 5 in Android O is pretty good and includes everything we need and expect.
However, before you get too excited, we must remember that Bluetooth 5 functionality will only be available in handsets which have the relevant Bluetooth 5 hardware (i.e. chipset). You can’t convert an older Bluetooth 4 device into a Bluetooth 5 device just by upgrading to Android O.
What this means is that the Samsung Galaxy S8 is well positioned to get native Bluetooth 5 support from Android, but only when Samsung releases an Android upgrade from Nougat to O.
This leads me to one conclusion, you can't use Bluetooth 5 on the Samsung Galaxy S8.
While the Bluetooth SIG and Google were very helpful, I can’t say the same about Samsung. Several different members of the Android Authority team have asked different representatives in Samsung about the status of Bluetooth 5 in the Samsung Galaxy S8. We have had a couple of replies thanking us for our question and a promise of a reply, but so far nothing. It has been more than two weeks!
Since there is no support in Android N for Bluetooth 5, there is the possibility that Samsung has included support itself or that there is an SDK which developers can use to access the Bluetooth 5 features. The normal port of call for such information is developer.samsung.com/galaxy.
Samsung provides a range of software development tools for accessing features like multi-windowing, fingerprint recognition, the S Pen and so on. However there is nothing about Bluetooth 5. Specifically for the S8 there is information about the Edge Panel and Samsung DeX, but no Bluetooth 5 documentation.
This leads me to one conclusion, you can’t use Bluetooth 5 on the Samsung Galaxy S8.
The Galaxy S8 has the right hardware to support Bluetooth 5, but it doesn’t have the right software. If Google and Samsung follow last year’s playbook then Android O will be released sometime this summer (maybe August) and then Samsung will get to work on releasing a version for the S8. The upgrade to Nougat arrived for the S7 in January/February of this year, so it is likely that the S8 will get Android O during the first part of 2018. Until then the Bluetooth 5 capabilities of the S8 remain locked and unusable.