Bluetooth is a popular method of wirelessly transferring data between two devices such as your phone and your headphones, your media player and a speaker, or your iPad and a keyboard. It’s one of the most widely used wireless technology in the world, according to Suke Jawanda, chief marketing officer for the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. He says about 2.5 billion Bluetooth products will ship this year alone, and that number will likely double within the next four years.
Bluetooth is all great when it works. But if you’re someone who likes to play around with these kinds of connected gadgets, you know it can be frustrating when there’s a hang-up pairing the two. Here are some common causes of pairing problems as well as advice on what you can do about them.
Why Bluetooth pairings fail
Bluetooth depends on both hardware and software to work properly. Manufacturers such as Apple and Microsoft are increasingly including radios that speak the Bluetooth 4.0 language in their new hardware. But if you have a device — say, a two-year-old phone — that lacks this newer kind of radio, you won’t be able to connect with devices that only support Bluetooth 4.0.
When I recently tested a slew of sport watches, my Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which has a Bluetooth 3.0 radio, couldn’t connect with the Mio Alpha, an innovative device that monitors your heart rate without the need for a chest strap. My husband’s iPhone 5 was able communicate with the Mio Alpha, however, because every iPhone since the iPhone 4S is Bluetooth Smart Ready.
The good news, Jawanda tells me, is that most phones that have shipped over the last 18 months have a dual radio that communicates with Bluetooth Smart Ready devices as well as those equipped for previous versions of Bluetooth. So if your current phone isn’t Bluetooth Smart Ready, your next one probably will be.
But even if my phone did have the right kind of radio for Bluetooth 4.0, my current operating system, Android 4.2.2, doesn’t support Bluetooth Smart. Android users won't be able to use Bluetooth 4.0 until they get Android 4.3 (assuming they have the right hardware).
Devices also come with specific Bluetooth profiles. If Bluetooth is the common language connecting devices, you can think of a profile as a dialect associated with a certain use. For example, you probably aren't going to be able to connect a mouse and a camera because a camera doesn’t support the Human Interface Device Profile. But if both a mobile phone and a wireless headset support the Hands-Free Profile, you should be able to pair them.
However, if the pairing failure is a matter of user error, there are steps you can take to get your devices happily communicating with each other.
What you can do about pairing failures
1. Determine which pairing process your device employs. The process for pairing devices can vary. Sometimes, for example, it involves tapping a code into your phone. Other times, you need to physically touch your phone to the device you want to pair it with; for example, the Sony SmartWatch 2 uses NFC (near field communication) in combination with Bluetooth for pairing. Or in the case of the Nike+ FuelBand, you only have to hold down a button on the watch to pair it with an iPhone.
If you’re not sure how to pair a device, refer to its user guide; you can usually find one by searching online.
2. Make sure Bluetooth is turned on. You should see the little Bluetooth symbol at the top of your phone’s screen. If you don’t, go into the settings to enable it.
3. Turn on discoverable mode. Let’s say you want to pair your phone with your car’s infotainment system so you can enjoy hands-free calling, texting and navigation. First, go into your phone’s settings and tap on Bluetooth; doing so makes the phone visible to the car. Then depress the buttons on your car's infotainment system, usually on the steering wheel or center stack, to get it looking for the device.
Once it finds your phone, the car will display a numeric code you need to confirm or input on your phone. After you do so, the devices should be paired. Keep in mind your phone will only stay in discoverable mode for a few minutes; if you take too long, you’ll need to start over.
4. Power the devices off and back on. A soft reset sometimes can resolve an issue. With phones, an easy way to do this is by going into and out of airplane mode.
5. Delete a device from a phone and rediscover it. If your phone sees a device but isn’t receiving data from it, sometimes it helps to start from scratch. In iOS settings, you can remove a device by tapping on its name and then Forget this Device. In Android settings, tap on a device’s name, then Unpair. After removing a device, start at step 1 on this list.
6. Make sure the devices you want to pair are designed to connect with each other. Whether it’s a headset, speaker, mouse, keyboard, camera or something else, your device has a specific profile that spells out what it can connect with. If you’re not sure, check the user manual.
7. Download a driver. If you’re having problems pairing something with your PC, you might be lacking the correct driver. The simplest way to figure this out is to do an online search for the name of the device you’re trying to pair along with the word “driver.”
8. Update the hardware’s firmware. Some automotive audio systems recently wouldn’t pair with the iPhone 5, for example, because the Bluetooth drivers in these systems didn’t work with Bluetooth 4.0. If you’re not sure how to get the latest firmware for your hardware, check with the device manufacturer.
9. Make sure the two devices are in close enough proximity to one another. While you wouldn’t think someone might try to pair an iPad with a keyboard if the two weren’t sitting right next to each other, it’s probably worth noting that you should make sure any devices you're trying to pair are within five feet of one other.
10. Keep in mind that not all wireless devices use Bluetooth. Alternatives include the Wireless Gigabit specification, Wireless HD, ANT+, ZigBee, NFC as well as Wi-Fi Direct. These other technologies typically won’t work with your phone, tablet or PC, Jawanda notes, without some kind of additional hardware.
We hope this guide has helped you with your Bluetooth pairing problems. If you know of any tip we've missed, share in the comments below!