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  1. Computer Skills
  2. OS X
Computers

Bluetooth 101

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:MediumLanguages:

Macs have included Bluetooth compatibility for years yet, it seems that its most common use is just for a wireless keyboard or mouse. Bluetooth is widely used in the mobile phone market but why should they have all the fun? Bluetooth is able to perform so much more on your Mac and in this tutorial we’ll find out just how versatile it is.


So What Can Bluetooth Do?

Apart from being used for Apple’s wireless keyboard and mouse/trackpad, Bluetooth can do a heck of a lot more. Here’s a selection of services Bluetooth can do that is compatible with OS X:

  • Wireless audio (speakers / headsets)
  • File sharing to other compatible Bluetooth devices
  • Bluetooth-enabled printers
  • Internet tethering

We’ll go into each feature in more detail shortly but before we do, let’s see how to set up Bluetooth and begin connecting to these wonderful, and often underused, devices.


Getting Started

Step 1

Before we begin, we’re going to need to make sure Bluetooth is switched on. You can do this by simply clicking on the Bluetooth menu bar item in the top-right corner of your display.

Tip: Pretty much all Macs from the last several years have had Bluetooth as standard to accommodate Apple’s wireless devices. Before then, Bluetooth was optional on some models. Chances are if your Mac is able to run Lion or Mountain Lion then it’ll likely have Bluetooth installed.

Bluetooth is accessible via the menu bar

Bluetooth is accessible via the menu bar

Don’t worry if the Bluetooth icon doesn’t appear in the menu bar, it’s probably just not being displayed (which is an option within Bluetooth’s preferences). We’re going to be opening these preferences now so you’ll be able to activate it then.

Step 2

We’re going to be spending a lot of our time in this tutorial using the Bluetooth preference pane. To access it, open System Preferences and select Bluetooth.

Bluetooth is accessible via System Preferences

Bluetooth is accessible via System Preferences

As you’ll see, you can enable Bluetooth using this preference pane as well. If you didn’t see the menu item appear then you can toggle this by checking (or unchecking if you prefer) the Show Bluetooth in menu bar.

Bluetooth Preferences are very straightforward

Bluetooth Preferences are very straightforward

Pairing Devices

Bluetooth devices require going through a process called “pairing” (sometimes referred to as “bonding”). Just like you’d use a password for connecting to a wireless network, Bluetooth has certain security features in place to make sure the device is being used with the user’s knowledge.

Step 1

Open Bluetooth Preferences if it’s not already open and make sure Bluetooth is switched on.

Step 2

All Bluetooth devices have a way to enable a pairing, or “discoverable”, mode, either by holding the power button or pressing a specific pair button. This puts the device is a state of readiness to connect to something for a few minutes. It then makes the device able to be seen by other Bluetooth devices that might want to connect to it.

On your Bluetooth device, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and place it into Pairing mode. I’m using a Plantronics Bluetooth headset and the instructions state I press the power button for 10 seconds which activates pairing mode.

Since the range of most Bluetooth devices is usually around 10 metres then this is enough to make sure that you’re the one wanting to use it.

Step 3

On your Mac, click on Set up New Device…. This launches the Bluetooth Setup Assistant. It immediately starts to search for new Bluetooth devices that are wanting to be paired.

After a few moments it will display the available Bluetooth devices (in my case, my Plantronics headset) and attempts to gather information about the device, such as it’s features and capabilities.

Bluetooth Setup Assistant will launch and begin looking for other devices to connect to

Bluetooth Setup Assistant will launch and begin looking for other devices to connect to

Bluetooth Setup Assistant will also attempt to connect automatically to your selected device

Bluetooth Setup Assistant will also attempt to connect automatically to your selected device

Step 4

Depending on the type of device you have, it may then prompt you to enter a PIN number. This is something older Bluetooth devices require and is a 4 digit PIN set by the manufacturer. Most of the time it’s usually 0000 or something incredibly basic! Again, check with your manufacturer to ensure you know the correct PIN number.

Depending on the type of Bluetooth device, it may prompt for a passcode

Depending on the type of Bluetooth device, it may prompt for a passcode

After it’s paired, OS X will report the features the Bluetooth device will now use. In my case, it can see the headset as an audio input and output device.

One paired, the setup assistant will summarise what services it can use

One paired, the setup assistant will summarise what services it can use

That’s it! You’ve successfully paired a Bluetooth device! No matter what type of Bluetooth device you’re needing to pair, the same process applies. Now let’s take a look at how we can use some of these features of Bluetooth.


Wireless Audio

If you’re a heavy Skype or FaceTime user then using a Bluetooth headset might make things a little easier. I use a Bluetooth headset for making Skype calls during the day as it’s much better than using your Mac’s built-in microphone and speaker. I used to use my iPhone’s headphones but that meant I was tethered to the Mac and often found the cable got in the way.

A Bluetooth headset, whilst completely unstylish, does make regular Skype calls much better

A Bluetooth headset, whilst completely unstylish, does make regular Skype calls much better

Using a Bluetooth headset prevents feedback since the Mac’s mic and speakers are in the same place which isn’t very good for making calls and the quality is usually much better as using the Mac’s built-in mic and speakers can make you sound as though you’re on a terrible speaker phone.

Additionally, Bluetooth headphones and speakers are becoming extremely popular and increasing in quality which means they’re fast becoming a great way to enjoy music. If you’re averse to cable clutter but want something better than your Mac’s built-in speakers but cheaper than an AirPlay device, a Bluetooth speaker or set of headphones are ideal.

Devices such as the Jawbone Jambox are hugely popular speakers that your Mac can also use

Devices such as the Jawbone Jambox are hugely popular speakers that your Mac can also use

Setting up a Bluetooth headset, speaker or headphones is very easy. After pairing your audio device, you can follow the instructions below.

Step 1: Using Bluetooth For All Audio

In OS X Lion and Mountain Lion, there’s a really simple way of using Bluetooth audio devices on your Mac once they’re paired. Using the Bluetooth Menu Item in your Mac’s menu bar, you can select to Use as Audio Device. As soon as you select this, all of your Mac’s audio is played through the Bluetooth device and will be used as a microphone as well.

OS X has a really easy way to start using Bluetooth audio devices quickly

OS X has a really easy way to start using Bluetooth audio devices quickly

Simple! Now if you use something like FaceTime or Skype, you’ll see the Bluetooth device is automatically selected as the audio device to use.

But we can control this even further…

Step 2: Selective Audio

What if we still want to use our Mac’s own speakers for audio but just use our Bluetooth device as a microphone? A neat little trick is you can specify this as well.

Click on the Volume menu bar item whilst holding down the Alt key on your Keyboard. An additional menu appears that will let you specify which audio device to use as input and output.

We can select which device we want to be our input or output device independently

We can select which device we want to be our input or output device independently

In certain apps such as Skype you can even specify the audio device to use within it’s preferences.

Apps such as Skype will detect the connected Bluetooth device for you to use

Apps such as Skype will detect the connected Bluetooth device for you to use

File Sharing

This is one Bluetooth option that doesn’t require pairing. It does, however, require it to be enabled through System Preferences under the Sharing preference pane.

Step 1

Open System Preferences and click on Sharing. You’ll see at the bottom of the list is an option called Bluetooth Sharing. Since it’s file sharing then for security reasons it is not enabled by default. Once you’ve enabled it, you’ll then be able to send and receive files over Bluetooth.

Even though we’ve enabled Bluetooth, Bluetooth File Sharing must be turned on

Even though we’ve enabled Bluetooth, Bluetooth File Sharing must be turned on

Tip: Bluetooth file sharing is painfully slow and was previously used before phones were equipped with Wi-Fi and high speed 3G and 4G connections. However, it’s still the easiest way of getting large files off non-Apple phones (iOS does not support Bluetooth file sharing) and devices that support Bluetooth rather than emailing them.

Step 2

Once enabled you are then able to send files to a Bluetooth device. Sending files is really easy, simply click on the Bluetooth Menu Item and then click on Send File…. The app Bluetooth File Exchange will launch and you’ll be presented with a window to select a file to send. Select something and then click Send.

Bluetooth File Exchange is how OS X is able to send files to other Bluetooth devices

Bluetooth File Exchange is how OS X is able to send files to other Bluetooth devices

Step 3

You’ll next be prompted to select a Bluetooth device that’s available. As you can see, I have a Bluetooth printer, to which I can send an image, so I’m going to select that.

Once you’ve picked the file you want to send, you then select the device to send it to

Once you’ve picked the file you want to send, you then select the device to send it to

Once you’ve chosen your desired Bluetooth device then click Send and a file transfer window will appear.

A transfer window will appear when you start sending the file

A transfer window will appear when you start sending the file

Bluetooth-Enabled Printers

Before Wi-Fi printers became the de-facto standard for wireless printing, Bluetooth was seen as the best way to print. It was simple and some companies such as HP even manufactured Bluetooth adapters that could be attached to the back of some of their printers.

A Bluetooth printer, like the Polaroid PoGo that I have, shows that Bluetooth isn’t limited to just keyboards and mice

A Bluetooth printer, like the Polaroid PoGo that I have, shows that Bluetooth isn’t limited to just keyboards and mice

Bluetooth printing works the same way as traditional printing and once paired, your Bluetooth printer will appear as a normal printer whenever you attempt to print something.

Certain printers don’t follow this logic, such as my Polaroid printer we used in the previous example, and in those cases we simply use Bluetooth File Transfer instead.


Internet Tethering

If you have an iPhone or cellular-enabled iPad, you might also use Personal Hotspot. This works by creating a wireless network that your Mac or non-cellular iPad can connect to and share its connection. It also works over USB and Bluetooth, in fact it was originally just USB and Bluetooth when the feature first launched as Internet Tethering. Tethering your Mac via Bluetooth is also sometimes referred to as PAN - Personal Area Network.

Tip: More information on Personal Hotspot can be found at Apple’s support site.

If you have Personal Hotspot enabled on your iOS device then you can connect via Bluetooth rather than using Wi-Fi. To do this, simply use the pairing instructions we’ve previously gone through and your Mac will automatically detect that your iOS device is capable of being an internet connection device.

Most smartphones that support tethering now offer the option to do so via Wi-Fi so using Bluetooth may not be the best option for you. However, many smartphones such as Android devices so if you find yourself using a device that doesn’t offer the functionality over Wi-Fi then Bluetooth is a possible fallback.

Tip: Bluetooth transfer speeds are slow so if you’re wanting to get the most out of your 3G or 4G connection then Bluetooth isn’t the best way to go!


Wrapping Up

Although relegated by newer technologies to mainly being used as a way to wirelessly connect a keyboard and mouse, there’s still plenty of tricks that Bluetooth can do that can still be of benefit. Whilst file transfers, printing and internet tethering are examples of features that have been replaced with technologies such as Wi-Fi and Dropbox, Bluetooth audio is an area that’s booming thanks to the surge in smartphone usage.

If you’re a Bluetooth user beyond a keyboard and mouse, let us know how you’re using it! Whether it’s a simple headset or some specialised piece of hardware, let us know in the comments.

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