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I'm tethering a Galaxy Nexus (running Android 4.0) with my Macbook Pro (2009 model, running Mac OS X 10.7). What's the difference between Bluetooth and WiFi tethering in terms of:

  • latency
  • bandwidth
  • power consumption on the phone?

I understand that Android does not support USB tethering with a Mac. Is that correct? Thanks.

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1  
Android does not support USB tethering with a Mac. Where did you hear that? –  Sathya Feb 7 '12 at 6:30
    
    
There's no mention anywhere that Macs aren't supported. Going by that logic, you mean o say Windows 7 isn't supported? Sure works fine here. –  Sathya Feb 9 '12 at 2:49
    
Have you gotten it working on the Mac? If not, can you answer my question about wifi vs bluetooth? –  Kartick Vaddadi Feb 11 '12 at 8:14

5 Answers 5

up vote 6 down vote accepted

In practical terms there is no speed difference between Bluetooth and WiFi when used for tethering cellular data. The reason being typical cellular data service data transfer rates are much slower than the theoretical limits of Bluetooth, making the potential higher bandwidth of WiFi irrelevant.

In addition, Bluetooth tethering is more convenient than WiFi, since in a number of notable phones (the iPhone being one) you can initiate tethering from the other device (as in your Laptop) when the phone is off (technically, in Standby with the screen is turned off).

I've done some tests and compared the various tethering options of an iPhone tethered to a Mac or iPad with the difference in real data transfer rates of each.

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Interesting. I occasionally get 4-6mbps on the cell network, so I guess I'll stick with WiFi. I don't keep Bluetooth on all the time. If I have to turn it on while tethering, I might as well go with Wifi. –  Kartick Vaddadi Jun 25 '12 at 2:38
7  
I’m surprised this answer appears to have been written in 2012. It may depend where you live, but in the United States, cellular users regularly see actual (not theoretical) download speeds of 10+ Mbps and ~60 ms ping times on LTE networks. Therefore Wi-Fi is significantly faster than the Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR that most devices support. If both your phone and laptop support Bluetooth 3+ then Bluetooth can be just as fast. –  Nate Dec 18 '12 at 17:08
    
Back in 2012, with 3G HSPA+ networks available worldwide, this answer was already basically wrong. Now in 2015, with 4G LTE being increasingly common, it is outrageous. –  Lorenzo Jan 12 at 15:06

Even with an 2.0 EDR Bluetooth dongle, which should run at 3 Mbit/s, Bluetooth Tethering is usually locked at 1 Mbit/s (I've tried a wide array of mobile devices, chipsets, dongles, laptops, tablets with all the possible combinations).

On Bluetooth 3.0 and 4.0 the peak speed of 24 Mbit/s is not achieved on the Bluetooth link, but on a 802.11 link. I've never been able to get this configuration working on non custom hardware setups.

So, in my experience, top speed for Bluetooth Tethering is 1 Mbit/s. Which is very slow, even if you are tethering a mobile connection (in 2015 real life mobile speeds are around 6 Mbit/s on 3G H+, and 15 Mbit/s on 4G LTE).

Still, it might be the right choice to tether over Bluetooth, because it uses much less power than WiFi tethering, and on mobile devices battery life is usually the top priority.

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Keep in mind that tethering via Bluetooth is far more energy efficient than using your phone as a WiFi hotspot. If it's speed you're after though, in my experience, WiFi performs better than Bluetooth.

Furthermore, with Bluetooth, it is possible to share a WiFi connection with other devices, which can be helpfull when you have a paid service which only allows one MAC address, for instance at a hotel.

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You can enable Android USB tethering on your Mac by installing HoRNDIS on your Mac. http://joshuawise.com/horndis

USB tethering has lower latency, higher bandwidth and uses less power on your phone, but uses more power on your Mac as the Mac is also charging/powering the phone.

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While this answer could be useful, it does not answer the question. –  Léo Lam Jan 10 at 9:48

For the bandwidth and latency, it all depends which version of Bluetooth both your phone and your computer support, and what kind of network connection you're tethering. Your connection speed will only be as fast as the fastest standard supprted by both devices.

From Wikipedia's Bluetooth page these are the theoretical maximum speeds for various Bluetooth versions:

Bluetooth Basic Rate (BR) 1Mbit/s
Bluetooth 2 Enhanced Data Rate (EDR) 2-3Mbit/s
Bluetooth 3 + HS (high Speed) 24MBit/s

Whereas for Wi-Fi (again depending on the Wifi version supported by your phone and your Mac:

IEEE 802.11b 11 Mbit/s (realistically 5-7MBit/s)
IEEE 802.11a 54MBit/s (realistically around 20 Mbit/s)
IEEE 802.11g 54MBit/s (realistically around 20 Mbit/s)
IEEE 802.11n 54MBit/s to 600MBit/s

(most devices these days support B & G, with new, fast devices supporting N as well)

So on the face of it, Wifi will normally give you a faster connection. However if you're tethering your phone to your Mac to connect to your phone network's data then the limitation is probably going to be the speed of your phone's data connection.

3G isn't a precise term and means different things on different phone networks, but you're normally looking at a speed of around 400Kbit/s to 2Mbit/s, which means that anything better than Bluetooth Basic Rate ought to be able to carry that data speed pretty comfortably.

HSDPA aka 3.5G supports speeds of between 2MBit/s to 14MBit/s (depending on the implementation) so if you have a decent HSDPA or HSPA+ signal then you are probably better off using Wifi.

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Thanks. I get up to 4mbps on HSPA+, and Macbook Pros support only Bluetooth 2 EDR, which runs at only 2-3mbps as you point out, so I should tether via wifi. But what about latency? Is there a difference in latency between wifi and bluetooth? –  Kartick Vaddadi Feb 16 '12 at 4:19
    
Macbook pros from the past couple of years support Bluetooth 4.0 (for example, support.apple.com/kb/sp658), which runs up to 24MBit/s. –  leecbaker Jan 27 '14 at 5:00

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