Let's Talk Locators!

The difference between a Bluetooth locator and a GPS tracker

Joshua Lippiner @ 2019-01-07 15:57:22 -0500

Bluetooth locators can't give you an exact location, just how far away they are from your phone.  GPS uses satellites to give you a more precise location anywhere on the globe within roughly 7.8 meters, but require line-of-sight to the sky.

Bluetooth was designed as a short-range, high speed communication protocol to allow two devices (like your headphones and cell phone) to transmit data when near each other.  As such, Bluetooth was not designed as a locating solution, so it has no way to pinpoint its location.  When you are using a Bluetooth tracker, such as Tile, TrackR or even our own Ping Home, with the associated mobile phone to find the tracker, you are using the signal strength of that connection between the phone and your device to let you know how far away the device might be.  This is why anyone who has tried to locate a Bluetooth tracker with their phone has had to play a virtual game of "hot and cold" moving their phone around randomly until the bars, rings, dots, whatever light up to let you know how close you might be.

Conversely, devices that use GPS or Global Positioning System, use a series of 24 satellites orbiting the earth to pinpoint their location to within 3 - 10 meters, anywhere on earth.  For this to work, a device, such as Ping GPS, must first connect to a number of different satellites, which in turn uses these connections to obtain a "lock" on their location by triangulating between these connections.  The more connections, the faster it can get a lock and the more accurate that lock.  Also, the more direct access a device has to the satellite, i.e. the less obstructions, between the device and a satellite, the better the chances of a lock.  This is why it's very difficult to get a lock when a GPS device is indoors or inside some kind of compartment, bag or container.

One last important distinction is that GPS is not a communication protocol, so there is no way to send data back and forth over GPS, which is a common misconception.  To transmit the GPS location info, a device needs to use something like WiFi, cellular or even Bluetooth (if near the phone) to communicate. Since GPS is typically used when outdoors and away from a phone, cell towers, like your phone, are most often used to send GPS coordinates from a device to some central location.

The rule is simple: