Three flavors of Bluetooth: Which one to choose?

-January 29, 2013

The Bluetooth 4.0 specification brought a new form of Bluetooth technology – variously known as Bluetooth LE, Bluetooth Low Energy, or Bluetooth Smart in communications directed towards the consumer. This new form of Bluetooth technology was developed in order to enable new types of Bluetooth devices in areas where Bluetooth previously hadn’t been widely adopted for reasons of battery life or cost. In this article, I’ll provide a brief history of Bluetooth low energy and the consumer-facing positioning of Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth Smart Ready as well as how to select which “flavor” of Bluetooth is the best option for you.

A very short history of the wireless technology of many names

Bluetooth LE started out as “Bluetooth lite” inside of Nokia’s research labs in the mid-2000s, and was envisioned as a smaller, lighter companion to regular Bluetooth technology in applications where regular Bluetooth was too complex or too power-hungry. Nokia saw promise in this new technology, and put together an industry alliance around this technology together with other wireless and semiconductor companies and christened it Wibree.

A year or so later, it became clear that it made the most sense to develop this technology inside the Bluetooth SIG, and the technology was handed over to them. At this point the technology became known as Ultra-low Power Bluetooth, and would eventually be re-christened Bluetooth low energy. This technology was included in the Bluetooth v4.0 specification when that was released in 2010. For a consumer audience, Bluetooth v4.0 is referred to as Bluetooth Smart or Bluetooth Smart Ready, depending on which form it is presented in.

The Current State of Smart

As of the time of writing (October 2012) Bluetooth low energy has made it into quite a few devices currently on store shelves, including Polar’s H7 heart-rate belt, Garmin’s Fenix sports watch and many more, some of are featured at the Bluetooth SIG’s Bluetooth Smart product showcase pages: Just as important, Bluetooth low energy is supported in new mobile phones, tablets and PCs from the likes of Apple, Motorola and Samsung.

So what is Bluetooth Smart/Bluetooth low energy really?

There has been some confusion about what Bluetooth 4.0 really brings to the table. Some people not familiar with the inner workings of the Bluetooth technology assume that Bluetooth Smart lowers power consumption for all types of Bluetooth usage, and this is not correct. The benefits of Bluetooth Smart only apply to devices that actually make use of the Bluetooth Smart/Bluetooth low energy features, and only in certain use cases. More about that in a moment, let’s first examine how Bluetooth Smart is defined from a consumer-facing perspective.

Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth Smart Ready

From a consumer perspective, Bluetooth devices incorporating Bluetooth low energy technology are branded using the Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth Smart Ready monikers. These do not necessarily correspond directly to the technical categories we will be exploring later, but have their own definitions rooted in the consumer experience. Bluetooth Smart Ready devices are “hub” devices such as computers, tablets, mobile phones and the like, that support Bluetooth Smart (Bluetooth low energy) and allow additional profiles to be added later, either through the download of apps or drivers or some other method.

Bluetooth Smart devices are Bluetooth low energy-based devices that communicate with Bluetooth Smart Ready devices. One important thing to note is that Bluetooth Smart devices by definition cannot communicate with “classic” Bluetooth devices, they can only communicate with Bluetooth Smart Ready devices.

The intention is that when the consumer purchases a Bluetooth Smart device, he or she will know that this will work with other devices bearing the Bluetooth Smart Ready logo, but not with devices only bearing the regular Bluetooth logo.

Click on image to enlarge

Figure 1: The relationship between Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth Smart Ready devices (Source: Bluetooth SIG)

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