There are so many different wireless protocols today that it can be challenging to keep track of them all. While this variety can help wireless technology developers find an ideal solution for their specific goals, it also can make choosing one difficult. That’s especially true when you consider variations of a standard, like Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).
The average consumer may see “Bluetooth” and ”BLE” on labels and mistake them for the same thing. Even for a seasoned tech enthusiast, the distinction between Bluetooth and BLE may not be clear apart from the difference hinted at in the names. Here’s a more in-depth look at these two standards to clear things up.
Almost everyone knows what Bluetooth does, and many people use it every day, but fewer understand the specifics. It first emerged in 1994 as a means to replace wired connections between devices in a small area. It uses a range of different low-power radio frequencies to do so.
Bluetooth operates between 2,400 and 2,483.5 MHz, like most wireless protocols. Unlike many other standards, though, Bluetooth doesn’t transmit data over one frequency. Instead, it divides it into packets and delivers them over 79 channels within the 2.4 GHz range, switching between them continually.
Bluetooth supports data rates between one and three Mb/s and is typically short-ranged. Most devices start to lose connectivity after roughly 30 feet, but the protocol can theoretically work over several hundreds of meters. Factors like receiver sensitivity, transmitter power and interference all affect Bluetooth’s range.
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
Bluetooth Low Energy first hit markets in 2011 as part of Bluetooth 4.0. As its name implies, this version uses less power than the already energy-efficient Bluetooth Classic. Like Bluetooth Classic, BLE operates on the 2.4 GHz spectrum, but it only transmits over 40 channels, not 79.
Another thing that sets BLE apart from its counterpart is that it stays in sleep mode until users initiate a connection. It also hops between frequencies at a different rate, helping save more power. When it is connected, BLE’s duty cycles are far shorter than standard Bluetooth.
BLE’s data rates are typically lower than Bluetooth Classic, ranging between 125 Kb/s and 2 Mb/s. Even though they’re variations of the same standard, Bluetooth Classic and BLE devices aren’t interoperable on their own. IoT devices can transmit over both with the same antenna, but only with a dual-mode chip.
Comparing Benefits and Weaknesses
Generally speaking, standard Bluetooth is ideal for transmitting a lot of data, and BLE is better for saving power. Since BLE can only deliver up to 2 Mb/s, it’s not suitable for applications that need to exchange larger files. By contrast, Bluetooth Classic will support heavier data loads but will drain battery life faster and could be more expensive.
At first, it may seem like standard Bluetooth isn’t ideal for IoT applications since it uses more power. Even small devices like smartwatches sometimes need to transfer files as large as 200 MB, though. That may not seem like a particularly massive file, but given BLE’s lower data rates, it could take a while to transfer, at least by today’s standards.
Many IoT processes don’t need to handle files that large. For these instances, BLE would be ideal since it uses considerably less energy than standard Bluetooth. Given how small the batteries are in some devices, even marginal power savings can make a difference.
Which Technology Is Right for You?
There’s no single answer to which version of Bluetooth is the best option. It depends entirely on the purpose of the device or process at hand. Many items today use both intermittently to adjust depending on their current task.
BLE has emerged as a favorite for fleet management systems since its lower power consumption enables longer battery life. When a device needs to last the entire length of a trucker’s route without dying, that’s a crucial advantage. By contrast, smartwatches and other smartphone peripheries often rely on classic Bluetooth, given their larger file sizes.
If cybersecurity is a prevalent concern, you may want to go with Bluetooth Classic. BLE has a few security vulnerabilities that aren’t as prominent in standard Bluetooth. With the right security infrastructure, though, these issues may not be severe.
You Have Options When It Comes to Wireless Protocols
Designing wireless devices today is simultaneously easier and more intimidating than it has been in the past. The sheer number of choices makes it easier to choose something not ideal, but it also enables greater specialization. Bluetooth and BLE are just a sampling of the different protocols out there, and more will likely emerge in the future.
Bluetooth remains one of the most trusted and reliable wireless protocols there is, despite its age. BLE gives wireless device manufacturers another option, providing answers for some of traditional Bluetooth’s weak points. Bluetooth and BLE may be more different than they seem, but they are similarly useful.