Bluetooth Classic and Bluetooth Low Energy - The Differences
People continue to need to share data between their different devices. In our household, we have two iPads, two iPhones, one Android phone, one Android tablet, two laptops, and one desktop computer. That’s just for two adults.
When we’re on trips and we take lots of pictures – we find that trading SD cards or using cables and a computer are a hassle. Instead, we mostly use Apple AirDrop to share those photos with other friends or family.
Whenever you exchange photos like this, you’re actually using the Bluetooth protocol. Bluetooth is just one of the wireless connectivity standards that many of us frequently use. Unlike Wi-Fi (802.xx), it was developed for a very limited set of use cases involving the sharing of data over short distances. Today, Bluetooth is available in many different applications including file sharing (Airdrop), music (headphones/earbuds/speakers), devices (keyboards, mice, lights), and more.
There are two different versions of Bluetooth: Classic and BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy). What’s the difference? For all intents and purposes, they do similar things – transfer data. It just happens that one is more effective and efficient than the other. BLE is the low-power variation that is designed to help save the battery life of devices using it and has significantly higher data transfer rates.
Over the years, the naming conventions for Bluetooth technology have changed and continue to cause some confusion. Understanding the similarities and differences between Classic and BLE is an important first step to understanding Bluetooth. It’s especially important if you develop Bluetooth software or hardware. Why do these seemingly incompatible protocols share a name? Which one is best for your application? What happened to Bluetooth Smart? Continue reading to find out all the details and answers to some of the most common Bluetooth-related questions.
Bluetooth is a wireless technology we have all used for transferring files, such as text, photos, videos, audio files, and more between smartphones or between phones and other electronic devices. Most people are familiar with Bluetooth because they might use Bluetooth headphones. Bluetooth is a Connection-Oriented technology that forms a Personal Area Network (PAN) and operates in a 2.4 GHz frequency for communication. Before data transfers take place, the connection needs to be established between two Bluetooth-compliant devices.
Bluetooth is a wireless technology that uses radio waves to send wireless data, which makes it quite similar to Wi-Fi which also uses radio waves. However, Bluetooth doesn’t require additional network equipment (modems or routers) and can work between any two enabled devices. This makes it a popular choice for sharing data across small distances. Depending on the radio antennas involved, it works over a distance of 164 feet (50 meters), which is more than enough for most consumer, home, vehicle, and health electronics applications.
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
The mention of BLE, or Bluetooth Low Energy, first appeared with the Bluetooth version 4.0. It is also known by other names, such as Wibree or Bluetooth Smart, and it’s a low-power version of the original Bluetooth standard. This is due to low power sleep modes and a lower power consumption design. BLE is also maintained and managed by Bluetooth SIG (Special Interest Group) – an organization that oversees the licensing and development of Bluetooth standards and technologies.
BLE uses a different Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) scheme than traditional Bluetooth, which is why BLE and “classic” Bluetooth devices are incompatible. Both technologies operate in the same 2.4 GHz ISM band (Industrial, Scientific, and Medical frequency). ISM is typically reserved for industrial, scientific and medical equipment using Radio Frequency (RF) technologies. Another major difference that reduces power consumption is that BLE constantly remains in sleep mode, except when initiating a connection. The actual connection time for Bluetooth classic takes ~100ms, while BLE takes only a few ms.
The History of Bluetooth Releases
If we are talking about Bluetooth before 2010, then we’re referring to the Bluetooth “Classic” that is proposed and maintained by the Bluetooth SIG. The very first version of Bluetooth, Bluetooth v1.0 was released in 1999.
We’ve included the list of major releases below. Historically, there were and continue to be minor releases available as well.
- Version 2.0 in 2004;
- Version 3.0 in 2009;
- Version 4.0 in June 2010;
- Version 5.0 in July 2016.
Bluetooth v3.0 includes three modes: BR, EDR, and HS (AMP). Bluetooth v4.0 was released in June 2010, and it included three protocols – classic Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, and Bluetooth high speed. Classic Bluetooth consists of legacy Bluetooth protocols, while Bluetooth high speed is based on Wi-Fi. Version 5.0 introduced improvements including sacrificing speed for range or long range at the expense of data rate.
Any technology released by Bluetooth SIG can be called Bluetooth technology. In 2010, Bluetooth SIG merged with Wibree – an alternative wireless model developed and introduced in 2006 by Nokia, which competed with the standard Bluetooth technology. Nokia wanted to develop a low-power wireless communication technology with mobile phone peripherals, and Wibree used less energy while maintaining similar services. It was also known as Baby Bluetooth. Once merged, the Bluetooth SIG changed its name from Wibree to Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE or BLE) and included it in Bluetooth v4.0.
Bluetooth SIG first promoted BLE as “Bluetooth Smart” to distinguish it from the standard version, while “Bluetooth Smart Ready” was used to denote the dual-mode Bluetooth that would support both versions. This naming led to confusion among both developers and consumers. Bluetooth SIG decided to stop using these different names and brought everything under the Bluetooth umbrella term.
Bluetooth Classic vs. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) – Similarities and Differences
First, let’s take a look at what is common between classic Bluetooth and BLE.
- Both Bluetooth Classic and BLE operate with the same encryption, authentication, and pairing technology.
- Both technologies involve devices that operate in a standard master-slave model. You first have to pair the Bluetooth devices for the data transfer to happen.
- If you’ve transferred data from a smartphone to another Bluetooth device, you’ll know how connectivity and pairing work with classic Bluetooth and BLE:
- Both classic Bluetooth and BLE have similar RF output power and operate in the same 2.4GHz ISM band.
Bluetooth versions 4.0, 4.1, 4.2, and 5.0 include both classic Bluetooth and BLE. When developing or using Bluetooth applications, you should know which version to use because they work differently. If you have begun to think that they are somewhat like identical twins, you were wrong, since the most important difference between the two is power consumption.
Classic Bluetooth is mainly used for audio applications, such as wireless speakers, headphones, and phone connections. BLE is more often used for battery-powered accessories (e.g., keyboard and mouse), wearable devices, fitness monitoring equipment, and smart IoT devices. Classic Bluetooth can be powered by batteries as well, but BLE’s power requirements are much lower.
Classic Bluetooth and BLE have different physical layer modulation/demodulation methods, which is why they cannot communicate with which other. If the master device is a BLE device, the slave device(s) must also be BLE. However, as we’ll discuss later, a modern smartphone can communicate with classic and BLE devices at the same time, even if the devices can’t communicate with each other.
The Bluetooth specification in Bluetooth version 4.0 defines two modes: single and dual. Bluetooth version 4.0 compliant devices can implement either or both of the modes. Those two modes are: Basic Rate/Enhanced Data Rate (BR/EDR) or Classic and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). A Classic only mode device can not connect with a Low Energy only device. That being said, more recent smart devices that communicate using dual mode can connect with multiple Low Energy (BLE) devices.
- BLE and low energy consumption
Bluetooth and BLE are used for different applications. While Bluetooth is able to handle a lot of data, it costs a lot more and consumes battery life quickly. On the other hand, BLE is used for applications that don’t need to exchange large amounts of data, which allows them to run on battery power at a lower energy cost – extending the amount of time needed between charges.
BLE offers low power consumption because it operates in sleep mode, and users “wake it up” when initiating a connection and exchanging data. That’s why BLE offers power consumption measured in microamperes, with a peak power consumption of 15-20 mA (it can be powered by button or coin cell batteries for years). BLE devices’ power consumption is usually around just 1-5% of the power consumption of classic Bluetooth devices. BLE is used for applications such as ticketing, access control, healthcare, and mobile payment.
As for data transfer rates, BLE devices are faster. Many classic Bluetooth features are inherited in BLE technology, including adaptation protocol interface, part of the logical link control, and adaptive frequency hopping. This inheritance makes BLE robust, easy-to-set-up, and reliable in tough environments. Furthermore, BLE devices can accommodate a larger number of slaves when compared to classic Bluetooth. That number depends on the available memory size and implementation of the devices.
Limitations of BLE
- Data throughput. The data throughput of Bluetooth Low Energy is limited by the PHY (radio layer data rate) – the rate at which the radio transmits data. This rate varies among Bluetooth versions. For example, for Bluetooth 4.0, 4.1, and 4.2, the rate is fixed at 1 Mbps. For later versions, the rate varies depending on the PHY and mode used. The rate can be 1 Mbps or 2 Mbps when using the high-speed feature.
- Range. BLE (and Bluetooth, in general) is designed for short-range applications. There are several factors that limit the range of BLE:
- Device orientation
- Physical enclosure of the device
- Design and performance of the BLE device antenna
- The 2.4 GHz ISM spectrum in which BLE operates is affected by obstacles around it, such as walls, water, metal objects, and especially human bodies.
Smartphones Operate with Both
As we mentioned previously, modern smartphones are the most common dual-mode Bluetooth device examples because they support both classic Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy. Most modern smartphones can communicate with both types of Bluetooth devices, and they achieve this by using a time-sharing mechanism to communicate using both modes. Smartphones allow dual-mode Bluetooth chips to keep switching between modes to support both classic Bluetooth and BLE devices. For example, a modern tablet can communicate with a headset that uses classic while also communicating with peripherals like a mouse and keyboard that use BLE.
Whether we are talking about classic Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, or dual-mode Bluetooth devices, fully appreciating and understanding the differences is a critical step in choosing the most valuable solution for your needs.
Our new Android application, SignalsTM will allow users to visually manage Bluetooth connections, locate lost devices, and block foreign unknown devices.
Visit our Features page by clicking the button below.
Our new Android application, SignalsTM allows users to visually manage Bluetooth connections, locate lost devices, and block foreign unknown devices.
Visit our Features page by clicking the button below.
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