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We would like to add a BLE transmitter to our board so that it can serve as an iBeacon (and whatever the non-Apple equivalent is known as).

It seems like the engineers at Estimote and Stick n Find decided to settle with the NRF51822, which seems to be the "easy option". I've messed around with the NRF51822 dev kit myself and the wealth of samples make life a lot easier. Another competitor I've seen is the CC2543 but the power numbers from that chip don't look great.

However, given that we are looking into producing large quantities of our board, I was wondering if there were cheaper alternatives out there (even from the name brands?). For example, two areas that seem excessive are:

  1. I've already got a micro on the board so I don't really need another SoC. A BLE radio would suffice.
  2. Given that iBeacons are just transmitters, are there any BLE radios that do not have the RX capability (which would hopefully translate to lower costs)?
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe the nrf8001? \$\endgroup\$ – geometrikal Jan 29 '15 at 8:56
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Here are most of the BLE chips I know:

  • TI CC254x: old, well known, power efficiency is not great, extremely widely used. power: 27mA@any supply voltage, size: 6x6mm, price: $1.95. NOTE: no DC-DC converter on board.

  • nRF51822: newer, excellent, good if a non-realtime MCU is needed, power: 8.0mA@3V, size: 3.5x3.8mm (more commonly 6x6mm), price: $1.92.

  • nRF8001: newer, excellent, good if you don't want to develop firmware; essentially same as above

  • Broadcom BCM20732: very new, good but support is lame, also good if non-realtime MCU is needed. power: 9.1mA (?), size: 6.5x6.5mm, price: $3.95. NOTE: this is a system in package (SIP), it only needs an external crystal - balun and antenna are on board.

  • ST BlueNRG: very new, looks good from datasheet, power: 8.2mA@3V, size: 2.66x2.56mm, price: $1.45.

  • Dialog DA14580: very new, looks excellent from datasheet, no personal experience yet. power: 4.9mA@3V, size: 2.5x2.5mm, price: $1.68. NOTE: this includes a balun on board, still needs crystal and antenna.

NOTE The power listed above is the peak draw during transmit at 0dBm, or receive, whichever is greater. This will determine battery life in many applications. If the connection/advertising intervals are close to the 4sec/10sec max value, the total power during sleep and during radio rx/tx add up roughly to an even split; for shorter intervals the radio power is much greater.

Important questions you need to think about:

  • Do you need FCC approval? Do you know how to go about it? (If not, use a module which has approval already)

  • Do you know how to tune the RF part of this? That needs special tools (network analyzer, etc) and expertise. When I had to do that, it was a real pain :) (If not, use a module, or use the Broadcom chip which has antenna on board; or Dialog chip which integrates a matching network and has a reference design for antenna)

  • Do you want to develop firmware for the Bluetooth SoC? That can be complicated/annoying/expensive. (If not, use nRF8001 or BlueNRG, or use TI CC254x which has ready-made firmwares already)

  • What is the primary design driver/goal: size, power efficiency, unit cost, development cost, time-to-market?

Considering the different possible goals:

  • For total size, the Dialog chip is hard to beat. Don't ignore the size (and keep-out area) needed by your antenna; typical total size is going to be in the 10x10mm range.

  • For power efficiency, it kinda depends if your system is transmitting often or not. You probably need to measure it in a realistic scenario, the datasheet is not gonna be much help.

  • For unit cost - I'm not quite sure, depends on your manufacturing capability, but don't ignore the fact that some of these chips need way more support components than others (so that $3 Nordic chip is really more like $5-$6 total BOM cost, whereas CC2540 based modules can be had for less than $5). Also don't ignore the $10-$20k (?) for FCC approval amortized over however many units.

  • For development cost or time to market - do yourself a favor and use a module :)

On your other questions:

I've already got a micro on the board so I don't really need another SoC. A BLE radio would suffice.

It seems that nRF8001 and nRF51822 (for example) only differ in that the firmware is burned in (not upgradeable, fixed function) on nRF8001; almost everything else about these chips is the same, leading to the supposition that they are built on either exactly the same, or almost the same, silicon. So there is no savings in power, part count, etc; there may be savings in ease of development (don't need to use the BLE stack, can use commands to control the device from another MCU).

Given that iBeacons are just transmitters, are there any BLE radios that do not have the RX capability (which would hopefully translate to lower costs)?

No, sorry; many things in the BLE standard require two-way communication.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the answer! It seems like most of the BLE chips that you listed are SoC's rather than just BLE radios. I guess pure BLE radios are just not that common? Or do you mean that there is no such thing as a pure BLE radio because the BLE stack is fat? \$\endgroup\$ – rith87 Jan 29 '15 at 10:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ The nRF8001 is a good non-SoC part. \$\endgroup\$ – Trygve Laugstøl Jan 29 '15 at 12:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @rith87: Welcome! I think that is correct, BLE stack is typically 100k or so, and for various reasons the radio and the cpu running the stack are closely tied ie one chip. It's more of a question how much you can (re)program the cpu the stack runs on. If you can reprogram it, your code runs in something like a RTOS so the stack always has priority. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex I Jan 29 '15 at 13:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ What's a non-realtime MCU? \$\endgroup\$ – WKleinberg Mar 28 '16 at 20:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @WKleinberg: It's a MCU where your code can't respond to a pin change interrupt for a millisecond or two, because another RTOS task (BLE) is running. It's not the MCU but the Bluetooth stack that prevents you from being realtime. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex I Mar 28 '16 at 23:09

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