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There is a lot going on in the rapid emerging beacon market. After the introduction of the iBeacon specifications by Apple exactly one year ago the market is getting mature at a fast pace and on top of that Apple has changed the iBeacon specification recently. The last twelve months we saw a lot of vendors selling their little printed circuit boards in a variety of form factors some as small as coins. Everybody simply calling them iBeacons. But is every little bluetooth low energy Beacon an iBeacon? The answer is no. In this article I'll tell you what is and isn't an iBeacon and what makes a good iBeacon by exploring the printed circuit board (pcd), the chipsets, the antenna design, the fimrware and as some sort of conclusion we give advice which Beacon to bet on for a bright beacon future.
Before we will explain the difference between a Beacon and an iBeacon please let me tell you what an iBeacon is.
What is an iBeacon
iBeacon is the trademark for an indoor position system that Apple calls "a new class of low-powered, low-cost transmitters that can notify nearby iOS 7 & 8 devices of their presence. The technology enables a smartphone or other devices to perform actions when in close proximity to an iBeacon.
One application is to help smartphones determine their approximate location or context. With the help of an iBeacon, a smartphone's software can approximately find its relative location to an iBeacon in a store. iBeacons can help a phone show notifications of items nearby that are on sale, and it can enable payments at the point of sale (POS) where customers don’t need to remove their wallets or cards to make payments. iBeacon technology works using the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology, also known as Bluetooth Smart.
iBeacon uses Bluetooth low energy proximity sensing to transmit a universally unique identifier picked up by a compatible app or operating system for instance the Lightcurb iBeacon platform. The identifier can then be looked up over the internet to determine the device's physical location or trigger an action on the device such as a check-in on social media or a push notification.
Various vendors have made hardware Beacons that come in a variety of form factors, including small coin cell devices, USB sticks, and generic Bluetooth 4.0 capable USB dongles.
As the name suggests, the Low Energy variant of Bluetooth is extremely power efficient. Under real-life scenarios, a phone’s battery drain should be less than 1% because of nearby beacons according research of Aislelabs.
Beacons have been gaining popularity in the last twelve months and we are just at the beginning of an very big beacon powered market in the years to come.
The majority of the popular beacons are powered by batteries. Beacons come in all form and shapes, with diverse chipsets, battery sizes and firmware. Numerous beacons exist in the market and everyday new challengers arrive at the beacon arena. But just a few of them are real iBeacons. What is the difference then I’ll hear you say?
Before we go into that we will set some important boundaries. First and very important is the used power supply. As I mentioned before, most of the popular beacons are powered by coin cell or penlite batteries.
Battery consumption behaviour of beacons is very important, especially when deploying them in settings at various points where putting wired or pluged in alternatives isn’t an option. With thousands of beacons in the field already, monitoring their battery levels and replacing them on time can become a hell of a job. We therefore give the advice to use Beacons with long lasting battery life.
Here is where a lot of beacon vendors will promise you that their beacons will last up to two years on one battery. Don’t be fooled in believing everything you read or are told is true. Of course the Beacon can run on a single battery for as long as two years but that comes at a cost. Let us tell you what that is by explaining the difference between the vendors Beacon settings and the Apple iBeacon standard.
We now know a Beacon can run on a single coin battery for up to two years depending on a lot of factors. Probably the most important one is the signal advertising interval of the beacon. This is the rate (frequency) that a beacon emits a signal. Most beacons advertising interval is around 600 or 700 milliseconds meaning the signal is emitted less than twice every second. This, as you probably will guess, means less battery drain for the beacon than an interval of let’s say 100ms. Meaning the signal is emitted every 100 milliseconds (10 times in a single second). You could say perfect. My iBeacon is running an advertising interval of 600 millisecond, battery life is guaranteed for two years so that’s a perfect fit for my business. Apple will tell you to dream on because only when your Beacons are running advertising intervals of 100 milliseconds they will be approved as iBeacon. Besides the advertising interval Apple is demanding more of Beacons vendors before they can use the iBeacon name, logo’s etc.
Printed circuit boards of Beacons vary a lot. Upper left the gold plated Lightcurb iBeacon, upper right the much talked about Estimote iBeacon. Middle left the Glimworm iBeacon built out of two parts, middle right the small pcb from the Kontakt iBeacon.
Now we come to the point where the real battle between the Beacons begins. We now know that each Beacon is transmitting a signal at a certain advertising interval. Beacons do so around every 600 or 700 milliseconds. They do so to save battery life because the more often you have to send the signal the shorter the battery life is. When you as a hardware vendor commit yourself to the Apple iBeacon standard you have to transmit at 100 milliseconds. With a logic result in draining the used battery up to 6 to 7 times faster. With this knowledge most existing coin cell and penlite powered Beacons are weak in the point of durability.
When you choose your set of Beacons, knowing Apple has big plans with the iBeacon standard, you have to take a very good look at the specifications of the vendors Beacons. Ask yourself questions like ‘How long does this Beacon run in the desired iBeacon mode’, ‘Can I easily change the battery’ or ‘Is this Beacon premium enough to use in my shop, school, environment’ simply because investing in the wrong Beacon can come at a cost.
The quality of a Beacon depends on many factors. The design of the PCB, printed circuit board, the finish of the PCB, the design of the antenna, the used main chip, the battery connector and the built in extra’s.
We see a lot of different types of printed circuit boards. From simple but clever of the shelf built devices like the Dutch Glimworm to the premium engineered Estimote and Lightcurb Beacons.In general the cheaper your Beacon comes the worse the PCB is. Many PCB’s have poor design resulting in less battery life, corrosion, leakage etc. This will have a majour impact on the lifespan of the Beacon. Therefore you better choose a good designed, slightly more expensive, Beacon.
The finishes of the Beacon vary a lot too. We have seen cheap and somewhat inferior leaded solder up to gold plated finish Beacons. The Dutch designed Lightcurb iBeacons use gold plated finish for its Beacons because of the fact that it’s a great conductor of electricity.
Also important is the design of the antenna. The better the design of the antenna the less transmitting power you have to give your Beacon. The simple result is better and longer battery life. Beacons from Estimote and yet again Lightcurb have higly engineered antennas.
The chipsets that are used the most as the heart of a Beacon is Texas Instruments’ TI CC254x introduced in 2009 and Nordic Semiconductor’s nRF51822 introduced in 2012. We totally agree on the test that Aislelabs did last november and can say that the nRF51822 from Nordic gives excellent results and is a very good choice to act as the central heart of your Beacon.
Every beacon has it’s specific firmware, which is the logic (programmed code) that enables the beacon hardware to operate. The firmware can control several characteristics that also impact the battery life:
Transmit Power (tx power): Beacon devices transmit a signal with a fixed base power, known as the tx power. As the signal travels in air, the received signal strength decreases with distance from the beacon. Higher tx power means, the signal can travel longer distances. Lower tx power means, less battery consumption but also smaller range.
Advertising Interval: The rate (frequency) that a beacon emits a signal is its advertising interval. An interval of 100ms means the signal is emitted every 100 milliseconds (or 10 times in a single second). A higher interval of 500 ms means the signal is emitted only twice per second, which means less battery drain for the beacon. As the advertising interval increases, the battery life of the beacon also increases, but the responsiveness of the phone decreases. There is no optimal choice of advertising intervals, and applications needing low latency should choose lower advertising intervals, and those needing higher battery life should increase the advertising interval.
Each beacon provides its own way of configuring the hardware and associated parameters (tx power and advertising interval). Some beacons, such as Kontakt, Estimote, RadBeacon and BlueSense Networks, provide their own proprietary iPhone app to configure the beacons. Other beacons, such as Minew, provide open interface via any GATT client (such as LightBlue iPhone app or gattool on Linux). The main advantage of beacons supporting GATT method is that hundreds of beacons can be configured at once.
We see that all major vendors tell they are iBeacon proof or compatible with the iBeacon standard, but that might no longer be true. The newest Apple specification requires a high advertising rate. We as an insiders with knowledge of the specification can tell you that it’s a fixed 100 milliseconds interval. This might come as a surprise to manufacturers of Beacon devices calling them iBeacon. All of them have so far been required only to self-certify their compliance with the Apple iBeacon specification. But vendors of the batteries powered Beacons are making trade-offs that will put them in conflict with the iBeacon specification.
This conflict, between how battery-powered beacons are developed and deployed and Apple’s requirements for power and advertising intervals, may lead to future problems if Cupertino decides to turn it’s eye to enforcing the use of the iBeacon trademark and ‘certification process’ for beacons. Only a few battery powered Beacons will win the battle of the beacons.
We now know that most beacons in iBeacon mode won’t last for a couple of weeks without the need of changing the battery. Even the majority won’t last for more than 1 a 2 months in iBeacon mode. The following iBeacons are tested best1 with better batterylife than 2 months in 100 millisecond advertising interval and fully complaint to the Apple iBeacon standard. They are your best bet for a bright iBeacon deployment future and are the winners of the battle of the beacons:
Estimote www.estimote.com (note: battery can’t be replaced)
1tested by various 3th parties like Aislelabs & Beaconwinkel