What is Bluetooth 5?
The Bluetooth SIG (Special Interest Group) announced the standard for Bluetooth 5 back in December 2016 but hasn't seemed to generate much interest since its release. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the Bluetooth SIG seemingly marketing its primary application as getting advertisements off of 2.4GHz and mobile data plans and onto your IoT coffee maker... Anyway, the Bluetooth 5 Core specification aims to increase the functionality of the IoT by delivering "a connectionless IoT, advancing beacon and location-based capabilities in home, enterprise, and industrial applications".
Bluetooth 5 has four times the range of BLE 4.2 (the previous protocol), faster download speeds, and more bandwidth (2 Mbps) while consuming less power. This will be accomplished by implementing "Bluetooth beacons" to make Bluetooth 5 operate similarly to mesh networks, which will conveniently require lots more Bluetooth 5 devices (an estimated 13.9 billion by 2020).
Casting aside my cynicism for a moment, there is one aspect of Bluetooth 5 that has me really excited: it's designed to coexist with other wireless technologies. Bluetooth 5 won't interfere with protocols like Zigbee and Thread, allowing designers to make devices that can operate on multiple protocols. It's also backward-compatible with all BLE devices, so making the transition to Bluetooth 5 should be fairly painless and risk-free. You can find all the technical specifications and how to implement Bluetooth 5 on the Bluetooth SIG's website if you'd like to learn more about it.
Now that the Bluetooth 5 specifications have been around for a few months, chip makers have unveiled some new SoCs for designers. Most of these SoCs were designed specifically to accommodate multiple protocols in a single chip to go along with Bluetooth 5. Now let's look at some chips!
Silicon Labs' EFR32 Wireless Gecko
The new EFR32 Wireless Gecko SoC was announced at Embedded World 2017. These are primarily aimed at IoT, connected home, lighting, and health-based wearable applications. The original Gecko series SoCs used multiprotocol software, allowing for BLE (now with 5.0), Zigbee, Thread, and Wi-Fi on the same device—but they were all separate chips. The EFR32 is the first in the series to have them all on one chip.
These SoCs were made with the goal of helping designers have their connectivity situation handled for a long time. Silicon Labs also released new EFM 32 Gecko 32-bit MCUs to go along with them. There are also EFR32 development boards.
An EFR32MG12 development board. Image from Digi-Key.
Getting Started with EFR32 Wireless Gecko
- EFM32 Microcontroller Documentation
- Simplicity Studio 4 (Development Software)
- EFR 32 Datasheet (PDF)
Nordic Semiconductor's nRF52840
The nRF5240 is another multi-protocol SoC for Bluetooth 5 and 802.15.4 (this includes ZigBee and Thread). It has 1MB of flash memory and 256KB of RAM. It has a supply range that supports voltage between 1.7V and 5.5V.
The chip's peripherals have independent, automated clock and power management so they don't consume power when they're not in use. For security, it incorporates the ARM Crypotcell 3-10 which has a true random number generator (TRNG), asymmetric, symmetric, and hashing cryptographic service.
The nRF52840 development board. Image from Nordic Semiconductor
Getting Started with nRF52840
Qualcomm's QCA4020 and QCA4024
The QCA4020 and QCA4024 are tri-mode SoCs that incorporate Bluetooth 5, dual-band Wi-Fi, CSRmesh, and 802.15.4-based technologies like ZigBee and Thread. This is another SoC designed to cut down on BOMs by handling your connectivity situation with a single chip.
These chips were made with a goal of flexible product development. This is accomplished by integrating a wide array of software compatibility. This includes pre-integrated support for HomeKit and Open Connectivity Foundation specifications, along with support for AWS IoT and Microsoft Azure IoT SDKs.
If this all sounds too good to be true, it's because it technically could be. These SoCs were announced only recently and have virtually no documentation. If Qualcomm adds datasheets in the near future, let me know so I can add them!
These chips do a lot of different things and come in a lot of packages. They have way more going on than can be included in one article, so you'll probably have to do a lot of research to find the one that suits your application. There will certainly be more Bluetooth 5 SoCs coming out throughout the course of the year, so it may be best to see where all the chips fall (har har har) before committing to one.
If there are any chips or resources that I left out, let me know in the comments. Tthere are probably a lot of them!