Most popular BLE controllers

By | May 23, 2017

These are 10 Bluetooth Low Energy chips that are most popular on the market today:

  1. nRF8001 – Nordic Semiconductor
  2. nRF51822 – Nordic Semiconductor
  3. nRF52832 – Nordic Semiconductor
  4. DA14580 – Dialog Semiconductor
  5. DA14680 – Dialog Semiconductor
  6. CC2540 – Texas Instruments
  7. CC2541 – Texas Instruments
  8. CC2630/40/50 – Texas Instruments
  9. PSoC4 BLE – Cypress Semi
  10. PROC 4 BLE – Cypress Semi

And here is a short list of popular wearable devices that use a BLE chip (or module):

  1. Garmin Vivosmart – nRF51422 by Nordic Semiconductor
  2. Misfit Flash Link – nRF51822 by Nordic Semiconductor
  3. Pebble Time – CC2564 by Texas Instruments
  4. FitBit Surge – CC2564 by Texas Instruments
  5. Misfit Shine Activity Tracker – CC2541 by Texas Instruments
  6. Xiaomi Mi Band – DA14580 by Dialog Semiconductor
  7. FitBit Charge 2 – BLUENRGCSP by STMicroelectronics
  8. Samsung Gear Fit – BCM4334WKUBG by Broadcom

Now we have a more or less solid list of BLE module candidates to review.

Before we discuss the benefits of these devices and understand why they’re popular, we frame our discussion and how we plan to rate the chips:

  1. This list is not an objective rating. We’re placing emphasis on chips that are most commonly used today, to give you an idea of what will be easy to source and utilize.
  2. This list displays draws both on chips that are popular today (like nRF21822) and gives good perspective on the nearest future for others chips (like Blue Gecko).

The market for BLE microcontrollers is still in an early stage. Nordic Semiconductor, Dialog, Texas Instrument and CSR are the key players in wireless technology. Several competitors have recently launched new Bluetooth Smart chips that are as good as or better than previously well used solutions.

General Features of Popularity

Single mode

Today, most of the popular devices are used in single mode only. Dual Mode devices are not as popular in new applications because of cost and the complexity of supporting Bluetooth BR/EDR (Classic).

Bluetooth 4.1

Most run v4.1 of the Bluetooth Specification. Bluetooth v4.2 hasn’t made it yet to the market completely because it requires updated hardware and because it requires support on both sides of the link, not yet available on many devices.

Power consumption

Power consumption is often a critical factor in the decision to use a module. But it depends on several factors. Every application is different and in some cases the peaks make less of a difference than the current draw in shutdown mode. This is the case for applications where the system is asleep waiting for an event to occur, or when advertising and connections are relatively rare.

Experienced decisions

Many producers prefer chips with a proven track record above all. Nevertheless, it is impossible to apply one decision for years. That’s why producers of smartphones and wearable devices will choose the golden mean between known decisions, innovations and cost.

Device Reviews

nRF8001

Let’s begin our short list from the chips produced by Nordic Semiconductor. According to one’s estimate, Nordic has a market share of approximately 60 – 70% in Bluetooth Smart modules. In addition, a range of module suppliers offer qualified and certified modules based on Nordic Semiconductor technology.
The nRF8001 is present in Fitbit Flex activity trackers. The nRF8001 is a standalone device that requires an external microcontroller, but it runs the BLE stack internally, so much of the low level tasks are already managed.
A Serial peripheral interface (SPI) is a very common, being easy to connect to most microcontrollers. The benefit of using such a device is that you’ll likely be able to use your favorite microcontroller, as long as it meets all of your application requirements, and the toolset which you already have.

nRF51822

The producer: Nordic Semconductor
One of the most popular BLE devices, its main advantage that it is a mature device currently in its third revision.
It’s an integrated solution that appeals to developers because of its small size. It integrates a Cortex-M0 CPU, which means there are many compiler options for development. In fact, Nordic provides documentation on how to setup a development environment using an ARM GCC compiler, Eclipse and a few other tools. This can enable any developer to use the RF51822 with free tools.

CC2540 and CC2541

The producer: Texas Instruments
The CC2540 and its improved version, the CC2541, have been very popular for several years. Both devices feature an 8051 processor that enable applications to run without an external microcontroller, lowering the cost of the total system. TI’s CC254X series uses a legacy 8051 core, so if you’re into Embedded C and Embedded Systems Development this is the chip. With such versatility, third-party companies like Bluegiga have adopted the CC2541 chipset into their BLE113 module, which serves a large community of DIY enthusiasts as well as professionals. The microcontroller CC2541 is found in the Misfit Shine, and the newer generation of stand-alone Bluetooth controllers.

CC256x

The producer: Texas Instruments
CC256x supports Bluetooth Dual Mode configuration. This enables it to stream audio and support the functionality you traditionally think of when you think of Bluetooth (large data transfer or audio streaming for example). But, depending on the application, it requires a Bluetooth stack running on an external microcontroller. The microcontroller should be hi-speed because slow ones cannot support the requirements for streaming audio using A2DP. The CC2564 is found in Fitbit Surge fitness watch and Pebble Time smartwatches. [*]

CSR8510

The producer: Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR)
CSR now offers a broad range of BLE kits, notably the CSR8510 which is a dual mode BLE that supports both the Classic Bluetooth and new BLE profiles. Some designers prefer to have a Bluetooth Smart Ready dual mode built into their product for backward compatibility.
CSR is not a significant Bluetooth Smart provider per se but has several advantages. As it was recently acquired by Qualcomm it is possible the integration to be key focus in the short term. Also, this company has focused on a Bluetooth Mesh network, where all devices act like routers and thus gives a longer range.

DA14580

Dialog Semiconductor
The main feature Dialog Semiconductor’s chips is the lowest power consuming.
Their DA14580 chipset has no integrated flash memory. Because of this, they can lower their device cost and power consumption. A nice advantage of the device is that its RF output is already matched to 50 Ohm, so no external components are needed. As one of the parts with the lowest current consumption currently on the market, it is very attractive for low power products needing to run for many years. This chip applied in Xiaomi’s Mi Band low-cost fitness tracker that were sold 6 million units worldwide. Mi Band which offers 30 days of battery power. This compares to Fitbit’s 7-10 days battery life where NOD is included.

PSoC 4 BLE, PRoC BLE

The producer: Cypress Semiconductor
The Cypress PSoC 4 BLE and PRoC 4 BLE devices don’t just integrate BLE and an ARM Cortex-M0 core but adds programmable Analog and Digital blocks unique to Cypress. Advantages to PSoC 4 BLE devices:

  • Wide voltage of 1.9V to 5.5V
  • High integration of Analog
  • Flexibility. PSoC architecture lets you reconfigure the system using software
  • 256kB Flash and 32kB of RAM
  • 48MHz CPU Speed – BLE SoCs are often limited in the speed they are capable, with 16MHz being very common.
  • Very low current consumption modes
  • Free IDE

Comparison of some basic characteristic BLE chips [*]

Chip Mode Integrated Processor Flash RAM Current Consumption BLE (RX/TX) Average Current 1 sec/4sec connection interval
TI CC2540/CC2541 Single Mode v4.0 8051 128kB/256kB 8kB 17.9mA/18.2mA to 14.7mA/14.3mA 24uA/6.8uA
Texas Instruments CC256x Dual Mode Classic + BLE/ANT No – External None None
Texas Instruments CC26xx Single Mode BLE v4.1 Cortex-M3 128kB 20kB 5.9mA
Nordic Semiconductor nRF51822 Single Mode v4.1/ANT Cortex-M0 128kB/256kB 16kB/32kB 9.7mA/8mA 15.5uA/5.6uA
Nordic Semiconductor nRF8001 Single Mode v4.0 None None None 14.6mA/12.7mA
Dialog Semiconductor DA14580 Single Mode BLE v4.1 Cortex-M0 32kB OTP 42kB + 8kB 4.9mA/4.9mA
Cypress Semiconductor PSoC 4 BLE / PRoC BLE Single Mode BLE v4.1 Cortex-M0 128kB/256kB 16kB/32kB 15.6mA/16.4mA 18.9uA/6.2uA
CSR CSR101x Single Mode BLE v4.1 16-bit RISC 64kB 64kB 16mA 28uA/10.8uA

As always, feel free to contact us for a consultation!

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