The most common iBeacon (Beacon) vs Bluetooth debate? Everything you need to know to understand how the technology works.
Beacon is a protocol developed by Apple and introduced at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in 2013. Beacons are a class of Bluetooth but with significantly lower power consumption. With this new beacon technology, iBeacon has also become widely popular, with many vendors having made iBeacon-compatible hardware transmitters. This technology has enabled smartphones, tablets, and other devices to perform actions when in close proximity to an iBeacon.

The way iBeacon works

An iBeacon uses Bluetooth low-energy proximity sensing by transmitting a universally unique identifier that can be picked up by a compatible app or operating system. The identifier when in proximity to the transmitter can be used to determine the device’s physical location, and track customers. Or trigger a location-based action on the device such as a check-in on social media or a push notification.

iBeacon can also be used for indoor purposes. With the use of iBeacon, a smartphone’s software can approximately find its relative location to an iBeacon in a store. Mobile advertisements or special deals can be transmitted this way, with further customization to cater to the user’s needs and preferences. It can also facilitate payment through a point-of-sale system. Traditional brick and motor retail stores benefit from this technology as it can generate a large amount of convenience for both buyers and sellers.

iBeacon differs from some other location-based technologies as the broadcasting device (beacon) is only a 1-way transmitter to the receiving smartphone or receiving device, and necessitates a specific app installed on the device to interact with the beacons. This ensures that only the installed App can track users, potentially against their will, as they passively walk around the transmitters.

iBeacon-compatible transmitters come in a variety of form factors, including small coin cell devices, USB sticks, and generic Bluetooth 4.0-capable USB dongles.

iBeacon Devices

Transmitter (Beacons)

Beacons are low-cost, low-powered transmitters equipped with Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE (also called Bluetooth 4.0 or Bluetooth Smart) that can be used to deliver proximity-based, context-aware messages. A beacon transmits signals which allow another device to determine its proximity to the broadcaster. Any iPhone 4S or later that runs on iOS7 or later can be configured into an iBeacon transmitter.

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iBeacon Receivers

On iOS 7 and above (iPhone 4s and above, iPad 3rd/4th Gen/Mini/Air, iPod Touch 5th Gen and above), the phone can constantly scan for BLE devices and trigger relevant apps when they come within range of a relevant beacon.

For an Android device, there is no operating-system management of beacons, thus the apps must scan for BLE devices themselves. This essentially means the apps must be running all the time and hence use up more battery.

On Windows and Blackberry devices there are varying levels of compatibility but most modern phones over the last few years support BLE in a similar way to Android.

iBeacon Range

Beacons have a range of up to 70m without obstruction. This can significantly drop if there are interferences such as thick metal walls. The signal also allows the app to detect if you are getting closer to or moving further away from the transmitter.

In addition to the potential range of BLE, most protocols also operate with three ranges of distance: far, near and immediate.

Range: Far

Designed so that your device can do something when you can just about hear a beacon (i.e. walking past a store)

Range: Near

Designed so your device can do something once you are in the same room as a beacon (i.e. walking into a store)

Range: Immediate

Designed so your device can do something once you are virtually touching a beacon

iBeacon Power Consumption

A typical Bluetooth’s peak consumption (<30mA) is higher compared to BLE’s peak consumption (<20mA). BLE uses 1-20% of the power of full Bluetooth in the beacon; it uses much less power on your phone. Leaving Bluetooth running on a BLE-enabled phone should typically use 1-3% of a phone battery over the course of a full day.

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