Nordic Semiconductors offer a leading solution for Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) applications. In their first technology tour since the Covid pandemic began, Nordic showcased their product lines and discussed their highly anticipated, upcoming Wi-Fi module. I was fortunate to attend the Seattle session at the McMenamins Anderson School.
nRF52/53 Series: BLE
The Nordic nRF52 series is their bread and butter Bluetooth line. In 2011, when the nRF51 was launched, the Bluetooth chip was very simple. It allowed a single BLE connection with no security and one distinction of lasting a long time on a coin cell battery. Now in 2022, with the nRF52 series, there is support for many connections between multiple devices, security is a major concern and the power consumption remains the key difference between Nordic devices and competitors. The nRF5340 in the 53 series is a step up with dual processors to allow low power, high performance applications (one core is running at 128 MHz and one is at 64 MHz). For comparison, the nRF52 series all run at 64 MHz.
Bluetooth LE Audio
This new BLE audio standard focuses on a fast rate of data over lossless audio. This leads to higher user perceived audio results over traditional Bluetooth audio which would sometimes stutter or skip. Another interesting feature is the claim that through extended advertising, there is no limit to the number of devices that can join a wireless BLE Audio stream making this ideal for gyms or airports where many people may connect to the same channel.
nRF70 Series… Wi-Fi!
Unfortunately, there were no physical demos of this upcoming chip. However, the presentation was a good introduction to Wi-Fi 6 and some of the reasoning behind Nordic’s move to bring a Wi-Fi chip to the market. Wi-Fi 6 has many improvements such as better network capacity, better robustness and better energy efficiency. With Nordic’s low power philosophy driving all product development, the improved efficiency in Wi-Fi 6 allows Nordic to claim a lower current draw than other Wi-Fi solutions at a bandwidth trade-off. Wi-Fi’s applicability to IoT is massive as Wi-Fi has become common as water and electricity in homes and offices.
nRF91 Series: Cellular IoT
As mentioned before, Nordic produces low power chips so it isn’t surprising that their cellular and GPS enabled nRF9160 chip follows suit. What is surprising is some of the ways it changes a viewpoint on a solution. For example, fast communication is very important not because instantaneous messaging is key but rather the faster communication occurs, the faster the processor can go back to a power-saving sleep mode. Since cellular devices are more likely to be outside where a car or other object could block signals, parameters can be set to wait until the signal is clear before transmitting to avoid wasting power on retransmits.
NCS vs nRF5 SDK
This topic had the most participant feedback for Nordic. NCS is the Nordic Connect SDK and the new software development kit for Nordic processors. nRF5 SDK is the previous software development kit that as a few attendees pointed out was very streamlined and did not need to be replaced. However, NCS offers many improvements along with its added complexity. Specifically, NCS is where all future Bluetooth features (such as LE Audio) will be added and where all new chips will be supported. nRF5 was a bare-metal solution while NCS is based on Zephyr OS. Zephyr is an open-source RTOS (real time operating system) to allow multiple threads and more high-level programming. Nordic has been involved in Zephyr since the project’s inception and is listed as one of ten platinum members of companies supporting Zephyr along with Google, Intel, Meta and NXP among others.
Tech conferences are always interesting from the technology discussed to the hosts and attendees present. I was impressed with the crowd that Nordic had gathered together and the experts who had traveled from Norway to answer questions. Seeing the different BLE, cellular and Wi-Fi chipsets, makes me excited to think about their applications in new solutions. In the past 5 years, Infinetix has seen more and more customers integrating Bluetooth into their products and with the new technology featured, the possibilities are endless.