Nordic Semiconductor technical article

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TITLE: Not a standard wireless solution
Some would claim low-cost wireless is wrapped-up by Bluetooth and ZigBee, but
look deeper and you’ll find proprietary RF alternatives that could be better suited for
Japanese manufacturers’ products.
By John Leonard, Nordic Semiconductor, Oslo, Norway
You could be forgiven for thinking that low-cost wireless means IEEE 802 in its
Bluetooth (IEEE 802.15) and ZigBee (IEEE 802.15.4) guises. Undoubtedly they get
most of the publicity – both are backed by aggressive Special Interest Groups
comprising a who’s who of electronics industry heavyweights – but they aren’t the
only wireless games in town.
Bluetooth is ideal for widely compatible communications on a personal area network
(PAN) comprising PDA, headset, mobile phone and laptop PC, for example, where
adhering to the standard does indeed eliminate much of your design challenge. You
can be sure that your design will communicate with another built to the same
standard and will have the desired range and data transfer rate. And the recentlyratified ZigBee standard excels for products used on networks comprising scores of
nodes where infrequent, yet reliable communications are needed, and the batteries
have to last for years.
However, adhering to these standards does come at a price: the silicon is relatively
expensive, and there is significant data packet overhead simply to ensure
compatibility, which increases data transfer time and consumes power.
Much of the design effort and testing for 802.15 solutions is needed to ensure
compliance with the standards. This makes sense when ensuring interoperability
between mobiles, laptops or wireless sensors from many manufacturers, but if the
application is destined for a one-to-one dedicated link such as wireless mouse to
keyboard, it becomes an unnecessary expense. These low-cost, low power
consumption applications are increasingly important as manufacturers seek to
develop innovative products for the export market.
This article seeks to illustrate the benefits of an integrated proprietary RF chip
manufactured by the author’s company (the nRF24xx series), for these types of
applications. We will compare the design of a wireless mouse using Bluetooth,
ZigBee and this IC to demonstrate how this alternative wireless technique fares. The
basic elements of these designs remain essentially unchanged for other simple
applications such as gaming controllers and “intelligent” sports equipment.
RF compared
The Bluetooth protocol allows data to be transferred between 1 master and up to 7
slaves (in a PAN or “piconet”) at rates of up to 723 kbit/s. However, the actual data
payload is usually reduced due to the overhead of a communications protocol

and listen for slots addressed to themselves. but does retain the synchronisation.15. The first device identified (usually within 2 seconds) becomes the master.2. The Bluetooth standard includes a range of “profiles” which you can select to target your development. ZigBee is a more recent RF standard specifically developed for low power. during specific sniff slots. The result is a narrower and “cleaner” spectrum for the transmitted signal compared with the straightforward approach of FSK (Frequency Shift Keying). however. low data rate wireless monitoring and control applications across a large number of distributed nodes. it does mean the device loses synchronisation for at least 1600 hops and has to wait for a new link to be set up.4 GHz band. 1 Mbit/s channels within the 2. This includes acknowledgement of each transmission burst and other techniques to maintain communications integrity.defining the type of each unit with address and other header information to ensure compatibility with other Bluetooth devices. the slave responds in odd slots. however. Consequently.4 (see www. and sets the 1600 frequencies to be used each second across the band. In hold. Most contemporary consumer devices are Class 2. All other devices in the piconet “lock” or synchronise to this sequence. Active slave devices in the piconet are assigned an address. The devices in a Bluetooth piconet each have a unique 48-bit identity number. a device listens only to determine if it should become active. The standard also provides for versions operating in the European 868 MHz (single channel) and US 915 MHz (10 channels spaced at 2 MHz) bands. Because Bluetooth operates on the same licence-free ISM band as other wireless technologies (for example Wi-Fi) interference can compromise data rates because corrupted packets need to be re-transmitted. ZigBee doesn’t require Bluetooth’s synchronisation. be certified for compliance with the standard and all users must be members of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (www. Like Bluetooth. Bluetooth is available in 3 basic power levels: Class 1 (100 m line of sight range). It promises a maximum data rate of 250 kbit/s.zigbee. Although hold and park modes extend battery life. decreasing power requirements considerably. Class 2 (10 m).org).com) and is a simple data protocol offering high reliability. The standard is defined by IEEE 802. This results in a “dampened” or gentler frequency swing between the high (“1”) and low (“0”) levels. Version 1. addresses this problem by incorporating Adaptive Frequency Hopping (AFH). The master transmits in even slots. Because of commercial pressures from members of the Bluetooth SIG most of the profiles are suited to media and file transfer applications on mobile phones. . “hold” or “park” modes. GFSK applies Gaussian filtering to the modulated baseband signal before it is applied to the carrier. All Bluetooth applications must. a device gives up its address. In park. ZigBee operates in the ISM 2. The standard employs a GFSK (Gaussian Frequency Shift Keying) modulation scheme using 83.4 GHz band (16 channels at 5 MHz spacing). and Class 3 (2-3 m). In sniff mode a device listens only periodically. development using Bluetooth profiles is not trivial and can make the standard somewhat unwieldy for simple applications. Slaves may also go into lower power “sniff”. This allows two communicating Bluetooth devices to constantly change their mutual frequency across the band to avoid a clash with other RF devices in the vicinity.bluetooth. This can take several seconds and is a drawback when the user requires a constant fast response.

dubbed the nRF24xx. The standard has attempted to address the potential weaknesses of Bluetooth in certain application environments. typically low-latency and low data rate applications. As a recently ratified standard.15. ZigBee does allow for many more nodes – up to 4090 – compared to Bluetooth’s 7 plus master. (Figure 1 (a) and (b) compare a ZigBee protocol stack with the proprietary solution. However. The ZigBee protocol suits industrial and domestic monitoring and control applications where extremely low activity and scaleable network functionality is required over a high node network. ZigBee chipsets are somewhat limited at present. It is a system-on-chip device. It offers a nominal data rate of 1 Mbit/s has been designed with minimal overhead to maximise RF and minimise the power budget. 4-channel.4 specification. incurring bandwidth usage and current consumption overheads. ZigBee is designed for very low duty cycle. whereas continuous Bluetooth communications typically drain batteries in a matter of hours. but this comes at a cost of transmitting excessive data packets. Complementary technologies According to the Bluetooth and ZigBee organisations the standards are complementary rather than competitive. Power consumption is a major differentiator. DSSS offers some immunity to interference. an 8051 microcontroller. 12 bit ADC and various standard interfaces. ultra long life applications where battery life is measured in years.nordicsemi.18 µm CMOS process. And ZigBee chipsets cost a fraction of a Bluetooth solution (although there are variants of the Bluetooth protocol stack that offer less than the full range of profiles for less expense). manufactured using a 0. The product uses a GFSK modulation scheme (similar to Bluetooth).) . The product introduces a hardware based physical layer protocol processing which is transparent in normal manufactures a proprietary wireless solution. ZigBee applications at the RF physical layer still have to carry the overhead needed to achieve the interoperability functions required by the 802. however. comprising the RF transceiver.ZigBee relies on a DSSS (Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum) scheme for data transmission of data. The author’s company (www.

ZigBee and the proprietary solution each use a unique packet structure (see sidebar “Packet structure”). (Or more accurately 2. 1-MHz channels between 2. Bluetooth.) This offers Bluetooth and the proprietary solution many more alternative relocation frequencies should they encounter interference from other devices operating in the crowded 2.5MHz upper guard band. 1-MHz channels.Figure 1(a): Proprietary ZigBee protocol stack and (b) Nordic nRF protocol stack The proprietary solution has been developed to be familiar to a small-scale embedded systems developer. this is true of any RF communication whether it is designed to a standard or not. yielding an overhead of 48 bits. and giving a packet data-efficiency of 40 percent. Using its packet structure. A 120-bit register is used to set up communication links on the device. with a 2-MHz lower guard band and a 3.402 to 2. Significantly. To transmit exactly the same amount of data the ZigBee device would take 152 bits.) This compares with ZigBee’s 16 channels. Bluetooth requires 160 bits. The proprietary solution duplicates Bluetooth’s channel scheme. In comparison.483 GHz broken into 75. Although the product must conform to the appropriate communications authority’s regulations such as those of Europe’s ETSI or the US’s FCC. (See sidebar “Handling interference”. Thereafter it clocks the destination address and the actual data.400 and 2. The integrated microcontroller is used to setup the parameters the first time only. Both utilise up to 83.483 MHz. Such a person using this silicon radio for a wireless project will be comfortable with the SPI-based interfaces used by the device. with an overhead of 128 bits and an efficiency of 20 percent.) . (See Figure 2. the proprietary product can perform message transfer in 80 bits. the time-to-market schedule is decreased.4 GHz band. with a data packet of 32-bits. because the design does not have to be qualified to a standard. yielding an efficiency of 21 percent. covering the functionality aspects.

whether the mouse is in use or not. the net data rate is 0.9 kbit/s. This is nearly double the proprietary solution. The typical mouse data packet is illustrated in Figure 3. this can result in re-acquisition periods of up to 3 seconds. Let’s compare the design of a product based on the proprietary chip.Figure 2: ZigBee and the Nordic solution both operate in the license-free ISM 2.4-GHz band. while the link could be maintained without synchronisation. 1 MHz channels A question of bandwidth An RF wireless mouse operating in the license-free ISM 2. Consequently. hardly practical for the user. The typical usage pattern for a wireless mouse is 10 percent active and 90 percent in sleep mode. Consequently.1 x (125 x 152 bit/s) = 1. ZigBee incorporates 16 channels separated by 5 MHz. ZigBee runs at a maximum of 250 kbit/s compared with the proprietary solution’s 1 Mbit/s. As we saw above. while the Nordic solution mirrors Bluetooth’s 83. In addition. low power. Compare this with ZigBee. . or a net data rate of 256 kbit/s) to maintain the link. it can be seen that ZigBee has a bandwidth requirement 8 times that of the proprietary solution to do the same job.1 x (125 x 80 bit/s) = 1 kbit/s. with a communications cycle of transmission and reception every 8 ms of operation when active. Because Bluetooth has to maintain synchronisation to avoid re-linking delays it sends a 160-bit packet every 675 µS (1600 packets/s. Its net data rate in this application is 0.4 GHz band is a classic example of the simple. with one based on ZigBee and Bluetooth solutions. cost sensitive wireless application that Chinese manufacturers are so good at producing both for the domestic market and for export.

Figure 3: Typical wireless mouse transmit package Extending battery life Figures 4(a) and (b) show the sequence diagrams for wireless mouse-to-USB dongle communications for a proprietary and ZigBee equipped product respectively. .

This means the single AA battery will give 500 hours of continuous link operation. From the sequence diagram it can be seen that the device is active for 192 + 200 + 192 + 26 + 608 + 192 + 352 +10 µs = 1. These figures are summarised in Table 1. Because the active time during the 8 ms communications cycle is relatively low. For the typical 8 ms demand cycle this gives an actual duty cycle of 1 : 4. Now let’s look at ZigBee.5. The duty cycle is much higher than the proprietary solution (primarily due to the need to transmit for 8 times longer to maintain a comparable performance to the proprietary solution.) . it continues to run at 8 mA even in “idle” mode in order to maintain synchronisation. (The equivalent idle figures for the proprietary solution are 10. This is around a year’s operation for an average user (including the battery power required by the mouse optical sensor.3. Although Bluetooth also has an average current consumption of 4 mA when active. which together with the wireless link comprise 95 percent of the power budget.2 µA and for ZigBee 351 µA.Figure 4(a): Sequence diagram for ZigBee wireless mouse communications and (b) Nordic nRF solution The sequence diagram for the proprietary solution shows that the device is active for 195 + 16 + 80 + 202 + 49 + 16 µs = 558 µs. For the typical 8 ms communications cycle this gives an actual duty cycle of 1 : 14.772 ms. Assuming the proprietary solution is operating from a single AA battery (with a capacity of 2000 mAh) it would be possible to achieve around 2350 hours of continuous link operation.) During this communications cycle ZigBee’s average current consumption is 4 mA. the average current consumption when in “constant” use is 855 µA. yielding around two-and-a-half months operation for the average user. The microcontroller consumes the other 5 percent).

technology based on standards does have its disadvantages. you are limited in how much you can reduce the power consumption in your RF product. to employ the standard you have to meet the standard – and that commits you to costly NRE charges in initial design and testing for compatibility. standard solutions offer little opportunity for design flexibility.) Beyond the standard Bluetooth and ZigBee demonstrate how the electronics community can collaborate to create operating standards that ensure compatibility across global markets. Both are excellent technologies that work well in their defined sectors. 125 packets/s every second the mouse is switched on). by their very nature. spending 90 percent of its time idle. it is difficult to differentiate your product in an increasingly competitive global market. Firstly. The critical factor here is that the Bluetooth device must maintain an active state to ensure communication links are maintained compared with the other wireless solutions. As we have already seen when looking at the bandwidth requirements above. a wireless mouse is never operated this way. The wireless mouse product described in this article illustrates how a proprietary solution could be better than Bluetooth and ZigBee for a product that demands long battery life. Note: the battery life calculations are based on an average current consumed in each mode as a proportion of the total period of 8 ms (the communications cycle) shown in the sequence diagrams. standards have to be a “one-size-fits-all” solution . Nonetheless. for constant usage (i.e. Finally. And with the world becoming increasingly wireless it could pay to look beyond the standard for your next wireless communications link.Table 1: Comparison of current consumption for nRF. ZigBee and Bluetooth in various operational modes Consequently. . a user may expect a Bluetooth mouse battery to last no more than a month. for example. The proprietary solution and ZigBee would enter standby modes with µA consumption during these idle times while Bluetooth would continue to draw mA currents. for example. Secondly. There are scores of other applications where the same design criteria your competitors have their hands on the same technology. and reliable wireless communications with low duty cycles. wireless games controllers and wireless communication between a heartbeat sensor and sports “computer”. You only have to attach a Bluetooth headset to your mobile phone to experience this very practical RF technique in action and to appreciate its benefits.

4.32-bit Data payload . ZigBee is geared more towards handling intermittent narrowband interference with the use of DSSS across its 16 bands. Channel relocation involves a simple. 3. 3.About the Author. John Leonard gained his BEng(hons) Electronics Engineering qualification from the University of Portsmouth. Bluetooth. Because of its modest output power. single-byte SPI instruction to the device . have mechanisms to reduce the effects of interference from other RF devices operating in the same band. Preamble .11b/g devices is more prone to interference and may have to wait for the other device to stop transmitting. 2. 6. interference is unlikely. 2. Preamble . 7. To minimise current consumption and complexity the proprietary solution does not use a spread spectrum scheme simply transmitting on a single frequency until a packet corruption threshold is reached if there is interference. 5. UK. Bluetooth has a frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) approach that ensures all 79.8-bit Frame length . Header – 56-bit 3.16-bit Proprietary 1. ZigBee and the proprietary solution. His role is to co-ordinate support resources toward project completion. 8. and so in the presence of other 802. Layout issues and antenna development are also supported together with a team of five engineers based in Oslo and Trondheim. He is a field applications engineer for Nordic Semiconductor.16-bit Data sequence number .8-bit Address ID . Access code – 68 or 72-bit 2.32-bit Frame de-limiter . and on-site assistance to major customers around the globe. Data payload – 32-bit ZigBee 1. Project support includes firmware development and software libraries for customer use to speed up project development cycles.8-bit Address – 32-bit Data payload – 32-bit CRC – 8-bit Sidebar 2 Handling interference All three wireless topologies. The proprietary device takes a more hybrid approach. 1-MHz channels are covered equally over time to avoid consistent channel interference.32-bit Frame checksum . Sidebar 1 Packet structure Bluetooth 1.8-bit Frame control . Norway. 4.

the co-channel rejection is typically –6 dBm. In the case of the wireless mouse.The availability of 79. (See Figure May be reproduced with permission from Nordic Semiconductor . This is because 6 dB equates to a doubling of distance in RF terms. Consequently.) Figure A: Interference between co-located wireless mice is limited because low RF output restricts signal strength at co-located receiver © NORDIC SEMICONDUCTOR. www.nordicsemi. 1-MHz channels allows ample option for one-time relocation away from the other device’s transmission frequency for static applications. of the order of minutes or hours. as long as the distance from mouse (TX) to USB dongle (RX) is half the distance from the interferer communication will usually be uninterrupted. And even in locations such as airport “hotspots” the necessity to re-locate in the spectrum will be relatively infrequent.