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Bluetooth Classic vs. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) on Android – Hints & Implementation Steps

Bluetooth Classic vs. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) – which to choose for your Android project? Check out implementation steps and learn what is the difference between Bluetooth Classic and BLE.

Bluetooth Classic vs. Bluetooth Low Energy BLE

Do you want to create a connection between wearable devices and smartphones? Find out the possibilities of Bluetooth Classic & Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) on Android and learn more about the basic steps of the implementation process:

  • requesting permissions and features,
  • getting BluetoothDevice object,
  • and connecting to a Bluetooth device (GATT & RFCOMM).

Before we go deeper into Bluetooth Classic vs Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), I want to stress that Bluetooth is widely used nowadays and it’s worth to know how to implement it to your project.

As an experienced IoT app development company, we use BLE in many projects for our clients. Just to name a few, we used it in:

  • Loop app – the app connects to the Wi-Fi display and allows users to seamlessly share video, photos & video chat.
  • OhMiBod app – the app connects remotely with OhMiBod erotic gadgets, and allows users to create unlimited vibration patterns on the fly.
  • Skybuds app – the app connects with wireless earphones and charging dock via Bluetooth 4.0 (BLE & Bluetooth Classic)

Overview

In most cases, designers of wearable, peripheral devices, as well as all other items that extend our smartphone’s functionality, are facing a common issue. Most of these devices need to communicate with our smartphones somehow. The problem is which technology to choose – Bluetooth Classic or BLE? Find out which one would fit your situation the best.

Bluetooth is not an answer

Today’s customers are expecting hands-free, wireless solutions. The first thing that comes to mind is Bluetooth. Yet, is this already an answer to the question? Not exactly.

There are many different solutions hidden under this name. Since Bluetooth 4.0 was introduced, there is Bluetooth High Speed, Bluetooth Classic (BC) and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).

The first one is a solution that combines Bluetooth and WiFi (as the transport layer) to reach a high transfer speed, but it requires a combo chip (Bluetooth + WiFi), which is relatively expensive. The other two solutions (Bluetooth Classic and BLE) are widely used and they meet most expectations.

Bluetooth Classic vs Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) on Android

Bluetooth Classic vs Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) – which of these is better? It depends on our requirements. We need to compare the parameters and features of both standards.

What’s more, we should keep in mind that usually, we need to create an application that allows us to handle the communication between our smartphone and the device. So, it’s also important to know what is offered by the operating system (Android – in this case) in terms of using each solution.

Bluetooth Classic – highly effective for short distances

Bluetooth Classic is designed for continuous two-way data transfer with high Application throughput (up to 2.1 Mbps); highly effective, but only for short distances. So, it’s a perfect solution in the case of streaming audio and video, or mice and other devices that need a continuous, broadband link.

Bluetooth Low Energy – as much as 100x lower power consumption

Bluetooth Low Energy provides only 0.3 Mbps of Application throughput. The data is sent in small (20 bytes) packages, but the range can be even more than 100 meters (330 feet) and the minimum latency between unconnected state to data transfer can be counted in a handful of milliseconds, while in BT Classic it’s about 100 ms.

Yet, the main advantage of using BLE is its very low power consumption. Although the peak current of BLE (up to 15 mA) is half of the BT Classic current (up to 30 mA). But the power consumption can be even 100x lower for BLE!

So, for the 1W reference value for BT Classic, BLE offers 0.01W – 0.5 W power consumption. This means that simple BLE devices, like beacons, may function for 1–2 years with a 1,000 mAh coin cell battery.

How to use Bluetooth Classic and Bluetooth Low Energy on Android – basic steps

Thankfully, we can use both Bluetooth Classic and BLE technologies when providing Android mobile app development services.

But if there is no need to use Bluetooth Classic, it’s better to use BLE, because of its low power consumption.

The implementation of BLE is provided by Android version 4.3 (API 18) and above. So, if we have already decided which solution will be suitable for our needs, let’s start the implementation process. Here are the basic steps.

1. Requesting permissions and features

This is the first step before using Bluetooth Classic or BLE features. We need to make sure all required permissions and features are applied and enabled. What do we need?

Permissions:

    • android.permission.BLUETOOTH – basic BC and BLE features
    • android.permission.BLUETOOTH_ADMIN – advanced BC and BLE operations like enabling/disabling Bluetooth module, device discovery, creating sockets
    • android.permission.ACCESS_COARSE_LOCATION – required for BLE scanning on Android 5.0 (API 21) or higher. Note: This is dangerous permission from API 23.

So, to use all the features, our manifest file should look like this:

Features:

We need also to make sure that the smartphone or tablet has a built-in Bluetooth adapter. If we just want to make our mobile app unavailable for devices without Bluetooth, we can just add a proper manifest tag:
<uses-feature android:name="android.hardware.bluetooth"/>
But, according to the documentation on developer.android.com, it’s not required if we declare the Bluetooth permission and set the target SDK version to 5 or above.

We also need to keep in mind that using Bluetooth requires the Bluetooth adapter to be enabled. We can check its current state by BluetoothAdapter.getDefaultAdapter().isEnabled. If it is disabled, we can enable it in many different ways:

  • inform the user to enable it manually (in a drop-down menu from the status bar)
  • use an intent to show a system-provided dialog for the user:
  • enable it programmatically by BluetoothAdapter.getDefaultAdapter().enable()

This method requires the android.permission.BLUETOOTH_ADMIN permission and it’s an asynchronous call: it will return immediately. So, in this case, we still need to wait until the Bluetooth adapter enables, so we can use a broadcast receiver to catch the BluetoothAdapter.ACTION_STATE_CHANGED intent:

If we want to use BLE scanning, location services also need to be enabled, which can be done by the user in a drop-down menu from the status bar (we need to register a broadcast receiver for LocationManager.MODE_CHANGED_ACTION or LocationManager.PROVIDERS_CHANGED_ACTION). Location services can be also enabled using a system-provided dialog, using GooglePlayServices:

Note: Add a dependency to your app/build.gradle file

2. Getting BluetoothDevice object

To do some Bluetooth Classic or Bluetooth Low Energy actions on a particular Bluetooth device, we need to obtain a BluetoothDevice object. If we already know the MAC address of our Bluetooth device and we want to hardcode it in our mobile app, we can just use:

Otherwise, we need to start the discovery process. This starts scanning to find nearby devices and uses an SDP protocol to obtain advertisement data from the devices. It’s used to acknowledge the smartphone and what kind of services are provided by a Bluetooth device, such as an audio headset, keyboard, etc.

Basic discovery (Bluetooth Classic and Bluetooth Low Energy):

In this case, we need to start the discovery and register a BroadcastReceiver, which will catch BluetoothDevice.ACTION_FOUND and BluetoothDevice.ACTION_DISCOVERY_FINISHED intents. The discovery process usually involves an inquiry scan of about 12 seconds.

Dedicated BLE discovery:

If we want to find only BLE devices, it’s enough to implement BLE scanning:

3. Connecting to Bluetooth device

If we need a high-speed connection (up to 2.1 Mbps) to stream big amounts of data between the smartphone and Bluetooth device, we can use one of the BT Classic features – the RFCOMM socket. If the large bandwidth is not needed in our case and we only need to exchange small packets of data, we should just use a GATT profile.

RFCOMM:

RFCOMM is a Bluetooth protocol emulating RS-232 serial ports. It can be used to create an InputStream and OutputStream to a Bluetooth device. First, we need to obtain a Bluetooth socket. It can be secure, as the data will be encrypted then:

RFCOMM – creating the socket:

Note: The device.createInsecureRfcommSocketToServiceRecord() was officially introduced in Android 2.3.3 (Gingerbread – API 10). We can call it using reflection, but it’s not guaranteed to work.

RFCOMM – pairing:

In the case of using RFCOMM sockets, the device we want to transfer data with needs to firstly be paired with our smartphone. To check if a device is already paired, we can use:

Devices can be paired manually by the user in the Android Bluetooth Settings. We can also request pairing programmatically. The pairing request can be done by bluetoothDevice.createBond() but the user still needs to accept the pairing by tapping on a system-provided dialog.

Tip: If we want to make a hands-free solution, we can try a workaround, but it’s not recommended and not guaranteed to work. It relies on catching system intent (action BluetoothDevice.ACTION_PAIRING_REQUES), applying pairing by bluetoothDevice.setPairingConfirmation(true) and aborting the broadcast. If we set a high priority for the IntentFilter, the intent would never reach the system classes, which are handling the pairing dialog, so it will never be shown. This can throw SecurityException on Android 7.1+.

RFCOMM – data transfer

After creating a socket, we can connect to it and start reading and writing data using the input and output stream. Please keep in mind that it needs to be handled in background threads and it’s recommended to cancel the discovery process before connecting to a socket.

GATT:

The Generic Attributes (GATT) define a hierarchical data structure that is exposed to connected BLE devices. GATT allows us to read or write values on available characteristics. We can also get asynchronous notifications and indications when a characteristic value has changed.

GATT Characteristics

A GATT Characteristic is a data value transferred between client and server – for example, the current battery level. Each of them is identified by a UUID (unique identifier). There are some standard characteristics like:

GATT allows us to read or write values on available characteristics. We can also get asynchronous notifications and indications when a characteristic value has changed. We can use a maximum of 20 Byte data packets that we want to write on a characteristic. If we want to send bigger amounts of data, we need to split them. Each characteristic can offer a few basic operations:

  • read – read the current value of characteristic features
  • write – update the current value (it needs to be queued on our side) operations like enabling/disabling Bluetooth module, device discovery, creating sockets
  • notification / indication – asynchronous call – notifies about the changed value of characteristics

GATT handling is provided by native Android classes, but I recommend using dedicated libraries, like this one:

https://github.com/Polidea/RxAndroidBle

It wraps GATT functionality into RxJava and makes it much easier to use.

That’s all! It’s time to sum up shortly what has been said about Bluetooth Classic vs Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).

Bluetooth Classic vs. BLE – wrap up

I hope that now understanding the difference between Bluetooth Classic and Bluetooth Low Energy is easier for you.

Bluetooth technology allows us to configure communication between devices in many different ways. It offers some sub-solutions that we can use, but we first need to analyze what our goals and priorities are to choose the proper one. I hope that thanks to our advice, together with the basic steps, you will create a great and useful Android app using Bluetooth.

Do you want to create a BLE mobile app?

We had a strong background in developing apps using Bluetooth solutions

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