If you are serious about measuring your athletic performance, you have two choices for the wireless technology that tracks workouts, Bluetooth vs. Ant+. Which is best for you? Which will be future proof? Will wireless digital health gadgets be like Android vs. IOS with room for devotees of both or will it be more like Blu-Ray Vs. HD DVD (or VHS vs. BetaMax if you are of my age or older). Read on for the pros and cons of each as I compare Bluetooth vs. Ant+ Heart Rate Monitors again and other fitness gadgets.
But first a little history because my recommendations make a little more sense in the context of the last 10 years. In 2002 I promised my wife that when she finished her Master’s degree, I would get in shape and lose some of the weight I had packed on in marriage and college. I was 5′ 9.5″, 237 pounds at my heaviest and wore a 40″ waistline pant. As of this writing, I weight about 155 pounds and can squeeze into size 30 pants (despite losing half an inch of height in an unfortunate high speed encounter with the pavement). The vast majority of those pounds were sweated off with Garmin’s excellent line of Forerunner GPS fitness tracking devices with both running and cycling . I have 7 years of fitness data spanning three generations of Garmin devices. The Garmin forerunner series is/was rugged, dependable, and highly functional. Garmin originally used a proprietary digital radio to send cardio data to its fitness watches. But like the guy from the Remington razor commercials in the 80’s they liked the Ant+ fitness protocol so much, they bought the company and incorporated Ant+ in almost all of their fitness products.
At the time, Bluetooth dominated (and still does despite many would be competitors) the mobile phone market for wireless accessories but it was way too power hungry to compete with Ant+’s year long battery life on a coin cell. Bluetooth’s strength was handsfree phone headsets and a few innovative hardware and software applications. So with the exception of the fitness gadget niche, Bluetooth owned the short range wireless cable replacement market. By the late 2000’s, even the “dumbphones” had Bluetooth.
So the Bluetooth Special Interest Group created the Bluetooth 4 / Bluetooth Low Energy / BLE / Bluetooth Smart specification to compete in the market for low power, low data rate, coin cell powered wireless gadgets because the health and wellness / quantized self market is growing. Fitbit, Withings, Wahoo Fitness, and Jawbone Up all have sprung up in the last few years to compete with the more established and old school fitness trackers like Garmin, Polar, and Suunto.
As of this writing (mid 2013), Ant+ is the established market leader for serious athletic tracking. It has an ecosystem of interoperable Ant sensors and trackers. The previously mentioned Fitbit and Jawbone Up use BLE but they are targeted more at the casual exerciser. But unfortunately I believe Ant+ is somewhat doomed as a protocol. Just like Personal Navigation Device market (also once dominated by Garmin) was squeezed out of existence by mapping functionality becoming ubiquitous on smartphones, Bluetooth 4 will squeeze Ant+ into a niche market and take over the majority of the fitness tracking market.
Why will BLE win the Bluetooth vs. Ant market?
- First and foremost, Bluetooth 4 has huge coattails to ride on. Bluetooth is standard on every mobile device in the world.
- Google has finally announced support for BLE on Android. It says a lot about the coattail effect for Bluetooth that in today’s ultra competitive cell phone market, devices like Google’s flagship Nexus 7 tablet and Samsung Galaxy S3 shipped BLE capable hardware without software support.
- Smartphones are outselling dedicated fitness trackers by several orders of magnitude. Sony did make a few Ant+ enabled smartphones a few years ago
but no current smartphone ships with an Ant+ radio. Update: As commenter iRant pointed out below, Sony still makes current smartphones with ANT+ radios. Ant is still missing on anything resembling a flagship phone model though.
- Radios need antennas. Smartphones already must have antenas for cellular, wifi, and Bluetooth. The big name system on chip vendors have a vested interest in Bluetooth (Broadcom, Qualcomm) and have no incentive to integrate Ant. The only big name SOC vendor that had support for ANT is Texas Instruments and they chose to abandon the cell phone market due to competitive pressure
- Here’s a telling contrast: Ant has a page listing why it is superior to BLE but Ant+ does not even make it onto the Bluetooth SIG’s list of competing technologies. Now you may say that is because Ant is truly superior and that may be true, but it also means that the Bluetooth SIG does not even need to market against them.
- TomTom chose BLE and not ANT+ for its announced GPS Sport Watch. My guess is with the economies of scale and the design re-use of last generation cellular designs, it just made sense for them.
All is not lost for Ant+, there are a few key advantages it still has but I will save that for another blog post, this one is long enough.
Note: This is a follow-on to a previous blog post, found here.