Bluetooth vs. Ant+ Revisited, Which Standard Wins?

Ant+ vs Bluetooth RunnerIf 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.

Garmin_screenshot
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.

Bluetooth Logo

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.

new TomTom GPS Sports Watch

The new TomTom GPS Sports Watch


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.

23 Comments

23 Responses to Bluetooth vs. Ant+ Revisited, Which Standard Wins?

  1. iRant says:

    I was looking forward to a Bluetooth vs ANT comparison that was current and valid. Sadly you have missed too many obvious points.

    * First and foremost, Bluetooth 4 has huge coattails to ride on. Bluetooth is standard on every mobile device in the world.
    -Bluetooth Classic is not BLE. Those existing mobile devices where “Bluetooth is standard” are just as useless at BLE as ANT+.
    * 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.
    -Same for ANT+. Working ANT+ on a smartphone was shown to everyone with a HTC Legend phone used for live ANT+ data tracking during the 2010 Tour de France. http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2010/07/behind-scenes-of-team-htc-columbia-and.html
    * 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.
    -The Sony Xperia M is an example of a current smartphone shipped with ANT+.
    * 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
    -This is definitely somewhere you need to check your facts. The Sony Xperia S is an example of an extremely popular ANT+ phone, using a Broadcom part: link

    -Your last 2 points i’m going to leave alone. Really clutching at straws to make these an argument, and it could go both ways.

    [Edited by Mod: cleaned up URL link for formatting]

    • dsmoot says:

      Thanks for taking the time to respond! I’m not an expert, just someone who has been tinkering with this stuff for years. You make some good points and let me be clear, I’m not rooting for Bluetooth, I actually prefer ANT+ and wish it would thrive. Choice is good.

      To respond to a few of your points:
      Thanks for the tip on the Xperia M. I was not aware of that one carrying Ant+. Maybe there is hope yet. Not exactly flagship specs but better than nothing.

      Broadcom does not have support for Ant+ as far as I know. I am not saying you cannot add a discrete Ant chipset like the Xperia S, I am saying you get Bluetooth 4 for “free” if you design a phone using broadcomm chipset with a lot of the antenna design done for you. If you want to add Ant+, that is extra cost on your BOM and extra design time to integrate antennae. I’m saying that all the cellular chipset vendors give you BLE for “free” in most of their designs and Ant+ has to be added.

      Bluetooth, and therefore BLE, is here to stay, period. It is well entrenched, well marketed, and widely supported already. The best Ant+ can hope for is a decent market share. And I hope it achieves that.

      Thanks for your comments, I’ll probably follow up at some time with a post about what Ant+ has going for it.

      David

    • Niclas says:

      I don’t know much about ANT+ as it is a closed specification, but I am able to comment on BLE as I have taken part in the design and writing profiles and services the last 5 years. I also would like to add a few things here as they are not correct.
      - BLE reuses most of the HW and SW stack of classic. The price to add BLE to classic is actually zero. BLE is an open and royalty free specification.
      - BLE and classic together address much larger markets than any other similar technology.
      - Bluetooth SIG is an open collaboration between more than 18 700 companies. For the moment about 270 new companies are joining the SIG every month.
      - BLE was created to address the low power market in particular
      - BLE will be heavily adopted outside sports and fitness and this will push volumes up and prize down.
      - I suspect the chip in Sony phone is from Qualcomm. I don’t think Broadcom ever supported anything but open and standards based solutions.
      - Sony is using Android so when Google is shipping the next version of Android then they will probably switch to BLE.
      - BLE has been designed to coexist and collocate with Bluetooth classic / Wifi. It can share the antenna with the other standards minimizing the price.
      - I guess Tomtom needs connectivity with every smartphone and computer and it is only BLE that can deliver that.
      - A BLE connection should not be compared to any of those old wireless systems out there. An LE connection is bi-directional, reliable (data is acknowledged) and robust(adaptive frequency hopping, 24-bit CRC, whitening….). The upper layers are very different from anything out there as I participated :)
      - BLE is a really modern newly designed stack by experts from companies like Apple, Broadcom, Intel, Samsung, Polar…… learn it. It is a fun technology. You can get the specification here:
      https://www.bluetooth.org/en-us/specification/adopted-specifications

      or go here

      developer.bluetooth.org

      Niclas Granqvist
      Bluetooth SF WG, Vice Chair

    • dsmoot says:

      Wow, thanks for your detailed reply, I am pleasantly surprised at the attention my amateur ramblings have attracted. You did confirm one thing I suspected, that BLE was bidirectional. It would have to be to implement secure connections. So playing devil’s advocate, doesn’t that mean that it would probably be at least slightly more power consuming? My single BLE device seems to eat battery a little faster than my ANT equivalent.

      Thanks for the detailed info, you may have converted me. Now if only I did not have so much ANT infrastructure already purchased.

      I have been seeing some interesting news from the ANT side, may have to follow up again.

    • Niclas says:

      I am not really interested to participate in LE vs ANT debate, as I know nothing about ANT and it is closed. Somebody pointed out to me that there are some factual mistakes and that is what I wanted to fix. What I can is to explain the Bluetooth design and why it was made in a certain way. Bluetooth has a different power profile than legacy sports systems, because it has a much larger list of requirements to fulfill, but they are necessary for the future evolution of sports.

  2. OngEngg says:

    An interesting debate, as a note I thought I’d mention it appears Samsung is now also adopting ANT+ in multiple products, and Sony is continuing its support in the latest Xperia phones.
    http://www.digitaljournal.com/pr/1452312

    http://www.engadget.com/2013/09/06/samsung-galaxy-note-10-1-2014-edition-reaches-the-fcc/

    http://developer.sonymobile.com/2013/09/04/introducing-sony-xperia-z1-a-5-waterproof-smartphone-with-a-large-12-3-type-20-7mp-camera-tech-specs/

    BLE has different goals than ANT. ANT datasheets indicate a high density of concurrent messaging among transmitters due to it’s TDMA style fixed-length time slots compared with BLE’s flexible message lengths and master managed timing. ANT also transmits on the same RF channel, ANT does not have a fixed “advertiser channel” concept as part of it’s design.

    What this means is that BLE makes it much easier for developers to send variable amounts of data, but that ANT can have many transmitters in the same RF channel, such as in a gym where a PC/tablet may want to see data from all sensors simultaneously.
    I believe a company called North Pole Engineering makes a device called the WASP which takes advantage of this to collect data from many ANT sensors simultaneously. DC Rainmaker uses it in some of his reviews as it makes timestamping data easier.

    Would be fascinated to see the practical maximum limit of BLE transmitters in the same physical room before interference begins occurring.

  3. steve says:

    my samsung galaxy note 3 has integrated ANT+ straight from the box…

  4. Barry says:

    yes ! Samsung Note 3 has integrated ANT+ radio chip straight from the box. confirmed! and also BLE too.
    Smart Bluetooth v4.0.
    but guess what. My fitbit flex smart BLE v4.0 failed to work because they have not made the drivers available to Note 3 yet!!!
    so back to ANT+

  5. Pingback: 运动领域电子设备的传输标准发展小思:Bluetooth 4.0(BLE)后来居上? | HorseLuke@微碌

  6. As a cyclist, ANT+ is so entrenched that its going to take BLE a LONG time to catch up, if ever. I do not want to take my phone or a tablet with me running, on a ride etc. I want a dedicated GPS device that is small and has a great battery life. Also, nearly all HR straps, power meters, speed/cadence sensors are ANT+. Also, BLE compatibility (ie, device profiles) is very immature at this point. I might go BLE in a couple years when this is all ironed out, but my new virtual power trainer is going to be ANT+.

    • dsmoot says:

      I don’t think it will take as long as you think. Think about how rapidly people change their phones or how rapidly blu-ray has displaced DVD. Love to be wrong though.

  7. Its ashame no one here mentioned that ANT+ can also be used as a sort of mesh network and is already in 80 million devices sold to date. Not to mention its designed for specific use cases. BLE has far to much caching up to do to be a practical contender at this point.

    • Niclas says:

      Some thoughts after reading the posts in the tread.

      I don’t think anybody ever really used ANT+ for mesh so what your are saying is pointless. There are various standards developed for various applications.WiFi 802.11s, 802.11ah and 6LoWPAN are solutions that will dominate the smart home and mesh. We still have to wait some year more for Wifi 802.11ah (WiFi at 800 MHz) but when it is here it is here. WiFI is in billions of devices. Bluetooth SIG is also doing what it can to compete with some of these in the future. The investments in the ecosystems runs in the hundreds of millions of dollars. On the contrary Bluetooth has no catching up to do. The Bluetooth 4.1 spec enables scatternets. It is now quite easy to put a mesh on BLE, but the question is. Do you really want to do it? Anyhow, BLE will be part of some of the IP end to end low power ecosystems.

      Notice that BLE is now supported by the iOS, Android, Windows and Linux ecosystems natively. ANT+ is still not supported in a single one of natively.

      I had a look at the latest market research. 2014 there will be about 3.5 Billion Bluetooth devices shipped. Nordic semi used to be the big ANT company. According to the latest numbers about 30% is now Bluetooth LE and read the comments and you see where the market is going.

  8. Nicla,

    After some more digging i’ve come to the conclusion that ANT+ still may have some life left in it. You have to also take into account all of the fitness devices that already have ANT+ installed on them.
    These are devices that have already been saturated into the market.

    Originally I had thought that newer iDevices had ANT+ integrated into them without needing any additional hardware.

    That seems to not be the case.

    However i noticed that adidas has put out a considerably smaller adapter and viiiiva has a wireless converter that is already available to consumers.

    I still like the idea that node streaming is already HERE. Now. and I don’t (and don’t want to) have to wait for bluetooth to play catch-up.

  9. Farva says:

    I’m not sure why people are talking about ANT+ being a closed spec. Anybody can go thisisant.com right now and download their “ANT Message Protocol and Usage” document and learn everything there is to know about ANT messaging.

    Looks like ANT+ is nothing more than a set of guidelines dictating what bytes need to hold what info when and where. Even more, access to these “profiles” is also free if you sign up as an adopter.

    So it’s not that ANT+ is closed, you just haven’t looked into it.

  10. woodi says:

    As an avid triathlete, ANT+ will survive. The investment required to update everything that works perfectly is not about to happen. I can see a market for the new protocol for yuppies that need a new toy when they buy a new phone every time a new one hits the market. I use ANT+ because it is used in my heart rate strap, foot pod, GPS watch, and my powertap hub. It just works everytime. I don’t want to pull out a phone to track things when I am working out.

  11. cj says:

    Here’s my $0.02

    I WAS invested in ANT, but needed to upgrade my Garmin 610 due to eyesight problems

    After some research I switched to BLE sensors and use the free Wahoo app. The total cost was somewhat less than upgrading to a Garmin 510 or 810. OK I haven’t equipped my second bike yet, so the total switchover will likely cost me as much or more.

    For me this was the best solution as I DO throw my phone in my jersey pocket when I ride .
    I also wanted to protect my investment in sensors, as I believe more apps will come to market that support BLE.
    For me the phone as an application development platform (software) trumps the hardware specific devices like Garmin.

  12. Tom says:

    Ant still has a lot of fight left in it. They are now on all new samsung devices. But I think the most important thing is that it is just a better technology. It all comes down to how it uses its channels. A BT smart node has to be either fully a master or fully a slave. Whereas ANT can assign the channels of a node to be a master or a slave. Most chips out there have 3-8 channels. This means that Ant is far more flexible in its implementation.

    good info:
    http://www.thisisant.com/developer/ant-plus/ant-ble-comparison/#381_tab

  13. Niclas says:

    Tom, the star topology of Bluetooth is actually ok for most use cases. Bluetooth 4.1 updates the old specification with many new functions and one is scatternets.

    In 4.1 a sensor can be slave to multiple masters or device can be master and slave at the same time

  14. Gary says:

    I have still yet to find a technology that will allow me to use my heart rate data from swimming as well as walking. Is there anything out there that will transmit in the swimming pool to a computer device like iPhone 5.

    • dsmoot says:

      Physics is your problem. Water is very, very good at shielding the electromagnetic waves these things use to transmit data to your phone. I believe there are a few that will log your HR during your swim locally for later download but I don’t think any can transmit to your phone in real time during a swim.

    • Nicce says:

      Polar H7 can transmit data in water as it has both a Bluetooth and a “magnetic” radio. There are no phones today that can receive the magnetic.

  15. Pyotr says:

    Well that’s all as clear as mud! All my sports devices are Ant+ but I’ve been wondering about BTE since Suunto Ambit3 went that way. I’ve been burned too many times in the past by dragging my feet when a new standard gathers momentum and I’ve not moved with the times because of prior investment (physical and mental). So I was looking to solid reasons to go one way or the other. And was expecting to see a rash of conversion devices (eg. so the expensive Ant power meter can send data to a BTE logger). So I’m left thoroughly muddled.

Add your thoughts