What Is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)?

HEAR THIS: 2011 will be the year of Bluetooth. Or rather the other year of Bluetooth, the first one being, like, 1995. Anyway, here's why you should care about the 'tooth again: It's called BLE. It's like Bluetooth Light.

BLE is a new version of Bluetooth...

Announced over two years ago and finally codified as part of the official Bluetooth 4.0 spec just a few months ago, BLE, or Bluetooth Low Energy, is pretty much like regular Bluetooth, in that it's a simple system for making wireless connections over short distances. It is different in a few hugely important ways, however.

...that uses a small fraction of the power that its older brother does...

The spec sheet on BLE is a little disheartening at first. It's slower than regular BT by quite a bit, to the point that voice and other audio connections aren't possible. But, well, this:

Bluetooth low energy single-mode chips consume less power than dual-mode chips and are

optimized to run off a coin cell battery for a year or more.

I usually turn off Bluetooth on my phone and laptop because it drains a noticeable amount of power. With BLE, I wouldn't have to.

...and requires new hardware...

BLE hardware will come in two flavours: single mode and dual mode. Dual mode hardware is a hybrid of traditional and BLE, and can operate in both high-power and low-power modes. (In the case of a phone, one for typical Bluetooth duties, like audio streaming, and the other for something like connecting to a heartrate monitor, or forwarding text messages to a watch or tablet.)

Single mode BLE hardware only connects to other BLE devices, but sips power.

...like this.

The watch seen here is one of the first single-mode BLE devices, and it's an impressive concept:

The still-nameless Casio prototype also weds its alarm functions to your phone, shows incoming email alerts, and syncs up to the phone to set its own time... Its new Bluetooth Low Energy system promises a battery life of two years.

The tech is also used in fitness devices and medical equipment, though the Bluetooth SIG expects it to be used in mobile phones and laptops, too, since including BLE in new Bluetooth-equipped devices is neither expensive nor difficult.

Expect it to quietly show up in you next phone, laptop or tablet. Or watch. Or remote! Pretty much anything, really.