Ultimate Beacon Buyer’s Guide for Successful Bluetooth-Based Deployments

Click here to download a complete Beacon Buyer’s Guide.

We’ve covered the entry-level basics of what beacons are all about
in a previous post. This time, we’re diving a little deeper and focusing on the subject of how to choose the right hardware for your project. Specifically, we’re going to look at how the details of a given use case has a strong influence on what you need to consider when dealing with the huge amount of hardware choices.  
Making the right choice is easier when you can do a little preparation in the form of answering a few basic questions about what your beacon deployment is for and the environment where it will function. There are other factors that can influence your choice, like cost, but it often helps to work backwards from a simple idea—What do I need the beacons to do?
If you’re just starting the process of gathering information about setting up your own beacon deployment, don’t be intimidated by the surplus of information and technical details available. It may not seem so simple at the beginning, but taking it step by step and considering the basic elements of your own use case will help the hardware choices you have to make become much easier. Defining what you want your beacon network to do and understanding the factors that can influence how it functions will both help you select the right hardware and put you in a better position to manage the deployment once it goes live.

There is no one-size-fits-all

Your hardware choices are directly dependent on the requirements of your use case. It’s important to recognize that part of the reason there are so many choices when it comes to beacon hardware is the incredible number of applications for Bluetooth technology. Our goal here is to go over the most common factors that determine which hardware is best for which deployments and explain why one beacon is a better fit than another.
Before we dive in, though, let’s cover the difference between two terms that are sometimes confused. “Beacons” and “tags” are often used interchangeably, which is sometimes okay because they do the same thing. Other times, however, it’s important to distinguish between them because they fulfill their roles in different ways. 
The difference is that beacons don’t move and tags do. That’s it. They’re both Bluetooth low energy devices and they both emit a signal that is picked up and interpreted by other devices and applications. The distinction comes down to HOW they’re used. Beacons are typically placed on a wall or ceiling and used for applications like wayfinding or customer experience-oriented purposes. They stay in one place and interact with people or things that move around them. Tags, on the other hand, have a different form factor designed to move with people, like a card or wristband. They move around and interact with a device that stays in one place. The technology is the same, but they’re used in different ways and the separate names help to clarify the situation when one device is more appropriate for a particular use case.

What do you want to do?

As mentioned already, different use cases call for different hardware. Here are some of the most common use cases for beacon deployments and the most important features you need to consider for each one

– Asset tracking

  • For indoor tracking, the form factor of the beacon plays an important role, determining how is it mounted (with adhesives, mounting brackets, etc.)
  • Pay attention to what kind of sensors are built in to the beacon or possible to add. Sensors can significantly expand beacons functionality, with information about things like vibration, temperature and movement.
  • Because asset tags are usually small, their lifespan is relatively short compared to other Bluetooth Low Energy hardware. If long battery life is your main concern, be sure to select a vendor that enables power-saving features like being able to slow down broadcasting when assets aren’t moving (another reason why you need sensors!)
  • Outdoor tracking is more demanding due to the fact that environmental conditions require a more robust build. Outdoor tags and beacons need to be able to withstand different weather conditions and potential physical impact.
  • Outdoor tags are typically bigger, so the battery lifetime isn’t as much of a challenge (still, you can use power-saving if you want to).

-People visibility

  • The form factor is key for this use case since tags need to be wearable, comfortable and appropriate for work conditions. Typical form factors are a badge or wristband. Some applications, like patient tracking in healthcare, may have very specific requirements like anti-bacterial surface, waterproof casing or tamper-proof bracelet so make sure to keep this in mind when browsing through different options.
  • Look for a function button on tags used for people visibility. Although still not always standard, a button opens many possibilities for things like panic calls or other pre-set communications. Even if you don’t see a use case for the button now, it’s better to have tags with it and add the functionality later than not to have it.
  • For time clock applications you have to consider connectivity. If you deploy Bluetooth tags in an environment where RFID cards are in use for clock-in and out, you may consider selecting hardware with RFID functionality built in so you can save people the burden of carrying two pieces of tech.
  • If the physical appearance of the tag is important, you’ll need to think about customizability/white label considerations. People monitoring is usually used in workplaces, healthcare and education. In such scenarios, the piece of equipment worn by staff or visitors should be neutral or associated with the place they wear it so showcasing a vendor’s logo might not be the best idea. Check if you can white label the tags or put a custom logo on them.

-Condition monitoring

  • This is an umbrella term for many applications, from monitoring temperature in healthcare, workspaces, or cold storage to monitoring vibrations of machines in industrial spaces. So the requirements will be different for each project. Make sure the form factor suits the space you want to place it in and, obviously, that the sensors you’re interested are built-in.

-Customer experience

  • This refers to common use cases like proximity notifications and location-based content. In these situations, battery lifespan is the most important (you don’t want to replace batteries every six months, especially if you have many of them in numerous and various locations). Select hardware with a long battery life and check if the vendor offers power-saving functionalities like slowing down broadcasting when the lights are off or at certain times of the day so you can save battery life when there’s nobody on site.
  • The form factor depends on the environment and your own preferences but the more discrete the beacon, the better.
  • Speaking of discrete, you probably don’t want vendor branding to stand out, so ask about customizability/white label options. Alternatively, you can brand them with your or your customer’s logo. Check if the beacon provider enables such an option.

-Wayfinding / indoor navigation

  • The factors to consider here are very similar to those for customer experience. However, as this use case typically involves more beacons using more battery power (they broadcast their signal more often to deliver more accurate location data), overall battery life is a bigger factor.

Remember that once you’ve selected the Bluetooth hardware for your project, you can always buy a dev kit (usually a couple of units) and run a POC to make sure it delivers on what was promised before you purchase bigger quantities. A perfect fit with your requirements on the technical specifications doesn’t automatically mean that the real-world deployment will meet your expectations. Pay particular attention to the performance of the features you’re especially interested in. Test signal stability and battery consumption. See if the hardware can live up to your expectations in a real-world environment before you heading for the full deployment.

Want to know more?

If you would like to get into more of the specifics of how different types of beacons and tags are best suited for a variety of use cases and environments, you can read more in our new white paper, The Beacon Buyer’s Guide. It’s a great resource if you’re trying to decide what kind of beacon hardware to buy or just want to know more about the technology that makes them tick (even though beacons don’t tick…). Download it and learn everything from the basics of how beacons work to how different types are best for different jobs and everything in between. There’s also a handy chart showing which beacons in the portfolio are best for different applications.

Click here to download a complete Beacon Buyer’s Guide