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Optimizing applications for throughput and power consumption

BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) devices are usually battery powered so performance might mean different things in different applications. You will need to decide what is more important in your application - minimizing power consumption on one or both sides of the communication or maximizing throughput and/or latency. Some optimization steps can in fact achieve both.

This guide will discuss some trade-offs that should be considered and best practices that improve performance on all fronts.

Power consumption

Any radio activity will consume power. Depending on what the stack is doing you have to power the radio even when no data is being sent. It is important to understand when radio is active.


The most intuitive power consumption rate to understand is when using connections. Each device will take turns sending and receiving at set interval.

    ┌────┐ ┌────┐           ┌────┐ ┌────┐         ┌────┐ ┌────┐ ┌────┐ ┌────┐
    │send│ │recv│           │send│ │recv│         │send│ │recv│ │send│ │recv│
    └────┘ └────┘           └────┘ └────┘         └────┘ └────┘ └────┘ └────┘
      connection interval

    ┌────┐ ┌────┐                                 ┌────┐ ┌────┐ ┌────┐ ┌────┐
    │recv│ │send│                                 │recv│ │send│ │recv│ │send│
    └────┘ └────┘                                 └────┘ └────┘ └────┘ └────┘
      slave latency

    ▲                       ▲                     ▲
    connection event        connection event      connection event

To maintain a connection, regardless if there is data transfer to be transferred, the central needs to transmit and receive once every connection interval.

The peripheral needs to acknowledge connection events to the central. Data ready to be transmitted is sent in the acknowledgement. To save power, if the peripheral has no data to transmit it may skip up to slaveLatency connection events.

More power is consumed if there is data to be exchanged. The exchange can continue until the next connection event would take place.

It's worth considering if keeping the connection active is worth it. Connection in BLE has little overhead and there are some cases when it is better to connect and disconnect each time you want to send a burst of data if for example you want to conserve power on one of the devices. This way only one side will have to run advertising/scanning all the time while the power limited device can turn the transmitter on only when it needs to.

The cost of the connection is proportionate to the negotiable connection interval. This can be set during connect or later through updateConnectionParameters. The lower the interval the more often radio is active. This is especially important for the peripheral which needs to enable the radio to receive packets.

This can be further helped by setting a high slaveLatency parameter. This allows the peripheral to skip connection events and save power not just by not sending any packets but by not even listening. This is not free for central as it increases latency of data transmission from central to peripheral. Central may have to attempt sending data multiple times before the peripheral accepts the transmission. The peripheral may send data at any connection event as the central must listen after every transmission.

Advertising and scanning

Power draw during advertising affected by:

  • the advertising interval - lower interval uses more power,
  • use of Coded PHY which uses more power for extended effective range,
  • amount of data sent,
  • number of channels used - each advertising event is sent by default to three channels which you can limit to 2 or 1,
  • whether extended advertising is used - this will send additional packets on regular channels,
  • whether the type is connectable or scannable - it means the advertiser needs to listen on the radio after each advertisement for potential connection of scan requests.
                ┌────┐           advertising interval              ┌────┐
     channel 37 │adv │◄───────────────────────────────────────────►│adv │
                └────┘                                             └────┘
                      ┌────┐                                             ┌────┐
     channel 38       │adv │                                             │adv │
                      └────┘                                             └────┘
                            ┌────┐                                             ┌────┐
     channel 39             │adv │                                             │adv │
                            └────┘                                             └────┘

     non-advertising              ┌────────────────────┐
     channel                      │extended advertising│
     (indicated in regular        └────────────────────┘
      advertising payload)

Scanning power draw is proportional to time spent scanning. Additional power will be used if you run active scanning which will send a scan request and listen for the reply.

The interaction between scanning an advertising means that the less power the advertiser spends advertising, the more power the scanner will have to spend to see the advertising packets. The decision on balance will be dictated by your design of your devices (which one is more constrained).

Connection vs advertising

Instead of connecting to the device you can consider transferring data in advertising packets. This depends on the nature of the data.

A transfer over a connection will allow you to use the ATT protocol, this can handle acknowledgement for you. This might be a good choice if you're sending data that must get through reliably.

If your data is non-critical then advertising might be cheaper. You might have to accept less reliability and no built in acknowledgment. Additional benefit is that multiple devices may receive the data and each scanner may make their own decisions about power consumption.

Periodic advertising

Periodic advertising allows you to get best of both worlds by having the power characteristics of advertising for the peripheral but also saving power for the scanner. After finding periodic advertising through createSync the scanner will only have to turn on the radio when the expected packet is due.

Increasing throughput

The following approaches can help to increase throughput, but you might need to consider whether power consumption will be adversely affected in your application.

Modulation schemes

Depending on controller support different modulation schemes are available in BLE through setPreferredPhys() and setPhy(). While the coded PHY will increase reliability in noisy environments and increase range at the cost of power consumption, 2M PHY will increase the throughput saving power per bit. If both devices support it and the signal quality is good then this is recommended to be enabled.

Data length and ATT_MTU

Packet overhead strongly affects throughput. Newer controllers allow you to negotiate bigger MTUs thus decreasing the fragmentation overhead.

There are two separate MTUs to consider: the ATT_MTU (which affects ATT protocol operations) and data length extension (which affects transport packets). Increasing the sizes will increase memory usage but greatly increase throughput. ATT_MTU and data length are independent of each other.

The size of ATT_MTU doesn't have any other overhead than memory and should only be limited by your biggest attribute and available memory.

The default value of data length supported by all controllers is 23 octets. If both controllers support data length extension and a higher value is negotiated, the BLE stack will call onDataLengthChange in the Gap::EventHandler registered by the user. The supported length is set in the link layer with a maximum of 251. For Cordio Link Layer it is derived from the config option cordio_ll.max-acl-size.

Larger data length greatly increases throughput (although diminishing returns quickly set in above 80). The only potential drawback is in noisy environments where longer packets may cause slower effective transfer due to retransmissions (this is only related to data length, ATT_MTU does not affect this).

ATT protocol

GATT client writes and GATT server updates come in two versions - with and without confirmation. Requiring confirmations limits the throughput severely so to maximize throughput you can move reliability up from the stack to your application. Without confirmations more than a single Peripheral <=> Central data exchange can be made per connection event. With confirmations, the connection event ends when the peripheral replies as it needs to prepare the acknowledgement which will be sent possibly in the next event.

Packet timings

If you're not constrained by battery power it might be tempting to use maximum/minimum values where possible. Advertising at maximum frequency and scanning continuously will speed up connecting. Setting intervals on connections will minimize latency and maximize number of connection events.

One key thing to consider when setting the connection interval low is that you are creating a boundary between which a sequence of packets must fit. This means that the last transfer must end before the next connection event starts (plus 150us of inter packet space). This dead time may become significant if the connection interval is short and packet length is long.

The connection interval shouldn't be shorter than what your data requires in terms of latency.

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