Just when it seems like wireless communications has reached a cost/performance peak, one supplier or another comes along and pushes the bar even higher. As a result the market for semiconductors covering such wireless protocols as Bluetooth, for example, is expected to rise to 3.1 billion units in 2017, up a whopping 91% from 1.6 billion in 2011, according to IMS Research, with the majority of the growth driven by demand for wireless combination ICs and mobile system-on-chip (SoC) devices with integrated wireless connectivity for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.


Nowhere is the wireless trend more evident than at Design West where companies ranging from well-known MCU supplier Microchip to RF specialists such as Nordic Semiconductor unveiled expanded embedded wireless portfolios.


Microchip’s new entries include Bluetooth ,Wi-Fi and ZigBee products.The Bluetooth additions include the PIC32 Bluetooth Audio Development Kit, featuring modules, stacks and CODECs, and XBee footprint-compatible socket modules with integrated stacks.  The new Wi-Fi offerings comprise IEEE 802.11b/g Wi-Fi modules with Microchip’s free source-code TCP/IP stack running on a PIC microcontroller, as well as XBee footprint-compatible socket modules with integrated stacks for ease of use.  Microchip is also adding a low-power 2.4 GHz radio that supports—for the first time in one chip—both the IEEE 802.15.4 and proprietary data rates (from 125 kbps to 2 Mbps), including the ZigBee, MiWi and other proprietary protocols.


Microchip’s new 2.4 GHz IEEE 802.15.4 MRF24XA transceiver radio provides a very low operating voltage range of 1.5 to 3.6V, and receive power consumption of only 13 mA, according to the company, which enables years of battery life. This is also Microchip’s first radio that can support both the IEEE 802.15.4 and proprietary data rates and protocols.


For designers who want an easy way to migrate their 802.15.4 designs to either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth-- to make them accessible from smart phones and tablets, or to add Internet connectivity—Microchip’s RN XV series of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth socket modules provide agency-certified, drop-in connectivity for any XBee socket.  To simplify designs the stacks are integrated on the module, configured via simple ASCII commands, and can easily connect to any MCU via a serial interface.


For those designers who want to add more extensible Wi-Fi functionality, such as a complete Web server and email, via a configurable source-code TCP/IP stack that is resident on one of many PIC microcontrollers, the company’s new low-power and agency-certified MRF24WG0MA/MB modules connect at all IEEE 802.11b/g data rates, up to 54 Mbps, and are Microchip’s first to support a sustained throughput of 5 Mbps. This provides a footprint-compatible migration path for users of Microchip’s existing Wi-Fi modules who need greater speed or increased access-point compatibility, along with more features.


As noted previously Bluetooth digital audio is rapidly expanding in high-volume applications such as accessories for smart phones and tablets, as well as audio sound bars. To meet this demand, Microchip’s 32-bit PIC32 microcontrollers provide a platform for developing digital-audio playback and accessories.  The new PIC32 Bluetooth Audio Development Kit builds on Microchip’s existing stack-integrated Bluetooth audio module with a new low-cost, agency-certified Bluetooth HCI transceiver module based on a standard radio, AVRCP and A2DP Bluetooth profiles tailored for the PIC32, as well as both standard and advanced audio CODECs such as SBC, AAC and MP3.  Additionally, this kit can be used with Microchip’s existing Made for iPod and Android stacks. 


Also at Design West Ultra low power (ULP) RF specialist Nordic Semiconductor today demonstrated its ULP 2.4GHz wireless connectivity solutions for smart home, security, sports and fitness and toy sectors . Nordic demo’ed RF modules developed by Japanese ODMs Hosiden Corporation and Fujitsu Component. The modules are based on Nordic's nRF51822 Bluetooth low energy and 2.4GHz proprietary System-on-Chip (SoC) and are supplied complete with Nordic's verified and qualified Bluetooth low energy stack. The nRF51822's clean boundary between application code and protocol stack simplifies development by removing the need to struggle with integration of application code as part of a vendor-imposed application development framework.


Other Nordic demonstrations at Design West include Nordic's nRFready Desktop 2 and nRFready Smart Remote 2. The nRFready Desktop 2 is said to be the world's first combined Bluetooth low energy and proprietary 2.4GHz wireless mouse and keyboard 'combo' reference design and the nRFready Smart Remote 2 is a complete hardware and software remote control reference design featuring a multi-touch touchpad, 6-axis motion sensing, and full QWERTY keyboard. The reference designs are based on the nRF51822 SoC; Nordic's reference designs and sample applications provide designers with a suitable starting point and design framework to accelerate development of nRF24L Series 2.4GHz proprietary, ANT+, and Bluetooth Smart applications and accessories.