iBeacons are low energy Bluetooth devices that help schools and organizations track the last known location of a device and prepare said device based on its location. This means that an iOS or OS X device can enter a space where an iBeacon is and automatically be configured with the appropriate resources and settings.
Coming in a range of sizes and materials, iBeacons work by broadcasting a signal, often know as an iBeacon region, which communicates with the device. With an array of iBeacons available, it can often be confusing as to which devices are best for your environment and why. But no need to worry, we can help paint a clearer picture.
Considerations when choosing an iBeacon
Size and location
First ask yourself if you want a small, out of the way iBeacon or something akin to a wireless access point that can be wall mounted. Your location will also dictate the material you’ll want your iBeacon to be made from. Rubber is ideal for schools where iBeacons may need to be more durable to withstand the pounding of a classroom. Composite plastic may be more suited for a corporate setting when the iBeacon needs to blend into the background and almost go unnoticed. An outdoor or cold environment would require a sealed plastic unit that can handle the elements.
Next, how do you want to power your iBeacons? Battery is often better for users wishing to place the iBeacons in hard to reach areas where power is not available. Pro tip when using batteries: coin batteries last twice as long as AA batteries. While not as common as battery powered iBeacons, some allow you to plug the technology in. This method offers a stronger, more consistent broadcast.
Configuration and setup
Lastly, how you do you want to handle configuration and setup? Some devices are configured using an app and then you manually enter the details into your management server. Others use a specific app, which adds the iBeacon into the management server automatically. Apps are often free and can be found in the App Store. You may be required to have a code to enroll in the developer portal.
When setting up and placing your iBeacons, remember that furniture and humans can absorb signals. Placing them on the ceiling is a best practice, but can make battery changes a little more challenging.
The nuts and bolts of iBeacons
Every iBeacon has three basic settings: unique identification (UID), major value or minor value. UID’s are unique for each iBeacon; major value is set the same for all iBeacons in a building; minor value is unique to each room. For example, if iBeacons were used in a retail store, the major value would be the entire shop and the minor value would be for different departments.
Provided location services are turned on, the iOS device will be searching for iBeacon regions, and will know when it enters or leaves an iBeacon region. Devices will only work with iBeacon technology if they support low energy Bluetooth. A list of supported devices can be found here: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT202880.
iBeacon brand testing and results
To aid you in finding the right iBeacons for your environment, we tested and examined seven different types of devices from five different companies. Qualities looked at when testing included:
- What is the product made of
- How would it stand up to day-to-day life in a classroom or workplace
- How is the iBeacon configured
- How quickly and easily does the configuration apply
- What range of settings can be applied
- How quickly does the iOS device pick up the iBeacon
- Post-purchase care from the vendor
- Made from rubber: solid and well made
- Splash proof, but not able to submerge in water
- Configured from an iOS app, which synchronizes with a web console
- Configuration is very easy: the iOS app shows available iBeacons on a radar type interface. You then select the iBeacon you wish to modify and make changes. However, if you make the changes on the web interface, they may take a few minutes to sync with the iBeacon. This is because the sync will not happen until the iBeacon is in range of the iOS app.
- Good range of adjustment capabilities. This can be important when trying to find optimal settings for a deployment. Range and broadcast interval can be changed.
- When testing with the management server, these iBeacons registered on the device within 20 seconds, but can take upwards of 40 seconds for the device to leave the iBeacon region.
- Good entry level price at $20 per unit, although these iBeacons must be purchased as a set of three for $60.
Overall, Estimote is a good choice. The iBeacons are a good value for the money and are backed by a strong support offering, with support given in the form of an extensive knowledge base site and online community forum similar to JAMF Nation.
- Made from a solid, plastic shell
- Powered by AA batteries, making its initial output strong, but overall battery life less than coin battery
- New product on the market so the application is still in development; can buy the iBeacon but need to apply for access to the developer portal to get the configuration app
- Easy to configure once the app was commandeered
Not readily available right now. Signul is also one of the more expensive models at $50 per unit.
Kontakt USB Beacon
- Small and lightweight, with a constant power output due to the USB power adapter
- Power source is not ideal as it may require putting a power outlet in a hard to reach area of the room
- Product is still in development; the current product is a bare USB chip wrapped in insulated plastic. The finished product will be enclosed in a hard plastic shell and look similar to a USB pen drive.
- The Kontakt app is easy to configure and benefits from a web console, allowing you to do the majority of work on a laptop and then sync over to the device
- Good price at $20 per unit, but must be purchased in sets of three
Due to small form factor, Kontakt USB Beacons may be suitable for corporate environments or retail situations where the iBeacons need to blend into the background and not be seen.
Kontakt Touch Beacon
- Sealed in a plastic shell, making them waterproof
- Operates well in freezing temperatures
- Battery changes for these iBeacons will be tricky as the seal on the shell may not go back together as well as in the factory, thus reducing the protection from water damage
- With a loop on the back of the iBeacon, mounting these devices on different objects is easy
- Configuration is simple, using the same iOS app for all its devices
- Expensive at $30 per iBeacon
The cost of these iBeacons may scare some from purchasing solely for indoor use, but for schools or organizations looking for a durable, waterproof iBeacon, this is the best in its class.
Kontakt Smart Beacon
- Extremely lightweight and made of a thin plastic
- Due to their weight, iBeacons are easy to mount in most environments, as they only require a sticky pad to hold in place
- Battery changes are simple and Kontakt Smart Beacons utilize coin batteries, which make them a good, long lasting product
- Not as durable as others due to the thin plastic shell
- Pleasing design that may appeal to the more design driven customer
- Good broadcast qualities and always picked up the configuration app within a few seconds of attempting to connect
- Configuration is easy and quick
- $27 per iBeacon
The maker of these iBeacons prides itself on quality and helping customers build apps to better utilize the iBeacons. Like Estimote, these iBeacons have good end user support in the form of an online community.
Onyx Enterprise Beacon
- Product is constructed to look like a Wi-Fi access point
- Much larger than other iBeacon products
- Mounted using either sticky pads or can be fixed to a wall with screws
- Designed to blend in with other enterprise hardware
- Powered by a USB power adapter; can have batteries installed as a failsafe
- Configured through a web portal or an app
- Includes a buzzer inside the iBeacon to help locate the beacon in crowded areas, and also to double-check connectivity to the app
- Priced at $30 per unit; power adapter must be purchased separately
Toss in advanced encryption options and this iBeacon is a good choice for security-minded enterprise organizations.
Two Canoes Bleu 100 Series
- Size is less than the average USB stick and can be lost very easily
- USB powered; no power supply unit (PSU) supplied
- Comes in a set of 10 for $240; no PSU means cost could rise
- Can run off the USB port of a Mac, meaning the iBeacons can be mobile
- Configured using a free app from the App Store; integrates with the JAMF Software Server (JSS) API and automatically sets the iBeacon up in the JSS
- Even though the iBeacon is configured with the JSS app, it does require an additional app to make changes to the iBeacon configuration
- Good vendor support with many online resources
- Good amount of adjustment and works well with iOS devices
Ability to be mobile could be beneficial for a teacher to go from classroom to classroom with the iBeacon, but requiring two apps to configure makes it more difficult on IT.
- Free iOS app available in the App Store
- Very simple to configure; only comes with major and minor versions
- Great for quick testing and seems reliable
Beacon Bits are a good way to confirm if you have a broken iBeacon or iOS device. The app shows, in real time, if an iBeacon is broadcasting correctly through a light indicator.
Most of the iBeacons fall into similar price brackets, so in my opinion, cost should not be the driving force behind the decision. For enterprise environments, I recommend Onyx Enterprise Beacon as they are the only true enterprise offering. For education, I recommend Estimote. They are durable, a good value, perform well and easy to configure. Any of the Kontakt iBeacons are also viable options for education, provided they can withstand the potential harsh classroom treatment.