The days when you had to plug a USB dongle into your PC, Mac, or single-board computer to add Bluetooth functionality seemed to be long gone, with even the Raspberry Pi Zero now coming with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
But the latest version of the Bluetooth wireless communication standard, called Bluetooth 5, isn’t that widely supported yet despite being announced more than 2 years ago. While your iPhone might now support Bluetooth 5, the first Mac to ship with Bluetooth 5 support was the iMac Pro at the beginning of the year. So you might be thinking that the era of USB dongles was back. Except that there didn’t seem to be any around, the nRF52840-Dongle from Nordic Semiconductor seems to be the first.
While I’ve seem nRF52840-based development boards in the past, the three Particle Mesh boards released at the beginning of the year come to mind, this is the first time I’ve come across it in a USB dongle form factor—allowing you to add Bluetooth 5 capability to existing hardware.
Interestingly, the dongle doesn’t just offer Bluetooth 5. It features multi-protocol support for Bluetooth 5, Bluetooth LE, Bluetooth Mesh, Thread, Zigbee, 802.15.4, and ANT/ANT+ via the onboard nRF52840.
There is decent online documentation available for the dongle, as well as a printable user guide. So if you’re thinking of developing hardware using Bluetooth 5, and don’t have an iMac Pro on your desk, this dongle is probably a good way to add functionality to your existing machine and get started.
“If you make can use of HCI over UART firmware it’s a good way to Bluetooth 5 enable your Mac, PC, or Raspberry Pi. So far I’ve only seen Bluetooth 4.0 USB adapters, no 4.2 and definitely not 5.0. The same applies to Thread and Open Thread.”–Sandeep Mistry, Senior Software Engineer, Arduino
The nRF52840-based dongle doesn’t seem to be widely available yet, and at the time of writing only Avnet (in Europe) seems to have some in stock. The price is €12.83 (approx. $15) in single unit quantities, dropping to €9.41 (approx $11) for orders above a 1,000 units. While Mouser (in the US) is offering the dongle at the lower price of $10, it doesn’t seem to have any on hand, and is advertising a 9 week factory lead time with 400 units “on order.” Right now I can’t find any other sources, although it’s likely that other Nordic distributers will quickly step in with stock available soon.