Back to Basics: NFC Explained

July 18, 2013
Welcome friends, to the “Back to Basics” series where we’ll run a fine toothed comb over each and every aspect of Android so that you can make an educated decision on which Android device is for you.

    Android Authority Back to Basics

    This week’s edition is going to focus on a piece of technology which was labelled the “next big thing” not so long ago. While it hasn’t quite lived up to that tag yet, it’s still become a staple in high-end smartphones. It’s time to talk NFC.

    What is NFC?

    NFC stands for Near Field Communications, and is a set of standards for mobile devices to establish radio communication with each other by bringing them into close proximity. The maximum range varies depending on device, but it is usually less than 10 cm.

    nfc smartphones aa 600px

    NFC achieves a theoretical speed of 424 kbit/s, which is slower than Bluetooth 4.0. The advantage it has over Bluetooth is that it consumes a lot less power, and doesn’t require pairing. It’s also much faster to set up, often taking less than 1/10th of a second to establish a connection.

    As for that power sipping we mentioned, NFC also consumes much less power than Bluetooth 4.0 when reading between two active devices, however it consumes more than Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (not to be confused with regular Bluetooth) when working with an unpowered device (like a turned off smartphone or an NFC-enabled sticker/tag).

    How does it is work on Android?

    In 2010 the Samsung Nexus S was the first Android device to have NFC support, and it was unveiled at the same time as Android 2.3 Gingerbread.

    Android Beam

    Android Beam is a feature first announced as a part of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. It works with two NFC enabled devices by using NFC to pair them, and then send content over Bluetooth. This takes advantage of the faster transfer rates of Bluetooth, and the instant pairing of NFC.

    At first, Android Beam could only send contacts, app links, website links and other small pieces of data. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean added support for users to send photos and videos over Bluetooth, increasing the use case scenarios for Android Beam.

    While both Android Beam and S-Beam use NFC for pairing, Android Beam uses Bluetooth and S-Beam uses Wi-Fi Direct for data transfers.

    S-Beam

    S-Beam is a Samsung specific usage of NFC, and was first unveiled with the Samsung Galaxy S3. This added support for video and photo transfer as the Galaxy S3 was running Android 4.0 at the time. S-Beam also uses NFC to pair devices, however it uses Wi-Fi Direct to send data.

    banner-galaxy-s3-nfc-mod-121024

    S-Beam between two Samsung Galaxy S3′s

    The use of Wi-Fi Direct instead of Bluetooth results in faster transfer rates. While Android Beam is universal to all Android devices which support NFC and Bluetooth, S-Beam is exclusive to a few high-end Samsung devices.

    What are the uses of NFC

    Payment systems

    One of the most anticipated uses of NFC is for it to be used as a contactless payment system, similar to current credit cards, allowing users to have a “mobile wallet”. Since NFC can be encrypted, it would be safe to use for these purposes.

    nfc-mobile-payments

    Google Wallet allows users to store debit cards, credit cards, loyalty cards and gift cards, and can use NFC to make secure payments by simply tapping their NFC-enabled device to a PayPass-enabled terminal. Unfortunately, Google Wallet is currently only supported in the U.S., and not as widely as users would like.

    Connecting and pairing

    A major advantage for NFC is the simple and quick setup. You’ll often hear the words “one-tap connection” used when speaking about NFC and that is largely true. Some manufacturers have taken advantage of the quick pairing and have used NFC to pair Bluetooth headset, speakers and other devices to an NFC-enabled device.

    Some games allow users to quickly pair through NFC to play multiplayer games.

    Sending and receiving large data files

    Android Beam supports sending large files like photos and videos. It can also share a contact quickly, allowing people to share their business cards for example.

    NFC-enabled tags and stickers

    New NFC-enabled tags and stickers can be bought which can be programmed for a specific task through a specific app. Through a simple-tap, users can change phone settings, send a text message, launch an app and more. For example, a user can leave stick an NFC tag on their bedside table and tap it to enable an alarm or turn the phone on vibrate.

    NFC Tag Packet AA

    NFC tags and stickers which are programmable through an app.

    Wrap up

    Sadly, NFC hasn’t quite reached its potential yet. This is due to some companies and consumers reluctance to move onto the new technology and security concerns from some users and companies. While Google Wallet is Google’s way of using NFC, other companies have created their own associations for payment system like Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile creating ISIS, a competing mobile payment system, creating problematic divisions.

    However, it is obvious that NFC has lots of potential and the fact that lots of Android devices already support NFC, it’s at least a future proofing of your device if anything else.

    We’ll be back next week with another edition of the Back to Basics series, but if you have a question about anything Android related, head over to our AA Q&A page, where our team will answer your questions every Wednesday or just drop your questions in the comments section below.

    Comments

    • MasterMuffin

      We should also blame Apple for the slow growing of cool stuff that has NFC features. If they’d put NFC to the next iPhone and iPad, people would love the new innovative thing that Apple invented (:D) and there’d be more speakers and other gadgets and even apps that would use NFC for awesome stuff!

      BTW I know my grammar isn’t perfect and I’ve provably made a lot of grammatical mistakes in this comment, but I just have to point this out (though it’s just a typo): “S-Beam also USERS NFC to pair devices”.

      • Greg Cardall

        Bravo! It’s funny ’cause it’s true! LOL

      • abazigal

        Apple has no interest in helping to build an ecosystem that their competitors can freely ride on as well.

        • MasterMuffin

          What? Do you mean that Apple’s #1 goal is NOT the people’s well being?? You silly

          • abazigal

            Apple is a capitalistic and profit-motivated company first and foremost. It just so happens that their business is in hardware sales, so they are at least still committed to producing quality products to sell.

    • Luka Mlinar

      Of course Samsung has a special NFC. Don’t forget you couldn’t send files over infra red from a Samsung to any other because these idiots made it so you could only do it with Samsung devices. Man i forgot how much that pissed me off back in the day.

      • Skander

        Samsung devices also have the regular Android Beam and it automatically falls back to it when the other device doesn’t support S-Beam, they didn’t get rid of it.

    • Victor V.

      Awesome article adam. I never knew how useful nfc can be. The NFC enabled stickers, and tags garnered the most interest of all the features named. Well that ,and the s-beam available on select Samsung devices.

    • Grman Rodriguez

      Back to basics: Wi-Fi, it would be cool if you explained what is that abgn thing

      • Adam Koueider

        It’s coming along soon. I’ve got a lot of topics to cover so stay tuned!

    • Otto Andersson

      NFC is one of those things that people are hard pressed to find a decent use for. In Korea, it’s definitely a lot better implemented for public transportation and cafes.

    • Darren

      I think there is a mistake in “In 2010 the Samsung Nexus S was the first Android device to have NFC support, and it was unveiled at the same time as Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.” The first device to run ICS is the Galaxy Nexus and ICS was unveiled in 2011, not the year Nexus S was unveiled. Nexus S was unveiled with Gingerbread. And yeah, Gingerbread is the first to support NFC not ICS.

      • Adam Koueider

        Yeah, sorry about that, I was thinking about some Ice Cream Sandwich. FIXED! Also @mastermuffin:disqus sorry about that dude. ALSO FIXED!

    • karam

      So..if NFC uses either Bluetooth or WiFi direct….what is the use of its hardware component? ..I mean the sticker or circuit on some phones’ back covers..or on the battery on some others like Samsung??..what is this piece’s job??exactly?

      • Adam Koueider

        To initiate the connection instantaneously. NFC can also be encrypted unlike Bluetooth, so it makes it safer to use for mobile payments. Think of trying to pay for something via Bluetooth. You need to get a pairing code, type the pairing code in, and accept the file. It would take too long. Plus it’s also much more battery efficient.

        • karam

          Thanks

    • Cal Rankin

      Nice to know that S-Beam uses both NFC and WiDi in tandem. One-touch sharing has a lot of advantages, especially compared to AirDrop on iOS 7. Picture yourself at a concert, and you snap a really great pic with your NFC-equipped Android device. The stranger next to you wants that picture, and starts to give you his number. You realize he has an NFC-equipped Android device as well. You simply tap your phone together and give him the picture. No struggling to get the digits, just tap and you’re done. With Airdrop, you have to give them some kind of identification, make the person a contact, and they have to consent to accepting the picture. NFC makes it easy, just literally touch and go.

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