Back to Basics: NFC Explained

July 18, 2013
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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.

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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.

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