NFC is becoming pretty commonplace thanks to the growth of online payment systems like Samsung Pay and Android Pay. Especially when it comes to high-end devices and even many mid-rangers. You’ve likely heard the term before, but what is NFC exactly? In this piece we rundown what it is, how it works, and what it can be used for.

What is NFC

NFC stands for “Near Field Communication” and, as the name implies, it enables short range communication between compatible devices. This requires at least one transmitting device, and another to receive the signal. A range of devices can use the NFC standard and will be considered either passive or active.

Passive NFC devices include tags, and other small transmitters, that can send information to other NFC devices without the need for a power source of their own. However, they don’t really process any information sent from other sources, and can’t connect to other passive components.  These often take the form of interactive signs on walls or advertisements.

Active devices are able to both send and receive data, and can communicate with each other as well as with passive devices. Smartphones are by far the most common form of active NFC device. Public transport card readers and touch payment terminals are also good examples of the technology.

How does NFC work?

Now that we know what NFC is, how does it work? Just like Bluetooth and WiFi, and all manner of other wireless signals, NFC works on the principle of sending information over radio waves. Near Field Communication is another standard for wireless data transitions. This means that devices must adhere to certain specifications in order to communicate with each other properly. The technology used in NFC is based on older RFID (Radio-frequency identification) ideas, which used electromagnetic induction in order to transmit information.

This marks the one major difference between NFC and Bluetooth/WiFi. The former can be used to induce electric currents within passive components as well as just send data. This means that passive devices don’t require their own power supply. They can instead be powered by the electromagnetic field produced by an active NFC component when it comes into range. Unfortunately, NFC technology does not command enough inductance to charge our smartphones, but QI charging is based on the same principle.

magnetic fields

Electromagnetic fields can be used to transmit data or induce electrical currents in a receiving device. Passive NFC devices draw power from the fields produced by active devices, but the range is short.

The transmission frequency for data across NFC is 13.56 megahertz. You can send data at either 106, 212, or 424 kilobits per second. That’s is quick enough for a range of data transfers — from contact details to swapping pictures and music.

To determine what sort of information will be exchanged between devices, the NFC standard currently has three distinct modes of operation. Perhaps the most common use in smartphones is the peer-to-peer mode. This allows two NFC-enabled devices to exchange various pieces of information between each other. In this mode both devices switch between active when sending data and passive when receiving.

Read/write mode, on the other hand, is a one-way data transmission. The active device, possibly your smartphone, links up with another device in order to read information from it. NFC advert tags use this mode.

The final mode of operation is card emulation. The NFC device can function as a smart or contactless credit card and make payments or tap into public transport systems.

Comparisons with Bluetooth

While we have answered the question “What is NFC?”, how does it compare with other wireless technologies? You might think that NFC is bit unnecessary, considering that Bluetooth has been more widely available for many years. However, there are several important technological differences between the two that gives NFC some significant benefits in certain circumstances. The major argument in favor of NFC is that it requires much less power consumption than Bluetooth. This makes NFC perfect for passive devices, such as the advertising tags mentioned earlier, as they can operate without a major power source.

However, this power saving does have some major drawbacks. Most notably, the range of transmission is much shorter than Bluetooth. While NFC has a range of around 10 cm, just a few inches, Bluetooth connections can transmit data up to 10 meters or more from the source. Another drawback is that NFC is quite a bit slower than Bluetooth. It transmits data at a maximum speed of just 424 kbit/s, compared to 2.1 Mbit/s with Bluetooth 2.1 or around 1 Mbit/s with Bluetooth Low Energy.

But NFC does have one major advantage: faster connectivity. Due to the use of inductive coupling, and the absence of manual pairing, it takes less than one tenth of a second to establish a connection between two devices. While modern Bluetooth connects pretty fast, NFC is still super handy for certain scenarios. Namely mobile payments.

Samsung Pay, Android Pay, and even Apple Pay use NFC technology — though Samsung Pay works a bit differently than the others. While Bluetooth works better for connecting devices together for file transfers, sharing connections to speakers, and more, we anticipate that NFC will always have a place in this world thanks to mobile payments — a quickly expanding technology.

Conclusion

Now that we have answered the question “What is NFC?”, we want to hear from you on any other questions you might have on this wireless technology. Let us know your questions in the comments!