What is Near Field Communications or NFC?

The short range data transmission system for mobile devices and PCs

NFC PC and Phone

 NFC Forum

NFC, or Near Field Communications, is a technology built-in to most modern smartphones, laptop computers, and other consumer electronics. It allows for the transfer of data, such as documents and photos, between devices that are physically close to each other without the need for an internet connection.

From RFID to NFC

NFC is an extension of RFID, or radio frequency identification. RFID is a form of passive communications where a short-range radio field can activate a RFID chip, or tag, to issue a short radio signal. This interaction allows the reader device to use the RFID signal to identify a person or object.

RFID technology can be found in security badges used by many corporations. Such badges are linked to a database, which the reader can then check the ID against to verify if the user should have access or not. The technology has also become popular in video games thanks to games like Disney Infinity and Nintendo Amiibos, which use action-figures to store data.

While RFID is great for things like identifying products in a warehouse, it is only a one-sided transmission system. NFC was developed to facilitate the same type of transmission between two devices. For instance, NFC makes it possible to improve security by having the scanner also update security clearances into a security badge.

Active vs. Passive NFC

RFID tags contain no power source, so they must rely on the RF field of a scanner to activate and transmit data. NFC devices, on the other hand, have two settings: active and passive. In active mode, an NFC-enabled device generates a radio field, allowing for two-way communications. In passive mode, the NFC device must rely on an active device for its power.

Most consumer electronics devices will automatically use the active modes, but some peripheral devices might use a passive mode to interactive with a PC. At least one device in an NFC communication must be active; otherwise, there will be no signal to transmit between the two.

The Uses of NFC

The first major benefit of NFC is quick syncing of data between devices. For instance, if you have a smartphone and a laptop, contact and calendar information can automatically be synced between the two. This type of sharing was implemented with HP's WebOS devices such as the TouchPad to share web pages and other data, but it actually used Bluetooth communications.

Another use for NFC is making digital payments. For example, Apple Pay is used with Apple's iPhones while Android phones can use Google Wallet or Samsung Pay. When an NFC device with a compatible payment software is used at a vending machine, cash register, or another mobile device, it can simply be swiped by the receiver to authorized payments. An NFC-equipped laptop could be set up to allow this same payment system to be used with an e-commerce website. Such a setup can save consumers time if they do not have to fill out all their credit card details.

NFC vs. Bluetooth

Why do we need NFC when Bluetooth already exists? First off, Bluetooth devices must be paired up in order to communicate, which makes it more difficult for two devices to quickly transmit data.

Another issue is the range. NFC uses a very short range that typically does not extend more than a few inches from the receiver. This helps keep the power consumption very low, and it also can help with security as it is more difficult for a third party scanner to intercept the data. Bluetooth, while still short range, can be used at ranges up to thirty feet. More power is needed to transmit the radio signals at such distances, and it increases the chances of signals being intercepted by hackers.

Finally, Bluetooth transmits in the public and very crowded 2.4GHz radio spectrum, which is shared with things such as Wi-Fi, cordless phones, baby monitors, and more. If an area is saturated with a large number of these devices, it can cause transmission problems. NFC uses a different radio frequency, so interference is not likely to be an issue.

Should You Get a Laptop With NFC?

If your current PC doesn't have built-in NFC support, the next one you buy probably will, but that's not a reason to run out and buy a new computer right away. You can get programmable NFC tags that add some NFC functionality to all of your devices.