NFC (Near Field Communication) is a technology which is now a part of every mid-range to flagship smartphones. Many companies such as Google and Apple have introduced payment systems based on the NFC technology, which helps users to easily make payments by using the NFC present in their smartphones, the NFC technology enables users to store their debit and credit card information in their smartphone to make payments at any PayPass (a MasterCard service) terminals installed in shops, stations etc.

If you’re using an old device and have no idea about the NFC technology and its inner-working, then this article is here to enlighten you about how NFC works and what distinguishes it from Bluetooth (BT) technology (official BT site).

As the name suggests, NFC refers to Near Field Communication, and its core function is to let compatible devices communicate within a short range (inches). The process pre-requisites having one receiving signal and minimum one transmitting device. An array of devices capable of using NFC fall in two categories — active and passive — that solely depends on the device’s design and function.

Passive NFC devices are packed with smaller transmitters, which are only capable to send the information and they do not even require any power source for doing so: they can gather enough energy from the sender’s radio waves, to send an answer back.

These passive devices are not able to receive or process any kind of information sent from other device and these can’t even connect to other devices, which means that they only function to deliver the information. One can find such passive NFC on advertisements or posters. They are essentially information broadcasters.

On the other hand, Active NFC devices provide the best of both worlds, they can send and receive information, and are capable of communicating with other devices including passive devices. Smartphones these days are crafted with active NFC and they are slowly becoming a growing form of active NFC.

Not just that, one can spot active NFC in the form of transport card readers (used in the metro stations) and touch payment terminals, these help in our everyday work and are most widely used form of active NFC.

For a deeper explanation of Passive vs. Active NFC devices, you can read this article from James Thrasher.

How does it work?

It is just another form of radio-communication, similar to how Wi-Fi and Bluetooth work. Near Field Communication (NFC) works on the same technique of sending information in the form of radio waves to another device, given the requisite that the other device is also NFC-abled.

Certain specifications are must for both the devices in order to communicate through NFC technology. Early version of Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology formed the base for NFC to come into existence, it also uses electromagnetic induction for sending over information to devices.

How is NFC different from Bluetooth?

The major distinguishing feature between Bluetooth and NFC is that the latter can be used to produce electric signals within passive elements and also for data exchange whereas the former is not capable of sending signal to a passive component.

This also means that passive elements are not dependent or needed to produce electromagnetic fields for sending data, they can very well use the electromagnetic field created by an active NFC to send data.

NFC is mainly used as a mean for quick identification, and its technology works in very short ranges (inches). Bluetooth can go up to 10 yards, and Wi-Fi can cover hundreds of feet (or more!), in the right conditions. Presently, there are three modes to determine the NFC standard:

  1. The most used one is peer-to-peer mode, wherein two devices with in-built active NFC communicate to exchange information.
  2. The second one is, Read/Write mode which is basically one way information exchange wherein one active NFC communicates with other device to read the data. Such mode is most commonly used when a user activates NFC to read from a code on any poster or advertisement.
  3. The third mode is, Card Emulation, wherein the NFC-enabled device is used as a credit card in order to make payments in shops or with a single tap for public transport systems.

Bluetooth vs NFC

Bluetooth technology has been there for a long time now and it is pretty quick too when it comes to connecting with the other device as unlike Bluetooth it is all automated and not manual.

One of the advantages of Bluetooth is its availability on almost every smart device now, however NFC is also taking the similar route and is being included in many flagships and mid-range devices. If anything, BT and NFC are complementary since NFC speeds up the pairing process between BT devices by not requiring the user to type an ID or select a device.

NFC consumes lesser power than Bluetooth (even the latest 4.0 version) and due to this significance it is ideal for reading data from passive devices such as advertisements, posters, products etc.

Although it does have its own set of disadvantages, the first one being the distance limit, NFC’s range of transmission is lesser than Bluetooth, it has a range of just 10 centimeters (~3 inches, read more on expected NFC range), whereas Bluetooth can send and receive data up to 10 meters. NFC also lags when it comes to sharing data, it exchanges data at a speed of 42 Kilobytes per second whereas Bluetooth does the job ar 2.1 Megabyte per second (for Bluetooth 2.1).

Growth in the usage of NFC

Contact-less payment is slowly and steadily becoming the need of the hour and with the debut of services such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet in the United States, NFC is making our smartphones much more convenient by potentially eliminating the need to carry credit cards or transport cards as every information is saved in our phones.

Presently, there are approximately 300,000 MasterCard PayPass merchants in the U.S. There is lot more growth in the arena and if low-end devices also start coming with the NFC technology then we may witness the wireless payment mode being adopted by more and more merchants and consumers.

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