What Is NFC & Should You Buy a Phone That Has It? [MakeUseOf Explains]

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what is nfcIf you’re in the market for a new phone in 2013, you’re probably going to hear about something called NFC, and how it’s apparently changing the world. Don’t be fooled by the sales talk though. Read this so you know exactly what NFC is, what you can use it for, and why you probably won’t. And if you haven’t done so yet, read our Winter 2013 SmartPhone Buying Guide.

NFC – or Near Field Communication – enables two way communication on a very short range, less than 20cm but typically a few centimeters. It encompasses a number of earlier standards, including the FeLiCa contactless RFID payment system widely used in Japan. In simple terms, it enables some form of communication by simply touching devices together.

What Is NFC Used For?

The most exciting use of NFC is in contactless payment systems. On mobiles, this is mostly limited to specific Android mobiles that can use Google Wallet credentials to make payments by simply holding the phone against a Mastercard PayPass terminal.

what is nfc

Contact and data-exchange is also a major selling point for some devices – the ability to load up a picture, then send it to a friend just by holding the two devices close to each other. Sending large data such as pictures require BlueTooth data transfer as well, as NFC itself is too slow. However a single touch with NFC will initiate the transfers and make the process seamless to the user.

how nfc works

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NFC can also be used in a similar way to RFID tags and QR codesSmart stickers can contain small amounts of data such as a URL for use in advertising. These are not yet in widespread use.

how nfc works

In theory, there’s actually lots of things NFC could be used for; in reality, it’s not.

how nfc works

Security

Although NFC transaction can theoretically be snooped, or listened in on, the short range makes this difficult – compared to say being able to read RFID information from passports.

For payment security, Google Wallet is limited to $1,000 worth of transactions in a single day and each requires a PIN entry as well as the phone’s screen being on – so someone couldn’t just brush up against you and force a payment. In addition, payments are made from a virtual credit card, so no actual card details are passed on to the retailer.

Can I Use It?

Google Wallet’s “tap and pay” is only compatible with the following devices – and US only:

  • Samsung Nexus S 4G on Sprint.
  • Samsung Galaxy Nexus on Sprint.
  • Samsung Galaxy Nexus GSM/HSPA+
  • Samsung Galaxy Victory 4G LTE on Sprint.
  • Samsung Galaxy SIII on Sprint, MetroPCS, and US Cellular.
  • Samsung Galaxy Axiom on US Cellular.
  • LG Viper™ 4G LTE on Sprint.
  • LG Optimus Elite™ on Sprint and Virgin Mobile.
  • LG Nexus 4 GSM/HSPA+
  • HTC EVO 4G LTE on Sprint.
  • Asus Nexus 7.
  • Samsung Nexus 10.

International versions and rooted devices are not compatible.

A full list of NFC compatible mobile devices can be found on Wikipedia. However, not all phones will be compatible with each other and as a general rule will only be able to transmit small amounts of data, not photos.

Why You Might Not Care

Although NFC payment and communications systems are incredibly convenient, thier usefulness depends upon retailer and consumer adoption. Sadly, competing technologies also segregate adoption further. Since we’re specially talking about mobiles, you can find a list of merchants that accept Google Wallet NFC payments here, but it’s not extensive – around 25 national chains. It’s certainly not going to replace your real wallet anytime soon, that’s for sure.

While data exchanges of pictures with just a touch is certainly a nice feature, competing technologies are incompatible with each other. Android Beam – the native Android NFC implementation – only handles URLs and contacts unless you have Jellybean 4.1+. Samsung s-Beam only works on the latest Samsung devices and not with other manufacturers. Nokia’s NFC implementation is similarly incompatible.

Anecdotally, at a recent party I wanted to share a group photo with some friends from my HTC One X. Of them, only one had an Android – a Samsung Galaxy S2, without NFC capability. Sending it to Facebook ended up being the easiest for everyone.

Apple has notoriously left out NFC from the iPhone; they simply don’t see it as a needed or useful feature. Many argue that NFC is already an outdated technology that simply isn’t needed;

Taking my phone out of my pocket to pay is just as forward thinking as taking my wallet out. Bumping phones with someone to share a photo is about as innovative as hitting the share button in the photo gallery.

Verdict

As someone who lived with the earliest NFC-type payment systems in Japan 5 years ago, I can tell you right now that being able to whip out your mobile to pay for the subway journey as well as a beer and pot of instant Ramen from the convenience store is great when it works universally. Naysayers be damned – it is far more convenient than pushing a card into a reader slot, waiting 5 seconds for it to acknowledge you, typing in a PIN, then waiting 5 seconds for that to confirm; or even dealing with hard currency (does anyone actually pay by cash any more? I actually walk out of a store if they don’t accept debit cards).

what is nfc

However, NFC systems have as yet failed to gain widespread adoption elsewhere; and given the primary selling point is convenience, this makes them decidedly useless. If I have to download an app to figure out where I can actually use Google Wallet, I’m not interested.

Having said that, I don’t think NFC can be counted out for dead just yet. Transport for London rolled out MasterCard PayPass as an alternative to the Oyster card just a few weeks ago, while Galaxy S3 owners on the Orange UK network are the first to be able to use Google Wallet at Barclaycard QuickTap payment locations. Eventually, contactless payments will be everywhere. Just not yet.

For the time being, don’t count NFC as an essential feature, because chances are you’ll rarely be able to use it. For payments, you may already have a compatible credit card anyway.

If you actually use NFC, we’d love to hear from you about your experiences with compatibility and adoption. Do you think NFC photo transfer is easier than simply hitting share? Do you pay for breakfast with your phone?

Image credits: Shutterstock – NFC Payment, 22Michaels

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