What is Near Field Communications?

New Short Range Data Transmission System for Mobile Devices and PCs

NFC PC and Phone
NFC Transfer Between PC and Phone. ©NFC Forum

NFC or Near Field Communications is a new technology that has made its way into a number of consumer electronics devices but until CES 2012, not something that would be put into a laptop computer. With a number of computer companies announcing the inclusion of the technology into their PCs, now is a good time to look into just what this is and why consumers might want to have this technology. Hopefully, this article will give consumers an idea of how it may be useful to them in the near future.

An Extension To RFID

Most people are probably familiar with RFID or radio frequency identification. This is a form of passive communications where a short range radio field can activate a RFID chip to issue a short radio signal. This allows the reader device to use the RFID signal to identify a person or object. The most common use for this is in security badges used by many corporations and events. That ID card is linked in a database to someone's access levels. The reader can then check the ID against the database to verify if the user should have access or not. It has become very popular recently with video games like Skylanders and Disney Infinity that use the technology for the game figures.

While this is great for many basic ideas like security stations or identifying products within a warehouse, it is still only a one-sided transmission system. It would be much more beneficial if a system could be developed for quick and easy transmission between two devices.

For instance, improving security by having the scanner also update security clearances into a security badge. This is where the initial development of the NFC standards derived from.

Active vs. Passive NFC

Now in the RFID example above, there was mention of a passive mode. This was because the RFID tag did not have any power and relied on the RF field of the scanner to activate and transmit its data.

NFC also has a similar system in place where a device can either be active such that it is powered and generates a radio field or passive and has to rely on an active device for its power. Most consumer electronics devices will automatically use the active modes as they are designed to be powered and generate a field. Now, it is possible that peripheral devices might well use a passive mode to interactive with a PC. Obviously, at least one device in an NFC communication must be active otherwise, there will be no signal to transmit between the two.

Some Possible Uses of NFC in Laptops

NFC really has two major benefits for computer devices. The first and most likely situation will be the quick syncing of data between devices. For instance, if you have a smartphone and a laptop, you can quickly swipe the two devices close to one another so contact and calendar information could be synced between the two. This type of sharing was implemented with HP's WebOS devices such as the TouchPad to easily share web pages and other data but it actually used Bluetooth communications. Expect this to eventually end up in more devices as it becomes more widespread.

The other use for NFC that will likely make it into computers is for payment systems.

There already is a wide number of smartphone devices that are implementing it. Apple Pay is used with Apple's latest iPhones while Android phones can use Google Wallet or Samsung Pay. When an NFC device with a compatible payment software is used at a pay station in a vending machine, cash register or another such device, it can simply be swiped by the receiver and payments are authorized and transmitted. Now, an NFC-equipped laptop could be set up to allow this same payment system to be used with an e-commerce website. Certainly, it saves consumers time if they do not have to fill out all the details for a credit card or addresses.

NFC vs. Bluetooth

Some people may wonder why a new short distance transmission system would be needed when the Bluetooth system already exists. There are a number of reasons why the Bluetooth system does not work as well in this case. First off, both devices must have an active form of transmission. This means that all devices would need to be powered. Second, Bluetooth devices must be paired up in order to communicate. This makes it much more difficult for two devices to quickly and easily transmit data.

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

Finally, there is the radio spectrum that the two use. Bluetooth transmits in the public and very crowded 2.4GHz spectrum. This 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. The NFC uses a much different radio frequency and uses such small fields that interference is not likely to be an issue at all.

Should You Get a Laptop With NFC?

At this point, NFC is still in the early stages of use. It is becoming much more common with smartphones and will likely make its way into more tablets than it does full-sized laptops or desktop PCs. In fact, only high-end computer systems will likely adopt the hardware at first. Until more consumer electronics start using the system and more standardized software implementations exist to make use of the technology, it probably is not worth paying any extra premiums to get the technology. In fact, I would only recommend investing in the technology inside of a PC if you already own a device like a smartphone that will use it. After all, NFC will likely be something that can easily be added to a computer system through small sized USB peripherals.