How NFC Compares to Other Technologies - dummies

How NFC Compares to Other Technologies

By Robert R. Sabella

Near Field Communication (NFC) isn’t the only game in town, nor was it ever intended to be. Other technologies provide functionality that makes them suitable for needs that NFC can’t really address. Of course, choosing the right technology for a particular task can become confusing if you don’t understand how it compares with NFC.

The figure provides a quick overview of the way in which NFC differs from other technologies when it comes to data rate and connection distance.

NFC differs from other technologies in both data rate and connection distance.

However, data rates and connection distances don’t quite tell the whole story. The following discussion compares NFC to these other technologies so that you can get a better idea of precisely when NFC is the best choice for your technology needs.

How NFC differs from RFID

The first use of RFID occurred in the 1940s, during WWII, as a means of identifying friendly forces. Mario W. Cardullo received the first RFID patent on January 23, 1973. You can read a history of RFID development.

NFC and RFID have completely different uses. Organizations generally use RFID only for tracking things — all sorts of things. Consequently, people generally use RFID for logistics, and it doesn’t have a consumer or home use function because of the cost of the actual readers. RFID readers tend to be expensive, which keeps them out of the hands of the average person.

When you think about RFID readers, imagine big trucks going through the inspection lanes on the highway. A reader picks up the truck’s location from a large distance. RFID readers broadcast the signal widely (up to 25 meters). Contrast the wide area of RFID usage with the intimate, secure access provided by NFC, and you find that the two technologies serve different purposes. You can find an interesting infographic on the differences between NFC and RFID.

How NFC differs from QR codes

Quick Response (QR) codes or 2D bar codes are the little square black boxes that you see on some products or advertisements that look like someone spilled some ink onto the paper. They are similar to conventional UPC bar codes on products that get scanned when you buy something, but they can contain more information.

Most smartphones, even those that aren’t NFC-enabled, can interact with QR codes. If the smartphone lacks the required app, you can download one. (QR readers aren’t pre-installed in the United States, but they are in other countries.) To read the QR code, simply take a picture of it.

The advantages of QR codes are that they are extremely cheap to print and you can put them almost anywhere. The disadvantage of QR codes is that you need to have an app, open the app, and then take a picture of the QR code. Bad lighting or smudged ink can make QR codes difficult or impossible to read. NFC is different from QR codes in that it is native to the phone, meaning almost all phones have NFC pre-installed, and when you turn it on, all you need to do is to tap your phone on the tag to read it. No special app is needed.

NFC tags do cost more than just printing a QR code, but it is a cost versus convenience decision that you need to make for your specific use case.

How NFC differs from Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)

One of the other proximity technologies getting a lot of attention these days is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), also known as Bluetooth Smart. BLE works by setting up beacons that are used to identify devices and then communicate with them. Think of an RFID reader that is always on and broadcasting its signal.

To use BLE, the user must turn on a device’s Bluetooth. In addition, the user typically needs to download an app to receive and act upon specific actionable messages. The best example of BLE in action is when someone walks into a store, has that store’s app loaded in the phone, and turns on Bluetooth support. When a beacon recognizes the active BLE support, it sends a message about what is on sale that day or information about a particular product. The phone can also receive a coupon for items that the merchant knows interests you. You can’t (currently) use BLE to make a purchase.

The difference between NFC and BLE is one of infrastructure and task. BLE works at longer ranges (around 50 meters), transfers more data, and requires that you install the beacon infrastructure in order to work. The phone must have Bluetooth turned on, and for the best user experience, you need to install an app. NFC needs only a tag embedded in a smartposter, for example, and the user needs only to tap the phone in order for something to happen. In addition, most in the industry see NFC as the standard for making payments.

At a high level, you can compare these technologies as push versus pull, where BLE pushes you information and NFC pulls information. Simply saying that you use one technology to push information and the other to pull information is a high-level comparison.

How NFC differs from powered chips (Wi-Fi)

Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) is a communication technology that supports two-way conversations, just as NFC does. However, Wi-Fi provides significantly greater range than NFC, as shown previously. The advantage is that you can create an ad hoc network anywhere you need one and invite as many people as you like. The disadvantage is that everyone can hear you broadcast from a relatively great range.

NFC is designed for private, personal communications, while Wi-Fi is designed to meet the requirements of group communications.