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What's an NFC Tag?

NFC chip
NFC tags are programmed with just about any sort of information and then plopped into almost any product, letting you read them with a smartphone or another NFC-capable device. MirageC/Getty Images

Soon, your entire world could become a digitally immersive experience. Imagine it -- a physical version of the Web, one in which everything (and maybe everyone) has a digital signature. You'll have instant access to information about products, services, landmarks and even people, all thanks to near field communication (NFC) technologyand the smart tags that work with NFC.

NFC isn't a fundamentally groundbreaking technology. Like Bluetooth and WiFi, it's a wireless radio communications standard. In the wireless world, NFC's closest relative is actually RFID (radio frequency identification). Retailers and parcel shipping companies in particular love RFID as a way to keep tabs on inventory supplies and shipments.

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NFC is a lot like RFID, only it's a more up-close-and-personal type of wireless. Whereas RFID can be used from a distance, NFC readers work at a maximum range of about 4 inches (10 centimeters). NFC readers aren't suitable for RFID-style inventory tracking; their range is too short. So NFC tags will appear in a flood of products and promotional items where bits of digitized information might come in handy.

Unlike RFID versions, NFC readers aren't always specialized devices. As a matter of fact, NFC chips is often incorporated right into your smartphone's circuitry. With the widespread reach of NFC phones, NFC tags could one day become as commonplace as bar codes.

For example, a smart tag could be embedded into a political flyer. Tap the tag, and you're directed to a Web site touting a candidate's credentials. At the same time, you also instantly receive a snappy biography in the form of a text file and image.

Or, at your favorite restaurants, you can touch your phone to an NFC tagged menu and voila -- you have the entire menu on your phone, along with nutritional information and mouth-watering descriptions of the ingredients in your favorite dishes. You could also pay for items without entering credit card details if the reader was linked to Apple Pay or Google Wallet.

When it comes to the potential uses of NFC tags, there are no limits. But what exactly gives an NFC tag its enchanting powers? On the next page, we'll tell you.

Any company can buy NFC tags in bulk (they even come packaged like stickers) and then program them for their own purposes.
Any company can buy NFC tags in bulk (they even come packaged like stickers) and then program them for their own purposes.
Courtesy NFC Forum

You can call them smart tags, info tags or, in this case, NFC tags, but their basic architecture is similar to RFID tags. They both have a bit of storage memory, along with a radio chip attached to an antenna.

The only real difference is that NFC tags are formatted to be used with NFC systems. And they're small and cheap enough to integrate into all sorts of products: posters promoting circus tour dates, ski lift passes, stickers, business cards, prescription bottles and even ruggedized labels meant for outdoor use.

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NFC tags are passive, meaning they don't have any power source. Instead, they literally draw power from the device that reads them, thanks to magnetic induction. When a reader gets close enough to a tag, it energizes it and transfer data from that tag. You can read more about magnetic induction in How Wireless Power Works.

There are five flavors of NFC tags, types 1 through type 5, all featuring different capacities and data transfer speeds. Type 1 tags typically store 456 bytes and work at 106 Kbps (kilobits per second); Type 4, the biggest and fastest, store up to 32 KB and work at speeds of up to 424 Kbps. Type 5 stores up to 256 bytes and has a speed of 53 Kbps [source: NFC Tag Shop].

Anyone can buy blank NFC tags and then write customized data to them. They can be re-written thousands of times but also blocked so they can't be overwritten [source: ShopNFC]. Tags with higher memory and larger antennas are bigger in physical size. Generally, tag size ranges from just a centimeter or two to a few inches.

Memory capacity and speed dictate cost, which is a critical consideration for companies that want to spread information far and wide through smart posters or flyers. In 2012, tags cost around 30 cents apiece even in bulk, but the price has dropped to less than 10 cents for large orders in 2020, allowing for rapid dissemination of these tags in innumerable places and things.

Last editorial update on Sep 23, 2020 11:15:25 am.

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Sources

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