Samsung's Galaxy S III and NFC: 2 cool contact-free innovations

Samsung Galaxy S III NFC

Samsung's Galaxy S III has its share of ups and downs, but one place where the phone really shines is in the area of near-field communication and contact-free interactions.

Near-field communication, or NFC for short, has been around for a while; phones like the Galaxy Nexus and One X have support for it built right in. Thus far, though, there just haven't been a whole lot of use-cases where it's had the potential for widespread appeal.

Sure, NFC powers contact-free payment services like Google Wallet, but those types of services have yet to take off in any meaningful way (partly due to the lack of support from U.S. carriers). With its Galaxy S III, Samsung has found a couple of interesting ways to put NFC to good use.

Samsung's Galaxy S III and NFC: Meet the TecTiles

Samsung's first NFC innovation revolves around a series of special stickers the company calls TecTiles. The best thing about TecTiles is that you don't actually even need a Galaxy S III to use 'em; they'll work with any NFC-equipped Android phone.

Samsung TecTiles

TecTiles are little one inch squares with NFC tags embedded inside. Using a Samsung-made app (available to anyone in the Google Play Store), you assign a unique function to each TecTile -- anything from calling or texting someone to changing the settings on your phone. Then, anytime you touch the back of your NFC-enabled phone to that sticker, the function takes place.

Quite a few options are available for TecTile function programming right now. You can set an alarm, change individual phone settings, launch an app, join a Wi-Fi network, display a message, place a call, send a specific text message to a specific contact, or send a tweet or Facebook status update. Some functions are still lacking -- like support for Google+, for example -- but the initial list is pretty impressive.

So what's the point? Well, first of all, it's just cool. But in practical terms, you could stick a TecTile on your fridge and ask your teenagers to tap it when they walk in to let you know they're home; you could place one on your car dashboard to create a quick way to shift to driving-optimized settings; or you could put one on your desk to have an easy way to send your spouse a commonly sent message.

With Android, of course, some of that stuff could be accomplished through location-aware apps like Tasker, too, but the TecTiles serve a different sort of need (it's hard to find conditions that tell Tasker you're in your car, for instance).

One gripe I have with the TecTile setup: When you tap your phone on a TecTile, you then have to confirm the action before it takes place. With something like a call-placing or text-sending TecTile, you have to tap once to confirm the action and then a second time to actually place the call or send the text. This makes the concept significantly less convenient; it'd be nice if there were an option to have the TecTile complete its action in a single step.

The TecTiles cost 15 bucks for a pack of five. Oh, and most impressive of all? They were conceived and designed by a Samsung summer intern.

Samsung's Galaxy S III and NFC: S Beam me up, Scotty

The other Samsung-made sharing function that stands out to me is something called S Beam. S Beam is basically an expansion of Google's own Android 4.0-level Android Beam feature; it takes the options Google created and adds on a host of useful extra features.

Android Beam is built into every Android 4.0 phone; it lets you share data between two 4.0-level devices simply by tapping their backs together. It allows you to share contacts, Web pages, YouTube videos, and apps.

Samsung Galaxy S III S Beam

S Beam takes things a step further by also allowing you to share image and video files from your phone's Gallery and music files stored on your device. It functions as a separate program from Android Beam, but you never really have to think about it; all you do is hold your phone up to another compatible device, and the software automatically figures out what you're trying to share -- based on what app you have open at the moment -- and proceeds with the appropriate process.

There's just one catch: The S Beam function currently works only with other Samsung Galaxy S III phones, which is a pretty substantial limitation. If you have a photo open and place your Galaxy S III against a One X or a Galaxy Nexus, you aren't going to get anywhere. The Android Beam-based functions will work just fine -- sharing contacts, Web pages, YouTube videos, and apps -- but the Samsung-specific ones will not, as they require Samsung's proprietary software.

Because of this, I suspect the S Beam setup will be more confusing than practical for most people. It's a good idea, but the limited compatibility may render it useless for the majority of phone owners.

The same applies with the rest of Samsung's Galaxy S III contact-free sharing features -- and man, there are a lot of them: AllShare, Group Cast, Wi-Fi Direct, Share Shot. Some of the setups are interesting in theory, but they're limited in application and a pain to figure out and get running. As far as I'm concerned, most of them amount to bloatware more than anything.

The TecTiles and S Beam, though, show potential. They're the types of innovative concepts NFC needs to take off and become more than a novelty or theoretical payment mechanism.

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Contact-free sharing is just a small part of the Galaxy S III experience, of course. For much more on the phone's strengths and weaknesses, click over my in-depth review:

Samsung Galaxy S III review: A rock star phone, but does it deliver?

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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