Low-cost NFC tags will change how you control your Android device

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You know those short-range, RFID radio tags that store owners use stop miscreants from swiping merchandise? “Shrinkage reduction” they call it. Well, something similar, called NFC, lurks in our newer Android phones.

This technology is good for a lot more than just stopping misunderstood celebrities from snatching handbags in Beverly Hills department stores; it’s best at controlling phones.

Sending texts, switching on Bluetooth, and adjusting screen brightness; these are among the many features you can control with the tap of a petite plastic adhesive tag.

And it’s cheap, with a dozen of the tags available on Amazon right now for around fifteen bucks.

What can you do with NFC?

And what are the kinds of things you can do?

Well, how about sticking one on the side of your luggage to increase screen brightness when using smartphone boarding passes; on your bankcard or in your wallet to launch your banking webpage; adjacent to the front door for the kids to swipe when they get home thus sending an “I’m home” text to you; on your bike (but not the metal parts) to launch a fitness app; no-password Bluetooth pairing; on your car dash to launch a Wi-Fi hotspot or music app; at your desk, to quiet the ringer; or bedside, to set alarms.

Once you get your cheap NFC tags and your phone set up, the useful applications are limited only by your creativity.

Many current mid-to-high end Android phones have NFC built-in, including the Moto X and Galaxy S5. Apple’s iPhone doesn’t. If your phone has NFC, all you have to do to get started is buy some cheap tags and install an app or two.

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Check the settings on your Android phone to see if you have NFC.

Buying the tags

When shopping around for NFC tags online, look for either the Topaz 512 or the NTAG203 standard. Both are Android-writable and re-writable. Topaz 512 has higher memory capacity, and is more expensive. I didn’t find I needed the extra memory, though.

Avoid the Mifare Classic tags, which have compatibility issues with some devices.

I bought the multi-colored Topaz 512 ten-pack from WhizTags, plus free keychain and bonus tag, for about $15 on Amazon. Be aware that the colors aren’t as vibrant as in the product image—they’re disappointingly kind of bleached out.

A similar NTAG203 ten-pack is also available from Whiztag at a similar price. Not needing the extra capacity found in the Topaz spec, I would go for that one.

Being a sucker, I didn’t stop, and I also bought NFCGuyz’s five-pack of piano black NTAG203s at a whopping $12. Hey, I shop by color.

Be aware that most of these tags are water-resistant, not waterproof, so it may not be a good idea to embed them in clothing or anything else that might get really wet.

Also, they won’t work on metal or electronics, unless you buy metal-specific ones. In fact, not only won’t they work, but you’ll fry the tag if you try (as I did).

Installing tools

In order to write to the tags, and to read anything more than basic text and commands, you need third-party tools. I recommend Wakdev’s free NFC Tools app along with sister app NFC Tasks, or standalone Egomotion Corp’s free Trigger app.

Both solutions have paid pro versions, which provide additional tasks. Both can be complemented by Tasker, a $3 in-depth automation app with additional actions, loops, variables, and conditions.

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If you really want to get crazy with NFC tag actions, you'll want to pick up Tasker.

Tasks vs. records

Some simple tasks, called "records" in NFC Tools, can be read by basic Android without any third-party app installed. More elaborate "tasks" are must be read by the app family used to create it.

Simple functions you can accomplish with records include actions like tapping to send an SMS, launching an app, and launching a webpage.

Elaborate tasks, which need the third-party apps in order to be read, include networks-related actions, like triggering a hotspot and toggling Wi-Fi.

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The NFC Tools app is good for analyzing your NFC tag.

NFC limitations

As much as you can do with NFC, there are some limitations. The most obvious stumbling point is unlocking your device. Security considerations restrict the unlocking of device screen via NFC tag.

There are hacks to get around this, most of which require root privelages, and Motorola sells an expensive tag called the Moto Skip for the Moto X, that does let you unlock the phone. But that’s all it does.

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The Moto Skip lets you unlock a Moto X with an NFC tag, but that's it.

And finally, what not to do

Don’t try to disable the RFID tags at Macy’s with your NFC app—it won’t work.

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