Android Beam: Why you should care about this hidden gem

Android Beam: Why you should care about this hidden gem
Getting the best from NFC on your Android phone

Near Field Communication technology (NFC) has spread its way across the mobile landscape like a forest wildfire, yet how many of us actually use it, let alone use it to its full potential?

We all know how NFC works (if not, then here's all you need to know about NFC) although one of its greatest applications is still being hidden away and unused; Google's Android Beam.

In order to help you make the most out of your hardware here's our guide to what Android Beam is and, more importantly, how it works.

What is Android Beam?

Having been baked into every iteration of Google's mobile OS since Android 4.0 Ice Cream, Android Beam is an app designed to make the most of NFC and enables the sharing of just about anything whether it's a contact card, picture, web page or YouTube link.

How do I use it?

The first thing to check before we go any further is whether your handset supports NFC. This can be found within connectivity settings alongside Wi-Fi and mobile data.

Once this has been confirmed for both handsets it's as simple as touching the two devices together, bringing the NFC chips in close contact. Unfortunately, this isn't always as easy as it sounds when it comes to working out where the chip actually is, although we'd suggest that the chip is generally in the centre near the top.


Android Beam on the go

The handset that you're hoping to send information from should pull the screen in slightly displaying the message "Touch to Beam".

Just tap the screen and you'll find the information popping up on the second handset, or a link to the Google Play store to find the relevant app.

What if my handset doesn't show Android Beam?

As Android Beam comes built into the Android OS there is no specific app for you to boot up. Instead just enable NFC on both handsets and press them together. Often handset manufacturers will allow you to turn NFC and Android Beam on and off individually.

If you find that Android Beam doesn't appear within the Android NFC settings you shouldn't fret. The HTC One is a prime example as there is no mention of Android Beam anywhere; however following the above steps will still bring up the "Tap to Beam" page that we mentioned earlier.

Owners of Samsung branded devices will also find sat alongside NFC the S-Beam app, which is largely the same thing, as you'll find out if you read on.

What is S-Beam?

S-Beam is a Samsung specific app that builds onto features that are already included in Android Beam. It still connects via NFC although all data is sent via Wi-Fi Direct. This makes transfer speeds faster when sending files such as your latest holiday snap or video.

Working through S-Beam is done in the exact same way as Android Beam, pressing the NFC chips in each device together, but it initiates a faster and stronger connection than Bluetooth.

Are there any downsides?

One of the biggest problems with Android Beam is NFC and the location of the chips. Availability of NFC is no longer an issue given that it now comes on many of even the cheapest handsets but locating the chip in the first place can be a pain in the posterior.

In mobile phones the problem isn't so bad given there's limited space to choose from, but trying to locate the chip on a tablet can be more than a little tricky.

This can often be found with a quick search online, although you then have to find a way of putting the two chips together. In tests we found that while the NFC chips recognised each other's presence (with a small vibration) the sending handset occasionally didn't want to register Beam.

It is also probably worth pointing out, if not immediately obvious, that Android Beam does only work with Android phones. iPhone's don't even come with NFC on board, at least not yet., and Windows Phones don't want to know.

What does the future hold?

Since its inception Android Beam has grown to encompass sending files via Bluetooth. This works by instantly pairing devices and turning on Bluetooth, sending the file then disabling Bluetooth. You can then move the phones apart as they no longer rely upon NFC.

Just as S-Beam incorporates Wi-Fi Direct so could Android Beam, something that may find favour from the recent Google-Samsung patent licensing deal. This would enable even faster file transfer than Bluetooth.

At a stretch it's not too difficult to imagine Android Beam becoming part of the Internet of Things either, allowing you to tap your phone against an Android enabled refrigerator to share a shopping list or to a potential updated Chromecast dongle to enable Wi-Fi Direct streaming of content to a larger screen nearby.

While NFC hasn't quite caught on as a payment method, there's still a real desire to find cool ways to connect - here's hoping Android Beam keeps getting the development it deserves.