Android Beam in action: Ice Cream Sandwich's flashy NFC feature

NFC isn't just for mobile payments. Google uses it in its latest operating system to beam information like maps, videos, and contact information from one phone to another.

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At first blush, Android Beam sounded like it could go the route of face unlocking--one of those fun, breezy gimmicks in the new Ice Cream Sandwich operating system that would last for a party trick or two, but ultimately die down.

With only one review unit in-house, there was no way to know for sure. However, fellow mobile journalist Blake Stimac and I brought our Galaxy Nexus phones together for a little playdate, and it quickly became clear how useful and broad Android Beam can be.

As a refresher, Android Beam uses NFC (near-field communication), a radio frequency technology, to pass certain types of information from one phone to a compatible phone (for starters, both phones need NFC.) Assuming both phones' screens are on, NFC is enabled on both phones, and Android Beam is activated, which it is by default, you can simply press the backs of the two phones together to trigger a beam.

As a security precaution, you'll be prompted to confirm with a tap that you actually do intend to beam that YouTube video, Web page, contact detail, map, or app or game link. A cheerful chime confirms the beam, and the second phone will call up the contents "tagged" in your phone. You're not actually transporting particles from one phone to the next, but you are using NFC to quickly send a set of specific instructions.

So will Beam only work with Ice Cream Sandwich phones? Since this is a new feature, you can only originate beams from the NFC-capable Android phone, but Gingerbread-running NFC phones like the Samsung Nexus S can receive them--with one extra step.

For fun, Blake and I decided to see if we could beam to each other at the same instant. The first two times, trigger-finger Blake outbeamed me, pressing to beam his map to my Galaxy Nexus before I could beam over my Web link. On the third try (the completely unscripted take that made it into this video), we managed the perfect simultaneous beam that swapped the content on our phones.

Beyond the novelty of watching stuff "beam" back and forth, Android Beam has a lot of potential to become a second-nature way to very quickly share information. Instead of asking Blake to tell me which game he's playing or video he's watching when I look over his shoulder, and typing it or using voice actions to find it, we can simply beam it, and go from there.

 

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