Simple Questions: What Is WiFi Direct? How Does It Work?

WiFi? You know that, and use it everyday. Bluetooth? You know that too, and also use it quite often. What if you could combine all the best features of the two? Well, it turns out you can and that's WiFi Direct. In this tutorial we will talk about this technology and how it works. Let's get started:

Before Describing WiFi Direct, Let's Talk WiFi

So, there is this thing called WiFi (or Wi-Fi, whichever you like, there is really no rule on which one to use). You have probably heard about it and you probably use it quite a lot, maybe even now. This is a wireless communication technology that has lots of uses, but it is most widely used for accessing the Internet.

An everyday user's most common way of meeting WiFi is by connecting to a wireless router and accessing the Internet through this device. The router is a physical device that creates an access point (AP), which you can see on your smartphone or computer when you're looking for a network to connect to. You select the one you want, enter a password if required and tada, you're all set to access the web.

But there are cases when you don't need any Internet, just want to connect two devices and share some data between them, like send a file, or print something on a printer. Guess what, there is a technology just for that, and it's called WiFi Direct.

WiFi Direct: A Bit Of History

The need to wirelessly send data to nearby devices without the use of other hardware is not a new thing. One of the first and most widespread solutions was Bluetooth, which has been around since 1998. Bluetooth is awesome for connecting peripherals to a computer (like mice or keyboards) or using a wireless headset, as these don't require fast data transfers. Bluetooth is not a fast technology, and setting it up is not hassle-free either.

But WiFi is different: it has high speeds, and it's much easier to configure. This is why WiFi Direct was invented: it is a technology for fast, wireless transfers of files between devices and, thanks to the much easier configuration, it can also be used for connecting basically anything wirelessly.

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The first big company to support WiFi Direct was Intel: they introduced the new standard on their Centrino 2 platform in 2008. Then, two years later, other big players of the networking industry followed, as Marvell, Atheros, Broadcom, Ralink and Realtek all launched their first products in October 2010 - it is quite possible that your computer's WiFi card is made by one of these manufacturers.

Google introduced WiFi Direct support exactly a year later with Android 4.0, whileBlackberry OS received this update with version 10.2, and the first Xbox to support it is Xbox One, released in 2013. Windows supports the standard since Windows 8 on PC, while Windows Phone doesn't have official support for it yet, although there are some apps that enable file sharing over WiFi without the need for a third device.

NOTE: One might confuse WiFi Direct with ad-hoc wireless connections, but these are quite different. Ad-hoc connections also connect two computers wirelessly, but they are much harder to set up and they have a speed limit of 11 Mbps.

How Does WiFi Direct Work?

The main ideas when developing the WiFi Direct standard were quite simple: make it easy to set up, have it support all kinds of services and make it just as fast as any other WiFi connection. The second and third are self-explanatory, since WiFi Direct is based on "regular" WiFi, so it doesn't have any drawbacks.

The way it works is rather simple too: one device discovers the other just like it would discover a wireless network, you enter a password or push a button and voilá, the devices are connected. No need to set up visibility, match long numeric codes or put up with any of the problems Bluetooth has. And to top it all, only one of the devices has to be compatible with WiFi Direct.

Essentially, when you connect two devices via WiFi Direct, one of them creates an access point similar to a router and the other device connects to it. You don't have to do it manually, it's all automatic. The available features vary, depending on what kind of devices are connected: you can print to a wireless printer, send pictures to a digital picture frame, send files from a phone to a computer, or play music or movies on a TV from a music player or phone. There are quite a lot of possibilities.

Oh, and about passwords: you can forget about them. WiFi Direct relies on WiFi Protected Setup (WPS) which is a simple way to securely connect two devices via WiFi. Just like with modern routers, you only have to enter a number displayed on screen, or press a button, and the devices connect.

Conclusion

With its simple setup, longer range and much higher transfer speeds, WiFi Direct is a better option than Bluetooth for wireless file transfers between two devices. Setup and range also make it a great alternative for Bluetooth in other areas, like peripheral connection: some analysts even predict the death of Bluetooth, which is reasonable, as WiFi Direct eliminates the need for another standard and hardware. Of course the technology is quite new, so this might take some time to happen, but we'll see. If you have any questions about WiFi Direct, be sure to ask them in the comments, and stay tuned for a follow-up article, where we will show you how can you use WiFi Direct for file sharing between your phone and computer.