NFC—or near-field communication—technology has been touted as a way to pay by phone at cash registers, but that’s far from mainstream at this point. So phone makers (just Android, for now) have come up with another use for NFC: They’ve developed programmable stickers and tags, such as Samsung TecTiles (shown below) and Sony Xperia SmartTags (right), that transmit instructions to your phone with a quick tap.

For example, you could affix a TecTile to your desk and tap it with your smart phone every morning to launch your calendar and put your phone into silent mode while you’re in the office. Or hang a SmartTag in your car and bump it to launch GPS and turn on Bluetooth. In your bedroom, tap a sticker or tag on your nightstand to turn on the phone’s alarm or send a goodnight message to your traveling spouse.

I tried out both types to see how well they work. I found both types of devices effective and fun to use, but they don’t seem as practical as other technologies, such as Motorola’s Smart Actions, which do many of the same actions without the need of a separate accessory.

These NFC gadgets are sold separately from the phones on the manufacturers’ websites, by phone carriers, and by retailers such as Amazon. One set of four Sony Xperia SmartTags costs $20. A set of five Samsung TecTiles costs $15.

It’s easy to get started. Just check the box next to NFC in your phone’s wireless settings, then download a free app from Google Play. To get the Sony SmartTag app, you have to first download Xperia LiveWare and then the SmartTag app. I was up and running in minutes. For the TecTile app, type “Samsung TecTile” in the Google search bar.

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Sony’s SmartTags, about the size of a quarter, come in four colors—red, blue, black, white—each preprogrammed to help you start using them out of the box. The Red SmartTag comes with the Home profile, which turns on Wi-Fi, boosts the volume, and launches the news and weather app. The blue SmartTag has the car profile, which turns on Bluetooth and launches the navigation app. The black SmartTag has the bedroom profile, which shuts off the ringer and wireless connections and activates the alarm. And the white SmartTag prepares you for the office by launching the calendar.

You can add or change actions to a SmartTag or completely reprogram it with up to 10 actions. I liked the hard plastic feel of the tags, each of which has a loop along the edge to hang on a keychain. They also come with double-sided tape in case you want to stick one on the fridge or other surface.

Samsung TecTiles, which are much like peel-and-stick postage stamps, are a bit more versatile than Sony’s SmartTags. In addition to changing phone settings and sending out text messages, you can program TecTiles to share the address of your favorite restaurant from your contacts list, automatically dial a phone number, or blast messages on Facebook and Twitter. You can also lock a tile so it can’t be reprogrammed.

Samsung says the next generation of TecTiles will be able to multitask on a deeper level—launching multiple apps, for example. And Samsung also says you can stick them on your car’s dashboard. (I wish I had the chance to try this during my area’s recent heat wave.) Note that TecTiles won’t work near metal surfaces, according to the company.

Both types of devices are designed to work with the same brand of phone, but in my experience, they work to some extent with other Android phones as well. I tried them out with the Samsung Galaxy S III, the Sony Xperia ion, and two NFC-enabled phones from HTC: the Evo 4G LTE and One X.

Each worked best within its own brand, but for example, I was able to get a Samsung-Galaxy-programmed TecTile to make a Sony or HTC phone send a text message, open a Web page, and even launch the navigation app. But other actions, such as launching the camera or playing a music track, often didn’t work. Interestingly, I was able to program a Samsung TecTile to launch the camera of an HTC Evo 4G LTE, but only when I programmed the TecTile using an HTC phone.

Overall, using TecTiles and SmartTags is kind of fun, though it’s not, in my view, as practical as using other technologies for handling routine tasks. For example, Motorola Smart Actions on Motorola lets you program the phones to take care of business without any additional effort on your part. It will automatically turn on Wi-Fi and shut off Bluetooth when you arrive at home using GPS, or stop ringing and send a do-not-disturb text message to callers after a certain time. There are dozens of different actions that can be activated by almost as many triggers—and none of them require you to hunt for a tag or tile.

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Shopping online is great, but it’s nice when you can kick the proverbial tires before you buy. With that idea in mind, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)—the organization that puts on the Consumer Electronics Show each year—is presenting its third annual series of CEA Demo Days at hundreds of local retailers across the country.

The program will kick off July 20 to 22 with an event called “Experience the Summer Games Like Never Before”: Electronics retailers will show customers the best way to watch the Olympics on Internet-connected TVs.

Football is the focus of the next event, scheduled for August 17 to 19, entitled “Make Your Football Fantasies Real.” Participating stores will demonstrate the best ways to experience football and other sports. That program will be followed by “Unlock the Power of Digital Audio,” demos of connected devices and ways to upgrade your audio experience with better headphones and speakers. That one runs from September 14 to 16.

For more information and to see which local retailers are participating in the Demo Days events, visit the CEA Demo Days website.

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