iPad Air 2 registers with “secret” NFC? Not so fast…

Chris Davies - Oct 24, 2014
0
iPad Air 2 registers with “secret” NFC? Not so fast…

Signs of NFC hardware in the iPad Air 2 have prompted speculation that Apple could turn the tablet into an Apple Pay cash register replacement, though it’s almost certain not to be something the company could enable in this generation. A recent teardown of the new 9.7-inch tablet found that it contains the same NFC chip as the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Since Apple doesn’t list NFC among the iPad Air 2’s connectivity options, that has led to chatter that it’s a feature-in-waiting; however, it’s unlikely to pan out that way.

While the iPad Air 2 – and the iPad mini 3 – both support Apple Pay, it’s not to the full extent that Apple’s recent smartphones do. The system can be used to make online purchases through apps, but not in physical stores by bringing them near a point-of-sale terminal and pressing a finger to the Touch ID button.

The presence of the NXP 65V10 NFC Controller – highlighted in green in iFixit’s photo below – in the tablet, however, had led to speculation that Apple might be playing a different game with the iPad.

ipad-air-2-nfc-ifixit

For instance, GigaOm suggested today that Apple’s plan might be to turn the tablet into a register replacement, much in the way that dongles like that of Square have made the iPad an increasingly common sight at retailers.

However, rather than requiring a completely separate card reader, so the proposal goes, Apple would offer everything entirely integrated into the core iPad Air 2 hardware, supporting Apple Pay natively.

While an iPad register might have plenty of appeal, unfortunately the reality doesn’t quite match up. Although the NFC controller may be present, it’s not hooked up to an antenna.

It also lacks the NFC booster chip discovered in the iPhone 6 teardown, described as helping “improve performance of existing NFC controllers for challenging environments such as mobile and wearables” with “less restrictive antenna design requirements,” and the presence of which had led to some near-field communication experts to speculate that Apple might use part of the PCB board itself as an antenna.

More likely is that the NFC controller is part of the overall Secure Element that Apple uses to keep Apple Pay credentials safe. When a payment card is registered with an iOS 8.1 device, Apple Pay doesn’t store the details of the card itself but instead creates a unique payments token that’s only ever saved on that one iPhone or iPad.

Apple Pay demo:

Requiring consistent architecture across devices is likely to be a key part of that security. Indeed, as Apple itself says in its latest security guide, “the NFC controller handles Near Field Communication protocols and routes communication between the application processor and the Secure Element,” as well as that communications between “Secure Enclave and the Secure Element takes place over a serial interface, with the Secure Element connected to the NFC controller, which in turn is connected to the application processor.”

Although Apple is specifically referring to enacting NFC payments at that point, the fact that the NFC hardware is so integrated in the pipeline between the various secure components and the application processor (the A8X, in the case of the iPad Air 2) suggests the controller’s presence in the tablet is simply to identically match the physical setup in its iPhone cousins.

Whether that means future iPads will take on Square and others remains to be seen; indeed, Apple’s recent deal with IBM might be a strong place to start such a move.

Apple declined to comment on the teardown’s findings.

MORE Apple Security Guide [PDF]


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