There’s a wireless connection that’s used by all kinds of people and all sorts of devices, but hardly anyone talks about it: It’s called Wi-Fi Direct, and it’s been enabling versatile, peer-to-peer wireless connections for almost 10 years.
Let’s talk about what it is, what it can do, and what you need to know when using it.
Wi-Fi Direct defined
Wi-Fi Direct is a connection that allows for device-to-device communication, linking devices together without a nearby centralized network. One device acts as an access point, and the other device connects to it using WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup) and WPA/WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access) security protocols. The standard was developed and incorporated in devices in the early 2000s.
“Wait, that sounds like Bluetooth,” may be your response, and while the technologies may look similar at a glance, there are some important differences. One of the most important is that Wi-Fi Direct can handle more information at higher speeds than Bluetooth — around 10 times the speed in optimal conditions. This makes Direct a great choice when a peer-to-peer connection needs to transmit data-rich content, like a high-resolution image or a video — or when a Wi-Fi network is down.
One of the biggest advantages of Wi-Fi Direct is how versatile it can be where there’s no Wi-Fi network to act as a go-between for devices. Multiple devices can link to each other and share important files in casual settings or desperate circumstances alike, without the security worries (and time-consuming process) that come with connecting to a hub or central network first.
You can often tell when a device offers Direct, because, when you are searching, it will pop up with a wireless network of its own, usually one that starts with “DIRECT” followed by a product name or number.
Devices supported by Wi-Fi Direct
Wi-Fi Direct has been available to consumers nearing on a decade now thanks to the 2011 Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) update that included guidelines for the feature. Now the world is filled with compatible devices, including some you may not have expected. Android devices have supported Direct since Android 2.3, and Apple devices have had it since iOS 7 (although Apple markets the feature under its own names, the familiar “AirDrop” and “Airplay”).
There are also a lot of entertainment devices that make use of Direct to stream content or screencast from a mobile device. Chromecast, Roku, and Xbox all have it, and many smart TVs offer Wi-Fi Direct connections as well.
Then there are all the peripherals that offer wireless connections, which may use Wi-Fi Direct instead of Bluetooth. That includes wireless headsets with high fidelity audio, wireless printers, and even accessories like keyboards.
What people use Wi-Fi Direct for
Some of the most common uses of Wi-Fi Direct these days include:
Fast file sharing: Direct is a good way to quickly share large files with a friend or team when setting up wired connections isn’t feasible.
Photo printing on wireless printers: Direct can handle a large amount of wireless information, making it ideal for serious wireless printing jobs.
Screencasting and screensharing: From playing mobile games on a big screen to sharing family photos on your TV or digital portrait, Wi-Fi Direct is used for all sorts of screensharing tasks.
Playing games together: If everyone has the same game on their phones, they can connect with Direct and play together even if there’s no Wi-Fi around.
Speedy syncing: Some devices will also use Wi-Fi Direct to sync their information and update their media. This can make the process much faster, especially if it has to add a lot of new media at the same time (think about updating old music playlists, for example).
Enabling NFC: We’re used to thinking of NFC as its own wireless technology, but these quick connections tend to use Wi-Fi Direct to transmit information.
Wi-Fi Direct and security
As we mentioned, Wi-Fi Direct does offer some security advantages when compared with other peer-to-peer connections. However, it also has its own share of security risks. Direct can be particularly risky when it’s used while a device is connected to another network at the same time. The Direct connection, especially if using the older WPS protocol, can be attacked with brute force hacking techniques — something that’s made all the easier if the device supports automatic Direct connections that users may not realize are enabled.
If someone gets access to a device via Wi-Fi Direct, they may also be able to access other connected networks and ultimately a lot of private data now open to theft. If you plan on using Wi-Fi Direct frequently, then you should look up how your device secures Direct and what you can do to make it safer. Try to disable any unnecessary automatic Direct connection features, and disconnect when you are finished. Some Direct connections require extra steps like scanning a QR code or pushing a connection button to make things a little safer.