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What's the Difference Between IR and RF Receivers?

A lot of our devices use wireless technology. The fact we can control our TV from range is a given, but what about controlling devices from other rooms? The connection will surely be interrupted...

Learn what IR and RF connections are and which is best for you (As well as some oddball devices that use neither!) so you can make the best decision about your tech!

Two TV remote controls, both use IR

What is an IR Receiver?

IR stands for Infrared and is a wavelength of light, or radiation depending on your outlook. Don't worry, it's not the kind of radiation that is going to ionise you!

Infrared is just off of the visible spectrum of light for humans, so our eyes can't natively pick it up. This means an IR receiver or control will act wirelessly without us noticing.

The wave that makes up the Infrared can be encoded with information much the same way that we use Electromagnetic Waves for Radio. The difference here is that Infrared still behaves like light. By that I mean that Infrared will travel in straight lines and stop at obstructions to line-of-sight.

The most common example is a TV remote. The vast majority of TV and Set Top Box Remote Controls are Infrared. The button input you press will be beamed out in an Infrared wave that carries the command. Imagine a standard laser pointer, but the point is invisible and carries a button input!

Once the laser pointer lines up with the Set Top Box IR receiver or TVs IR receiver, the input is delivered and read. Then, the TV or Set Top Box does what it needs to do like change volume, change channel and more.

Two Walkie-Talkies, which use RF over long distance to transfer live audio

What is an RF Receiver?

RF stands for Radio Frequency. Much like Infrared, data can be carried on these electromagnetic waves. The key difference is that Radio waves are such a different wavelength that they take on entirely different behaviour to IR!

A Radio Wave will permeate objects to a much higher degree than IR. Where IR behaves like light, Radio Waves instead spread out over much longer ranges through walls and across vast amounts of air. You home TV aerial on your roof (For Terrestrial TV) receives waves like these to give you television.

On a much smaller scale than that, RF receivers can be found in USB dongles for Air Mice and Presentation Tools. This enables control wirelessly just like IR, but can also work even from other rooms thanks to the transmission of the radio waves.

You don't have to point the remote directly at the device and you can use the remote from much higher distances, though it is more prone to interference and must be paired to a specific receiver of the correct frequency.

Is an IR remote better than RF?

Now we know what the terms mean, which is better for you?

An IR remote is certainly the most accessible and common, and will often act as a Universal Remote too. This is because the remote can be programmed to communicate with a number of different receivers.

An RF remote is paired to the RF Receiver or device it comes with, and is best left this way. The connection may be stronger and longer range, but is less variable and may be interfered if adjusted. The huge amount of RF devices makes frequencies incredibly compact and therefore able to interfere with eachother.

Conversely, the only way an IR remote can be interfered is powerful ambient IR radiation like incandescent bulbs or, most commonly, sunlight. Luckily this ambient radiation is generally weak and is not operating on the same wavelength as the specific remote control, so causes little or no interference.

In terms of our product specifications there are some clear differences in this infographic:

An Infographic Comparing IR and RF receivers. RF are longer range and do not need line of sight are the main differences

Is Wifi RF? Is Bluetooth IR?

Wifi and Bluetooth are popular wireless connection methods, but where do they fall in the RF vs IR debate?

Neither Wifi or Bluetooth require line of sight, so immediately from what we've learnt we can rule our Infrared.

So, that leaves us with Radio! Radio Frequency Interference or RFI is mostly present in the modern world because of this particular overlap. Wifi and Bluetooth are their own ranges and connections, but they operate within radio frequency.

Bluetooth uses Ultra High Frequency waves and Wifi uses 2.4GHz waves. This means that the connections aren't all that different from an RF receiver, but have been configured and calibrated for a huge variety of tasks which gives us the adaptability to connect speakers, smartphones, lights, TVs and everything else to our Wifi networks.

With all these RF waves around it is little wonder that finding a clean, usable band of RF is difficult and sometimes expensive unless you are willing to accept interference from nearby frequencies.

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