What’s the difference between IR and RF?

Here at Olibra, we get the following question a lot: “What’s the difference between IR and RF?”

Some people also follow with, “And why should I care?”

Both are good questions.

RF, also known as “radio frequency,” and IR, which stands for “Infrared,” are two kinds of energy used in remote controls to communicate commands. RF uses radio waves and IR is a kind of light that can’t be seen with the naked eye.

A good many consumers, when holding a remote control, may not know which kind is in his or her hand. As long as it works, few people care. But if you’re curious, the easiest way to tell is if you need to point the remote directly at the device you’re trying to control. Your TV remote is IR. Your garage door is RF.

Both technologies have advantages and disadvantages. IR is quick, efficient, and offers an ability to communicate a wide variety of commands. Its downside is that you always need line-of-sight for it to work properly. If something is in the way, you’re sunk. It also works over relatively short distances. Across a room is about as much as you can expect.

RF, on the other hand, can work over much longer distances. You can be down your street and still open your garage. Some high-end remote-controlled vehicles can be miles from their RF controls. RF can pass through solid walls too – as long as they’re not metal. However, RF doesn’t transmit as complex patterns as IR, so commands must be simpler. Open, close; up, down; on, off – we’re talking really basic commands.

Because the data payload is quite small with RF, the components end up being less expensive to manufacture. You find them in common appliances like ceiling fans and garage doors: the commands don’t need to be complex and RF keeps the overall costs down while increasing range.

Now, as to “why should I care?” – YOU might not. But for those of us trying to create Smart Home products that bring everything together, having two very different technologies in almost every home creates quite a challenge.

We designed the Bond to work with both IR and RF in order to maximize the number of products we can help you to control. Ceiling fans can be either IR or RF. Garage doors, RF. AC units, IR. With the Bond, everything will work. It won’t matter whether you understand the difference between RF and IR – even though you do now.