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Samsung Pay’s best feature no longer beats Google Pay. Here’s why I made the switch – CNET

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Samsung Pay has one standout feature.
Lexy Savvides/CNET

With the occasional exception of retrieving a credit card from my wallet, I’ve barely reached inside my purse since mid-March when I began to work from home and shelter in place. One arm of my sunglasses hangs lazily over the side, next to a soft cleaning cloth that’s also draped over the edge. It isn’t just the coronavirus lockdown that’s turned my nice purse into a glorified sunglasses stand. It’s also a renewed reliance on mobile payments that sees me leaving my wallet behind more than ever before.

Here’s one other change: Samsung Pay, which I used for nearly all five years of its existence, which I used to evangelize to family and friends and which I once wrote made me “feel like a rock star” — is no longer my payment app of choice. I recently abandoned it for Google Pay, and I haven’t looked back. Why? It’s all in the thumb.

Before I explain why I made the switch, I want to make my attachment to mobile payments clear — and why Samsung Pay was particularly compelling. I’ve followed major developments in the field since 2009, long before Samsung Pay existed. Remember those clunky first attempts at waving a cell phone over an RFID tag stuck onto a payment card terminal? I do. How about the cringey “bump” between two phones to transfer funds over PayPal? I was one of the first to try it.

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Since then, I’ve untangled often confusing definitions of “mobile payments,” and surveyed the major players of the day — including ISIS, a Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile venture that soon (and understandably) changed its name.

When Samsung Pay first arrived on the scene, it had a special something that set it apart from Apple Pay and Android Pay, Google Pay’s precursor. Samsung Pay was — and still is — the only mobile payment platform that works with nearly any credit card reader, not just payment terminals that support NFC, the short-range communication system used by Apple Pay and Google Pay. That second technology, magnetic secure transmission, is what makes credit card swipes work, and it remains Samsung Pay’s special sauce.

Because of MST support in addition to NFC, I saw Samsung Pay as the frontrunner of mobile payments compared with Google and Apple. It seemed to develop faster and do more. On a visit to South Korea in 2016, I got to experience Samsung Pay’s then-expanding bag of tricks firsthand, before they came to the US. And last year, when I forgot my purse at home and spent the day using Samsung Pay as my wallet, I was starry-eyed and grateful.

But in March, something happened that finally changed my mind.

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These days, many local businesses are taking credit cards or NFC tap-to-pay only.
James Martin/CNET

The straw that broke this camel’s back

For several years, the London Underground has let you tap your phone at the turnstile to buy a one-way ticket. For a visitor like me based outside the city, using tap-to-pay is more convenient than setting up a transit card, and I never have to worry about accumulating leftover value I don’t spend.

Using tap-to-pay is easy. You just hold your phone over the card reader, wait for the fare gates to open and walk through. But when I used Samsung Pay on my Galaxy S20, the gates often wouldn’t open on my first attempt, forcing me to try again or find an attendant while my friend or family waited on the other side of the turnstile. I felt myself holding my breath each time I tapped, mentally crossing my fingers that I wouldn’t be the one of the most hated figures on the Underground: that person blocking the gates.

Why was I trying so hard to make this work? The whole point of mobile tap-to-pay is to make transactions faster and easier. Having to try again or sheepishly explain to an attendant why I got stuck took more time and hassle, not less.

My problem with Samsung Pay wasn’t new. In fact, I’ve complained about it for years in my videos and written reviews. With Samsung Pay, you swipe up to open the app. Then you have to type a PIN or authenticate with your fingerprint or iris scan (in older Galaxy models) to “wake up” Samsung Pay’s software. If the fingerprint scan doesn’t work immediately, or you typed the wrong pin, you have to bring the phone back to you for a do-over before extending it over the machine again.

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New York’s MTA is one transit system that accepts mobile payments.
Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

I can still see the cashiers’ thin expressions of forced patience in my mind’s eye.

Back in London, I complained about my Underground experience to a friend, who reminded me that Google Pay skips the second authentication step, a detail I had forgotten about. That was reason enough for me. As soon as I started regularly using Google Pay, my anxieties disappeared. As long as the Galaxy S20 Plus I’ve been using is unlocked (see below), it works everywhere that NFC payments are accepted. Every time.

Google Pay’s big advantage: Speed

With Google Pay, you don’t have to swipe up on your payment card, type a second PIN or unlock the screen again with your finger. It’s good to go as soon as you unlock your phone using your fingerprint or a password. That one layer of authentication is enough. (Google Pay requires you to use a secure lock screen.)

For some transit payments, you won’t need to unlock the phone at all, a Google spokesperson said, though I haven’t been using public transit since I made the switch.

Of course, Google Pay has one more advantage, and that’s its availability on all Android phones, which makes it accessible to a greater number of people, not just those with Samsung devices.

Samsung Pay’s big win isn’t as important as it used to be

When it first launched in 2015, Samsung Pay’s almost flawless ability to buy goods and services at nearly every payment terminal made me feel like a savvy elite who could outsmart the machine with a wave of my phone.

I’d watch the faces who warned me that “Apple Pay wouldn’t work” transform from impatience to awe when the Samsung phone I had in hand did just that, fueled by Samsung Pay’s inclusion of MST technology alongside NFC. Samsung proved that pay-by-tap could work in 2015 reliably enough to leave the wallet at home (or forget it, as I did last year).

But in 2020, Samsung Pay’s ace up the sleeve doesn’t matter much to me. Millions of stores now support NFC, especially in the urban centers where I shop, and I don’t need the MST magic that helps Samsung Pay work where Google and Apple’s apps don’t. To be fair, most of the places I shop these days are limited to the grocery store, Target and takeout dining during these days of lockdown.

Samsung Pay still has a lot of great side features that range from reward points to in-app purchases, and you might even find that the MST technology helps Samsung Pay work at more stores where you live. My needs, however, are pretty simple. Get in, pay as seamlessly as possible, get out.

I may not shop in as many brick-and-mortar businesses as I did three months ago, but I find that in my simpler lifestyle I rely on mobile payments more than ever. Where I used to sling my entire purse over my shoulder for my daily commute and weekend jaunts, I now slide my phone in my pocket, grab my sunglasses and go, confident that Google Pay can smoothly handle my day-to-day needs without pissing off the people lined up behind me in 6-foot intervals. It hasn’t let me down yet.

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