Android Pay and Samsung Pay

It's been about a year since the last time I used Samsung Pay, and the service has continued to grow without me. But it hasn't grown in a vacuum, and here in the U.S. the way we pay for things at a register has been slowly changing as well. I decided to head out into the world around me intent on paying for everything with both Samsung Pay and Android Pay to see how things had changed.

Long story short, Samsung Pay is easily the most useful mobile payment system you can use today. Here's how I came to this conclusion.

Paying for things in Maryland, USA

I live in a fairly unique area with wildly different lifestyles in just about every direction around me. I'm 20 miles from "the country" with older gas stations that haven't updated in what seems like 20 years; five miles from "the city" where everything is new and everyone does everything with their phone; and in between there are "college towns" with every kind of vending machine you can think of. I bring this up because nothing in my area ever seems to accept credit card payments the same way right now, and it can be a little maddening.

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Much of the U.S. shifted to new payment cards with chips embedded in them. We didn't go the full "Chip and Pin" route you see in other countries, opting instead for "Chip and Sign", so the transaction process is guaranteed to take longer in many situations. This update, and its resulting policy changes, caused a lot of retailers in this area to update their payment terminals to accept chip as a form of payment. These terminals almost always included NFC, which meant a lot of places that didn't use to support things like Android Pay in my area now do.

But this change also isn't universal, which means the following payment scenarios are not only possible but actually happen in my area:

  • Payment terminals with chip readers that don't accept chip as a payment method yet, even though they've been installed for over six months now.
  • Payment terminals with chip readers that only allow you to use the chip with certain cards, and reject the payment if you use the magnetic stripe.
  • Payment terminals with big friendly signs for Android Pay that don't actually support Android Pay yet because the feature hasn't been enabled.
  • Payment terminals with big friendly signs for Android Pay that work just fine, but your cashier has no idea how to use the feature and makes you use something else.

Put nicely, it's a mess. And it's not going to get simpler at any great speed, despite an almost constant series of reports surrounding magnetic stripe skimmers being installed basically everywhere. Here in the U.S., we have one group of people desperately clinging to the past and another group trying way too hard to push forward with what seems like no thought at all towards the path of least resistance. Yes, I am still talking about payment systems.

Android Pay vs. Samsung Pay

What mobile payments really come down to for many of us is the option Google created for all Android phones with an NFC chip built in and the option Samsung made that only works on higher end Samsung phones. It's a common theme when we look at just about anything on a new Samsung phone nowadays, but there are some technical details and features that make this a lot more than a cosmetic comparison.

Making payments

Android Pay

Most people think about mobile payments as the tap-and-pay method. You touch your phone to the special spot on the terminal, and the transaction happens. Both Android Pay and Samsung Pay can work this way, and the transaction is secure and usually faster than using a chip.

If your cashier has never seen this done before, it is not unheard of for you to be called a witch or asked to leave the store.

If you didn't already know, Samsung Pay includes a way to pay for things that isn't available on anything but Samsung Pay. Through Magnetic Secure Transmission, Samsung Pay uses your phone to basically trick the payment terminal into thinking you just swiped a card. This way, even if the payment terminal doesn't technically support mobile payments, you can still use your phone to pay for things.

Fair warning though, if your cashier has never seen this done before, it is not unheard of for you to be called a witch or asked to leave the store. I wish I was joking. Also, since the "card" being used isn't your actual card, if a skimmer gets your information it is immediately useless to them.

More than credit and debit cards

Neither of these apps are "just" mobile payment apps anymore. These apps want to store everything you'd normally keep in your wallet, aside from your ID and that icky paper money. You can store rewards or loyalty cards from everywhere you shop, gift cards from dozens of retailers and restaurants, and there are a lot of options when using these cards.

The more you use your phone to pay for things, the more this rewards program makes available to you.

If your loyalty card has a barcode, that image will appear on your screen to be scanned by the cashier. A nice feature to Android Pay is using your location to offer up the right loyalty card or to remind you that you have a gift card to use at a location when you arrive. Samsung Pay is technically capable of something similar, but in my tests it was far less reliable than Android Pay, which gave you a quick notification and jumped you immediately to the card you needed for validation or payment.

Where Samsung Pay really shines is in its coupons and rewards. Samsung is deeply focused on keeping you using Samsung Pay right now, and does so by offering a number of coupons in the app that are tied to your location. It pulls up deals in your area, and gives you everything you need to complete the transaction on the same screen. If you use Samsung Pay Rewards, your transactions earn you points that can be spent of a variety of different promotions. The more you use your phone to pay for things, the more this rewards program makes available to you. Google will occasionally offer promotions via email or as a pop-up in the app, but nothing as verbose or compelling as the setup in Samsung Pay.

Samsung Pay is where it's at, for now

Samsung Pay

It couldn't be more clear that Samsung Pay is the most functional option right now. That's not an easy pill to swallow, because the success of this service only serves to further highlight how weird and broken payment systems are in the U.S. right now, but that's certainly not Samsung's fault. This service works almost everywhere, which is something that simply won't be true of Android Pay anytime soon in the U.S.

But this compare also highlighted something Google needs to consider borrowing from Samsung. It's no small thing to make or break a habit, and getting into the habit of using Android Pay for as many things as possible would be a lot easier if there was something in the app to directly remind or encourage users to shop with their phones. Whether that takes the form of a retail coupon program or a usage rewards program or something altogether different is up to Google, but the next step in mobile payments can't be to wait for more retailers to support your hardware and hope for the best.