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

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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 scarcely 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, alongside a soft cleaning cloth that’s also draped over the edge. It isn’t only the coronavirus lockdown that’s turned my nice purse right 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 another change: Samsung Pay, which I useful for nearly all five years of its existence, which I used to evangelize to relatives and buddies and which I once wrote made me “feel like a rock star” — is no longer my payment app of preference. 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, well before Samsung Pay existed. Remember those clunky first attempts at waving a cellular 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 among the first to try it.

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 an unique something that set it besides Apple Pay and Android Pay, Google Pay’s precursor. Samsung Pay was — and still is — the only mobile payment platform that works together 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 2nd technology, magnetic secure transmission, is why is credit card swipes work, plus 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 did actually develop faster and do more. On a visit to South Korea in 2016, I surely 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 companies are taking charge cards or NFC tap-to-pay only.


James Martin/CNET

The straw that broke this camel’s back

For many years, the London Underground has let you tap your phone at the turnstile to get a one-way ticket. For a visitor like me based outside the city, using tap-to-pay is easier than creating a transit card, and I do not have to concern yourself with accumulating leftover value I don’t spend.

Using tap-to-pay is simple. You just hold your phone over the card reader, await 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 use 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 and every time I tapped, mentally crossing my fingers that I wouldn’t be the among the most hated figures on the Underground: see your face blocking the gates. 

Why was I trying so very hard to make this work? The whole point of mobile tap-to-pay is always 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 a long time in my videos and written reviews. With Samsung Pay, you swipe up to open the app. Then you need to type a PIN or authenticate together with your fingerprint or iris scan (in older Galaxy models) to “wake up” Samsung Pay’s software. If the fingerprint scan does not work properly immediately, or you typed the wrong pin, you need to bring the phone back 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 2nd 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 every where 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 another PIN or unlock the screen again with your finger. It’s all set as soon as you unlock your phone using your fingerprint or a password. That one layer of authentication will do. (Google Pay requires one to use a secure lock screen.)

For some transit payments, you won’t have 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 yet another advantage, and that is its availability on all Android phones, which makes it accessible to a lot more people, not only those with Samsung devices.

Samsung Pay’s big win isn’t as crucial as it was once

When it first launched in 2015, Samsung Pay’s very nearly flawless capability to buy goods and services at just about any 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 at your fingertips did exactly 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 in the home (or forget it, as I did last year). 

But in 2020, Samsung Pay’s ace up the sleeve does not matter much to me. Millions of stores now support NFC, specially in the urban centers where I shop, and I do not 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 nowadays are restricted to the food store, Target and takeout dining during these days of lockdown

Samsung Pay still includes a lot of great side features that vary from reward points to in-app purchases, and also you might even discover that the MST technology helps Samsung Pay work at more stores in your geographical area. My needs, however, are pretty simple. Get in, pay as seamlessly as you can, get out.

I might not shop in as many brick-and-mortar businesses as I did three months ago, but I find that within my simpler life style I count on mobile payments more than ever. Where I used to sling my entire purse over my shoulder for my daily commute and week-end 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 allow me to down yet.

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