Google Wallet vs. Apple Pay: What You Need to Know

Apple Pay is shiny, new, and getting a lot of press. But Android users have had their own similar payment system for years: Google Wallet. Google Wallet isn’t limited to a small number of phones anymore. Goole Wallet usage is even increasing, which is no surprise. Mobile payments are getting more press and point-of-sale terminals that support contactless payments are popping up in more places.

The Basics

Both Apple Pay and Google Wallet are mobile payments services  that use your smartphone to pay for things. Both of these payment methods depend on NFC hardware — the phone communicates wirelessly with the contactless payment terminal. It’s similar to what Visa payWave and MasterCard PayPass use for contactless payments. This involves tapping or waving over a card over a reader instead of swiping or inserting the card.

Both of these payment systems piggy-back on top of the credit card infrastructure. You enter credit or debit card details and payments you make are charged to the card. You don’t have to connect these apps directly to a checking account, as you do with controversial competitors like CurrentC.

Microsoft created their own contactless-payments wallet feature, named Wallet, for Windows Phone 8. But no one uses it and there’s been little news about it since 2012 when Microsoft unveiled it. Microsoft’s contactless payment solution seems like a big failure, there’s really no way around that.

Supported Devices and Countries

Apple Pay works on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, as older iPhones don’t have the necessary NFC hardware.

Google Wallet works on a surpsingly large range of Android phones, as most Android phones sold in the past few years have had NFC hardware in them. In the past, Google Wallet had very limited availability, but it’s been available to a much wider range of devices since Android 4.4 KitKat. All Google Wallet requires is “an NFC-enabled Android device running 4.4 (KitKat) or higher on any carrier network,” according to Google.

USA Only: Unfortunately, both Apple Pay and Google Wallet are US-only at thi time. This is more understandable for Apple Pay, which just launched and seems serious about international expansion. But Google Wallet has been available in the US for more than three years, and there’s no indication it will ever be available in other countries. If you want to tap and pay with your phone and you don’t live in the US, you should probably buy an iPhone.

Google Wallet is to Apple Pay as Google Voice is to iMessage. The Google services are nice if you live in the US, but the rest of the world will need to buy iPhones to get similar functionality.

The Payment Experience

With at least one credit or debit card’s detailed entered on your mobile app of choice, here’s how you’d use them when it’s time to pay:

Apple Pay: Take your phone out of your pocket, rest a finger over the Touch ID sensor (without pressing down), and hold it over a contactless payment terminal. The iPhone uses Touch ID to authenticate your fingerprint and immediately processes the payment. Touch ID makes this more convenient as you don’t have to unlock your phone first.

Google Wallet: Take your phone out of your pocket, unlock the screen with your PIN or other unlock method, and hold it over the reader. You may then have to enter your Google Wallet PIN, which is supposed to be different from your phone-unlock PIN for security reasons. Where Apple Pay uses your fingerprint at the terminal, Google Wallet uses two different PINs — it’s just clunkier. At least you don’t have to open the Google Wallet app first.

These payment methods need to be as convenient as possible because they compete with a piece of plastic that can be swiped or inserted everywhere. In many non-US countries (like Canada), you can tap your plastic credit card on such readers all over the place. Of course, this doesn’t give you any fingerprint or PIN security. That’s why contactless payments have traditionally been limited to smaller-value purchases.

Merchants Don’t Get Your Credit Card Numbers

With many retailers — from Target to Home Depot — showing they’re not capable of securely handling credit card numbers without losing them, security is becoming a more pressing issue. Both Apple Pay and Google Wallet offer a big advantage here. When you pay with either system, the merchant never actually gets your credit card information. In a nutshell, they get a one-time code that authorizes them to make a single charge. Any malware infesting their payment terminals won’t be able to steal your credit card details and abuse it later.

With Apple Pay, the secure payment details are stored on the iPhone itself. With Google Wallet, they’re stored on Google’s servers “in the cloud.” This cloud-based token system is what allowed Google Wallet to work on more devices with Android 4.4, as it can work even when cellular carriers block its access to the “secure element” where it would be stored the device. Either way, the merchants you’re making purchases from don’t get your credit card details.

Why Bother?

Mobile payment solutions, or digital wallets, all have to pass the “why bother?” test. Google Wallet initially seemed to fail here — why bother whipping out your phone and entering two PINs when you can just use your credit card? Your credit card will also work in many places that don’t yet support contactless payments. Plus, the cellular carriers had their own service they were pushing — Softcard, the service formerly known as ISIS. Everyone was fighting over the space, but no one was making a lot of progress.

As usual, Apple isn’t rolling out an entirely new technology — they’re polishing something up and striking when the iron is hot. Retailers have failed spectacularly at securing credit card numbers recently, and NFC-including point-of-sale terminals are becoming more widespread in the USA thanks to the transition to EMV (or cards with “the chip”) that other countries have been using for a long time. The fingerprint reader also makes it more convenient to actually use without entering two PINs, scanning QR codes, or whatever other competing services want.

Google Wallet is still around, and progressing — slowly. Apple Pay is great news for Google Wallet users, as more NFC payment terminals will be available. Just don’t be surprised if the terminals don’t mention “Google Wallet” by name.

So, which is better? Well, that’s not really the question. You don’t really get a choice between Apple Pay and Google Wallet — you get a choice between an iPhone and an Android phone. Other considerations will probably be more important, and you’ll end up with whichever solution your chosen platform provides.

But, if you really want to corner us into answering, it’s very clear Apply Pay is better. The fingerprint-identification system is faster and more convenient than the two-PIN system Google thought up. Plus, when taking a view of the entire world instead of just the US, Apple Pay seems to be actually on a path to international expansion. Google Wallet isn’t seeing much development and looks confined to the USA, at least until Google starts caring about it again.
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