Card Wars: Coin vs. Plastc vs. Swyp
Update: Coin has announced the purchase of its payment platform by Fitbit, and more importantly, the discontinuation of its product. Coin devices will continue to function as-is (i.e. for the duration of the non-rechargeable battery’s life), but there will be no updates or replacements (after the warranty period) in the future. I’ll leave the analysis of Coin’s product for posterity, but it appears that the field has become significantly narrower.
A minimalist at heart, I was really excited to hear about Coin (onlycoin.com) and how it could consolidate the vast majority of the cards in my wallet. After pre-ordering my Coin card in November of 2013, and sitting through updates that became bleaker and bleaker, I ultimately cancelled my pre-order, somewhat spontaneously, during a business trip to Korea. I was tired of hearing about “unforeseen delays” and no longer had faith that they could actually deliver their product.
Two years later, I began to see Coin in the wild, somewhat proving me wrong, though the timeline was significantly extended. To be fair, I am impressed with the end result; the card is thinner than I imagined, and it looks very sleek. I decided I wanted one, again, but with numerous other competitors having sprung up, considering only Coin (see what I did there) would be a mistake.
To provide some background on these products, the goal of each is to reduce the need to carry around multiple credit and debit cards, with a single card meant to rule them all, quite literally. At its most basic form, this card device utilizes a rewritable magnetic strip, which can essentially emulate any card in the possession of the owner. A card scanner is provided to scan existing cards, and this card information is synchronized to the card device via mobile phone or the scanner itself.
In terms of using the card device, selecting the card to emulate can be done either on the card device directly, or via a mobile app. A common use case is paying a restaurant bill. To prevent restaurant staff from changing the selected card, the card device is locked to the selected card. Additionally, if the card device is left behind, a lost connection with the associated mobile phone will cause the card device to cease functioning, to prevent fraudulent activity.
To shed some more light on the challenges that lie ahead, keep in mind that with the shift in credit card fraud liability in November of 2015, merchants who do not support EMV-based (EMV stands for Europay, MasterCard, Visa, which is also known as chip-and-pin) payments would now be held liable for any fraudulent charges, instead of credit card issuers. The conversion will be a slow process, and magnetic stripe cards will be supported in the near future, but this is a real concern for these all-in-one-cards. The adoption of EMV-based payments is in response to the ease with which magnetic stripes can be reprogrammed to clone existing cards (i.e. if a criminal is in possession of your credit card number, they can create a copy of your credit card to use in physical locations). This clearly is at odds with the promise of these all-in-one-cards, as they want to effectively clone credit cards for consumer use.
Coin has managed to get past some PR missteps, and is working to ship its second-gen product, which adds NFC support, in an effort to stay relevant with the move to EMV-based payments. One of my initial concerns with Coin was the use of a non-replaceable, non-rechargeable battery, which is still the case. The battery is projected to last 2 years under normal use, after which a replacement must be ordered. The maximum number of cards that can be stored is 8, which is lower than others, but may not be a problem depending on how prolific your credit card portfolio is.
A lot can change in two years. Whereas Coin was the only product of its kind at the end of 2013, there are currently a handful of other products that are attempting to tackle the same problem of card consolidation, in similar ways. I narrowed down the contenders to Plastc and Swyp, as these companies are actively accepting orders, and have a path forward for handling the shift to EMV-based payments.
By far, Plastc has received the most buzz, namely due to its e-ink touchscreen display. Consumers love visuals, and Plastc is able to display the card logo and various other graphics, as well as allowing for card unlocking via direct interaction with the card’s screen. Another welcome feature is the rechargeable battery, which lasts up to 30 days on a single charge, and future support for NFC and EMV (the card ships with programmable NFC and EMV chips). All of this comes at a price, as Plastc is the priciest of the bunch, and has already suffered from several production delays.
Credit cards are plastic and can crack or chip after numerous swipes. This is the idea behind Swyp and their creation of a metal card. Similar to Coin, there are physical buttons on the card device that allow for the selection of the active card. A programmable EMV chip is included, though there are no plans for NFC support. The rechargeable battery has a long battery life at 1 year, and Swyp is also the most wallet-friendly from a pricing perspective. There are the usual production delays, but the main concern involves the programmable EMV chip and obtaining bank buy-in; this seems to be more difficult with the less-popular Swyp.
Security is a big concern for financial institutions these days, and these card devices are no exception (in fact, security is probably even more of a concern). Coin and Plastc are PCI-compliant, which means they implement and meet specific, industry-wide security standards instituted by a consortium of financial institutions. Swyp is said to be working toward being PCI-compliance.
The encryption details for Swyp are somewhat ambiguous (maybe another con for Swyp), while Coin and Plastc utilize 256-bit encryption for storing card information on the paired mobile device, double-encryption when transferring this information over BLE to the card device, and take advantage of BLE’s random addressing. What this means is that credit card information is never stored on a server in the cloud somewhere, and the encrypted card information on the mobile device is protected (and can be potentially remote-wiped) in the event the device is stolen. This feature also applies to Plastc, as the card itself supports remote-wiping, which is a nice addition.
Conclusion and Final Thoughts
As can be seen above, the newer cards (Plastc and Swyp) definitely have Coin beat in terms of features. Specifically, the rechargeable battery, increased card limit, and EMV support are quite convincing. Coin is banking on NFC payments (i.e. Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay), which I have my doubts about in terms of widespread and universal adoption. At the very least, it will take some time for this payment method to gain traction and be ubiquitous. Coin seems to be a great option for the present, but I am afraid that NFC payments may not be popular enough by the time magnetic stripe payments are eliminated.
On paper, Swyp seems to be the frontrunner, due to its low price, durable material, and general feature set. The main concern with Swyp is that it is relying solely on EMV for the future. This requires the buy-in of the major financial institutions, as EMV is designed to prevent card replication and emulation. Swyp has the smallest user base of the 3 companies (and apparently the least number of customer updates, which worries me), and I am more confident that Plastc will be able to strike up the necessary partnerships, due to its popularity, activity, and clout. It also has NFC to fall back on, and seems to be the most future-friendly. For these reasons, I have decided to choose Plastc over Swyp.
Shameless plug: Pre-orders for Plastc end April 2016. If you use this link, you get $20 off your order, and I get a $20 Amazon gift card; everybody wins!