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Candy, cabs, and socks: using Apple Pay in the real world

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We put Apple's new mobile payments system to the test in New York City

Yesterday, Apple released iOS 8.1, and along with it, the company’s new mobile payments service. Apple Pay isn’t the first of its kind — we’ve seen options from Google and others for years. But it is the first one that works natively on the iPhone, and so we installed it on an iPhone 6 and spent the afternoon trying to find out what we could and couldn't buy with it.

Getting set up on Apple Pay is really easy: once you've installed iOS 8.1 on an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, you have to add your credit cards to the service. Right now, Apple is supporting Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, in addition to a handful of national banks. If you have a smaller local bank or credit union, chances are you’re out of luck, but Apple says 500 more banks will be on board by early next year.

Adding cards to Apple Pay couldn't be easier

Adding your card is a simple as taking a picture of the front of it — the iPhone’s camera will grab your card number and expiration date automatically. You just confirm the information and add the security code from the back of the card and you’re off and running. We had no trouble adding two cards from Citibank, but our Bank of America card required a quick call to customer service to get it added.

Apple says there are 220,000 stores and retailers supporting Apple Pay right now, but it can be harder to find places to use it than you might think. Here in New York City, we couldn’t buy trinkets at a pop up stand, a hot dog from a cart, or a pack of gum at a newsstand.

But if we went to one of Apple’s launch partners, such as a Duane Reade drugstore or Macy’s, buying something is as simple as holding the iPhone 6 in front of the credit card terminal and using our thumb to authenticate the purchase. It worked as Apple advertised and it really wasn’t too different from the demo we were given at Apple last week. We were even able to pay for our cab ride down to the Macy’s store with our iPhone. Compared to other mobile payments systems, such as Google Wallet, Apple Pay is faster and more seamless — you don't have to open an app, enter a PIN, or even turn the phone on. You just wave it in front of the pay terminal and authenticate with the Touch ID button.

Compared to other mobile payments systems, Apple Pay is faster and more seamless

Credit card security has been a hot button topic of late, with countless retailers being hacked for the personal data they store. With Apple Pay, the credit card data and fingerprint authentication are stored on a secure chip on the iPhone itself, making it much harder for a hacker to access personal information, at least in theory. Your name, credit card number, or security code are never shown to the retailer where you are shopping. We’ll have to see if Apple Pay does make a difference in credit card security — if so, it could be the most revolutionary part of the whole platform.

We had some success and some failures trying to use Apple Pay on launch day in New York City, arguably one of the most commercial cities in the world, but for the most part, it worked as Apple has said it would. Though it is very simple to use and a pleasant experience, it’s not hugely different from the mobile payments systems we’ve seen before. And since there are many places where you still can't use mobile payments, we won't be leaving our wallets home anytime soon. But with Apple Pay being the first — and only — one to work natively on the iPhone, it has the potential to be the most useful to the most number of people.