First Click: A month with Apple Watch as my wallet

March 15th, 2016


It all started when I left my house without my wallet. I had ventured out to grab some lunch with no cash or cards to pay for it, only my iPhone or Apple Watch. I've used Apple Pay on my iPhone and Watch before, but this was the first time it was actually useful. I paid for a sandwich at my local store with my Watch, and thought nothing more of it.

Unlike the US, Britain has widely adopted contactless payments, and most bank cards have the technology enabled by default. Big retailers accept payments up to £30 ($42) by simply placing your card on a reader. There's no need for a signature or PIN code, you just touch and you're done. Here in London, we can even use contactless cards or Apple Pay to travel on buses and trains. My brief lack of wallet got me thinking, could I rely on an Apple Watch to replace my cash and cards?

I've been using my Apple Watch for the majority of my card payments over the past few months, and it has been a lesson in the future, frustration, society, and technology. The first time I used my Apple Watch to catch a bus I felt like a dick. That's largely because I could hear someone mutter "dick" after I awkwardly swiped my wrist at the reader, and also because people were confused and amazed by seeing someone use a watch to pay. You feel like that guy with a red Ferrari revving it at the lights, when all you're trying to do is quickly get on a bus and secretly touch your watch on the reader while everyone is looking at you. It's a feeling I had to get over to continue my experiment.

"Is that one of those iWatch thingies?" is a common question from those who have noticed you're using a watch for payments. I've had people stop me and ask questions when I'm boarding a plane, travelling on the subway, or simply just buying some chewing gum. It's a good reminder that it's not normal to use your watch to pay for things, and that most people have never seen an Apple Watch. It's still the future for many.

Apple Pay Watch

To most people the Apple Watch is Penny's magical watch from Inspector Gadget. Apple Pay is far from magical, though. It reminds me of Kinect. I shout at my TV on a daily basis to switch channels because when it works it's great, but when it fails it's frustrating. When Apple Pay works well on the Watch it's great, but when it fails it's embarrassing and frustrating. I've been using it almost daily and I've run into a number of issues along the way that make me hesitant to use it more often. Sometimes I get a message saying the card isn't ready or couldn't be activated, and other times I've double-tapped the button to activate Apple Pay and it simply brings up the contacts screen. Both of these failures aren't ideal when you're trying to navigate a subway entry without angering hundreds of commuters behind you and feeling like the ultimate tourist.

There are other practical issues with using Apple Pay for everything. Occasionally my jacket sleeve will block payments, or the reader is in an awkward place for your wrist. Most big retailers in the UK have support for contactless payments and Apple Pay, but some actually disable it. If you're shopping in London then the chances of contactless are almost guaranteed, but if you venture further out then retailers might have older readers that don't even support Apple Pay.

Using the Apple Watch can be embarrassing

That introduces a friction where you always have to ask whether someone supports contactless, or look at your watch and hint you're trying to pay with that. I've confused many store assistants by trying to pay with my Watch, and embarrassed myself in the process.

Some of these issues aren't things Apple can fix itself, but there's room for improvement on the software side. While there is a clear Apple Pay transaction history on the iPhone, nothing exists for the Apple Watch. You'll get a notification that a payment has been processed, but then it disappears forever. Sometimes I've been charged twice and had to call my bank to refund me, but I have no locally stored history to rely on. Another drawback when using it for travel in London is the inability to use Apple Watch on both the Watch and iPhone to complete journeys. If I start a journey with my Watch I have to complete it with my Watch — same with the iPhone. This is largely because of the secure and separate nature of the way cards are set up in Apple Pay, but I'd still like to see some better communication between the two devices.

The Apple Watch truly feels like the future when it works. It reminds me of when I used to walk around with a PalmPilot or an early Windows Mobile device reading my email on the go. Everyone looked at you like you were crazy, but you knew they were living in the past. When my hands aren't free and I'm rushing to catch a train it's the ultimate convenience that actually saves me time, but when it fails it's the ultimate pain. I feel like I'm beta testing it for Apple.

I'll still use it every week to board my train and places where I know it works, but I'm going to wait until it's truly the future to use it everywhere else.

Verge Reviews: The Apple Watch

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