All-in-one digital cards: Can they really replace your plastic?

plastc_cardMobile wallets like Apple Pay and Google Wallet are intriguing, but most of the places you shop still want you to swipe a card. That’s where all-in-one digital cards such as Coin, Plastc (pictured to the right), Stratos, Swyp and Wocket come in: You can load all your cards into an app on your phone — and then transfer them to a digital card with a magnetic stripe that actually swipes. August 2015 Update: Coin announced in August 2015 that it would be rolling out Coin 2.0, which allows for contactless NFC payments, just like mobile phone wallets.

These digital cards come with high price tags and nebulous ship dates, though – and new payment technology is already a possible threat to their relevance. If you’re considering a digital card, compare your options using our chart below. We also asked Ross Rubin, principal analyst at consumer technology consulting firm Reticle Research to help us understand digital cards’ benefits and limitations.

Compare all-in-one digital cards
Number of cards it holds8 on card, unlimited in app20 on card, unlimited in app3 on card, unlimited in app25 on card, unlimited in app10,000 (using physical electronic wallet, which houses the card)
How to add cardsVia mobile app and plug-in card reader Via mobile app and plug-in card readerVia mobile app and plug-in card readerVia mobile app and plug-in card readerCard reader built into the wallet
Ship dateStarted shipping in April 2015. New customers can expect Coin to ship in winter 2015. New shipments will be Version 2.0.Pre-order (estimated shipping date is summer 2015)Pre-order. First orders have shipped, others will be filled on first-come first-served basis.Pre-order (Batch 2 only). Batch 1 will ship in Fall 2015. No estimated ship date for Batch 2.Requires exclusive invite for purchase.
Battery life2 years. Needs to be replaced after battery dies30 days. Can be charged on wireless charging matt.2 years. Membership includes free replacement each year.1 year (assuming 4 swipes/day). Battery is rechargeable, and charger is included with purchase.1 year. Rechargeable.
EMV compatible?No chip, but Version 2.0 has NFC technology that functions as contactless EMV on terminals that accept it.Yes. Also, contactless.NoUpgrade planned for when U.S. market transitions to EMV.No
Security featuresMust enter code if phone isn't nearby.

Phone app will notify you if you leave your card behind.
Phone app will notify you if you leave your card behind.

Remote wipe

Requires PIN
Can set up lock-down if card is away from phone for certain amount of time.Automatically locks when out of range of your phone

Requires PIN when card is locked

Can lock to chosen card when giving card to server at restaurant.
Must be unlocked by passcode or owner's voice.
Cost$100$155$95 per year or $145 for 2 years$99$149

How do digital cards work?

In general, you’ll run your cards through the included card reader, which plugs into your mobile device, to add digital versions of your cards to the app. The only exception is the stand-alone Wocket – instead of plugging a reader into your phone, you’ll run your cards through the reader that’s already built into the physical wallet, which, in turn, houses the Wocket card.

Once you’ve swiped in all your cards, you can tell the app (or, in Wocket’s case, the wallet) which cards you want to have loaded onto the digital card. Each product has limits regarding how many cards you can have accessible at once, but you can use the app to change your line-up anytime. When you make a purchase, you’ll use the card’s buttons or other interface (some digital cards have tiny displays) to select which card you want to use. Your digital card then “becomes” that card for the sake of the purchase. Some digital cards allow you to load membership cards, loyalty cards or even key cards on as well. In some cases, the app will suggest a card for you to use (based on location) to maximize your rewards.

That sounds cool – but aren’t digital cards pretty expensive?

At about $100 and up, the price tag is high for all-in-one cards.

“They are technologically very impressive,” Rubin says. “They have very thin batteries. They have wireless charging in some cases. Some have touch displays. That’s a lot of technology in a little package.”

The cost of those components will likely decrease over time and possibly lower the cost of the cards, Rubin says. But certain consumers (including some of our forum members) will be willing to pay right now.

“Early adopters, people who like the idea of cutting down on the amount of bulk in their wallet, might see real value,” Rubin says.

Digital card companies may have something to offer issuers, too, Rubin says, noting that it might be advantageous for them to form co-branding relationships with banks. Banks could offer digital cards to their high-spending or affluent consumers and, in return, get the opportunity to control the experience in their favor.

“For example, if I get the card directly from Plastc, it’s brand neutral,” Rubin says. “I decide what’s the default. But if a bank gives me a Plastc card, they could brand it, and they could make their card the default while allowing me to put other cards on there.”

What’s the point of these digital cards, when you can use a mobile wallet for free on your phone?

The biggest advantage digital cards have over mobile wallets have is compatibility, Rubin notes. Lots of merchants haven’t yet upgraded their equipment to accept mobile payments — so there’s still an advantage to having a physical card with a magnetic stripe.

Size is another factor. Digital wallets are the same size as a regular credit card. Smartphones, meanwhile, just keep growing.

“With smartphones getting larger with bigger screens, it’s going to be tough to find a pocket to hold that,” Rubin says. “You can just carry the card by itself or in one of the 500 minimalist wallets that have been Kickstarted.”

While many of us carry our phones around no matter how big they are, there are times it might be preferable to leave yours at home – when you go to the beach or pool, for example, Rubin says. It’s worth noting that, unlike your $600 phone, some digital cards are waterproof.

Yet another factor to consider: Apple Pay, for example, currently excludes some payment cards, including some store-branded cards. Digital all-in-one cards, meanwhile, are compatible with any magnetic stripe payment card, meaning you can still use your store cards to rack up coupons and loyalty points.

What weaknesses should I be aware of before dropping $100 or more on a digital card?

Digital cards solve some problems – and create others, including:

  • Limited display: It might seem logical to choose the digital card that lets you queue up the highest number of cards for immediate use.”On the other hand, the more cards you have could mean more challenging navigation,” Rubin says. “All these [digital] cards have extremely limited screen capabilities. It may take a little bit of swiping and button pushing to get to the card you want to use. So it may not be much of an improvement over digging through your wallet.”
  • Battery life: “Battery life is a big issue,” Rubin says. “Much as it’s been an issue for smartwatches. There’s only so much battery you can put in so small a device.”Some cards have to be replaced every couple years when the battery dies. Plastc has a rechargeable battery (and wireless charger), but that may not do you much good if the battery dies away from home.
  • Payment tech changes: The U.S. is gradually converting to EMV chip technology. When the conversion is complete, payment cards will have small microprocessor chips that make it tougher for thieves to steal card data.While some digital cards have plans for implementing this technology, some don’t. Those that don’t will still probably be relevant for a while, however, until the bulk of merchants upgrade their equipment to be accept chip cards.”Obviously, things aren’t going to change overnight,” Rubin says. “[Digital cards] will continue to have some value. They probably have a window of a few years.”

    But the relevance of digital cards isn’t just about whether they have EMV chips. As merchants upgrade their equipment to accept EMV, those new terminals will likely be compatible with NFC contactless payments — the technology behind mobile wallets. At that point, the major advantage digital cards have (the ability to work with older equipment) will disappear.

    “Right now, these cards exist between traditional plastic and smartphones and wearable technologies,” Rubin says. “One of the advantages of these cards is backwards compatibility, and that advantage will likely diminish over time.”

  • Shipping delays: Because the window for digital cards’ usefulness may close in the future, time is of the essence. Problem is, many of those who pre-ordered these products in their Kickstarter infancy have yet to receive them as projected ship dates are continuously moved back. Some companies have shipped a limited number of cards to the very first wave of customers but are vague about future shipment dates.”I don’t think any of them have made their initial projected ship date,” Rubin says.

Updated August 26, 2015

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