Update: a longtime reader reached out saying I had gone a little too far: dropping iPhone X from the lineup is just simplifying things, nothing more. He has a point. Whatever the reason for iPhone X being dropped from the Suica lineup, I was angry from reading too many Japanese tweets about the new iOS 12 iPhone X Suica issues and anger is never a productive mood to write from. There are many hard working people at Apple who do their best to help customers. There are many iPhone X customers in Japan who need Apple’s help. I hope all the iPhone X NFC problems can all be resolved successfully for everyone.
Poor iPhone X Suica users. No sooner did they finally fix iPhone X Suica hardware problems by getting a Revision B iPhone exchange when the iOS 12 update set them back. Here we go again.
This time it really is software with iPhone X Apple Pay Suica Express Card sometimes unresponsive and Apple Pay demanding a Passcode/Face ID unlock at transit gates, or just good old error flicker. Users with Rev-B iPhone X devices say they didn’t have these problems with iOS 11.4.1.
This kind of thing has happened before: the Apple Pay Japan debut iOS 10.1 release for iPhone 7 had transit gate teething problems and the iOS 11.2 Apple Pay Cash debut release made life miserable for all Apple Pay Suica users regardless of iPhone model.
This kind of Suica, “iOS loves me, iOS loves me not” version by version game is a consequence of Apple requiring iOS to operate Suica on pre-A12 Bionic devices. As my iPhone XS review makes clear, essential Suica operations run on A12 Bionic without iOS. This makes iPhone XS and iPhone XR Apple Pay Suica ‘bulletproof’ to any given iOS version. It just works, even when the battery runs down.
As one Japanese user complained on Twitter last night, “Is this (iOS 12 Suica) problem just an Apple ploy to get us to upgrade to iPhone XS?”
That’s not exactly the sound of a satisfied Apple customer eager to upgrade to a new iPhone. This years iPhone launch day was very quiet in Japan. Apple had better get cracking on fixing problems here if they value Japanese customers and want to keep them. These days Apple seems to take Japan completely for granted.
Apple updated Apple Pay eligible device information and Suica information with the release of iPhone XS today. It’s really boring to know that iPhone XS, iPhone XR and Apple Watch Series 4 are Global FeliCa just like previous generation devices, boring in a nice predictable way. It’s really just Apple Pay now. It just works, that’s all customers need to know.
iPhone XS has 4×4 MIMO as well as Express Card with power reserve
iPhone XR lacks support for 4×4 MIMO but has Express Card with power reserve
This is a quick review of 2 iPhone XS features that Apple lists for Japan: Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with power reserve and 4×4 MIMO LAA enhanced Gigabit Class LTE. iPhone XR has A12 Bionic powered Express Cards with power reserve but lacks 4×4 MIMO LAA. LAA (License Assisted Access) is a new carrier aggregation LTE Advanced Pro technology. The ‘big three’ Japanese carriers: NTT Docomo, KDDI au and SoftBank all offer fast premium 4G LTE service with 4×4 MIMO (multiple in-multiple out) but according to cellular super otaku site Gadget and Radio, LAA isn’t deployed in Japan yet. Carrier advertised 4×4 MIMO top download speeds for iPhone range from 612Mbps (SoftBank), 818Mbps (KDDI) to 844Mbps (Docomo). iPhone network speeds have always been rated a little slower than Japanese carrier Android smartphone speeds. Let’s find out what has changed with iPhone XS.
The current Docomo Premium 4G network speed map shows Android download speeds topping out at 988Mbps and iPhone topping out at 844Mbps. Docomo only started rolling out these 4×4 MIMO enhanced top speeds from May 2018.
Docomo Premium 4G speed map for iPhone and iPad
Docomo Premium 4G speed map for Android
For this quick review I test compared Docomo iPhone X and Docomo iPhone XS performance in the Asagaya area of Tokyo. Test points 1 and 2 are in the yellow area (700Mbps～250Mbps), test point 3 is in the red area (844Mbps～738Mbps)
Test Point 1 Home (average of 3 test speeds)
iPhone X: 73Mbps
iPhone XS: 106Mbps
Test Point 2 JR Asagaya Station 2F gate area (average of 3 test speeds)
iPhone X: 51Mbps
iPhone XS: 51Mbps
Test Point 3 Suginami City Hall (average of 3 test speeds)
iPhone X: 134Mbps
iPhone XS: 173Mbps
Additional spot testing in other 4×4 MIMO 4G areas in Ikebukuro, Takdanobaba and Shinjuku had similar results and speeds but were inconclusive.
As you can see iPhone XS 4×4 MIMO 4G network speeds blows iPhone X away…not. In the top speed areas iPhone XS definitely feels zippy and it should get much faster over time as Docomo and the other carriers build out 4×4 MIMO 4G LTE enhanced network coverage and start to deploy LAA. As with all things connected with network speed there are just too many variables: technology deployment, cell tower placement, local conditions and crowds of people with smartphones. 4×4 MIMO LAA is great to have going forward but at this point it’s not a sales point that interests me.
Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with reserve power A12 Bionic in iPhone XS and XR powers new Express Cards with power reserve NFC feature. This kind of feature has long been on Japanese Osaifu-Keitai Android smartphones which have dedicated Sony FeliCa chips. Apple has a ‘virtual FeliCa’ implemented on their A-Series but the down side was that iOS had to be up and running and could not match Osaifu-Keitai. A12 Bionic has a new low power state that now allows virtual FeliCa to work without iOS up and running, finally matching FeliCa on Android. There are some conditions:
Express Cards with power reserve only work when the iPhone XS/XR battery runs down and iPhone puts itself into ‘battery reserve mode’. Express Cards with power reserve doesn’t work if you turn off iPhone manually or if Face ID has been deactivated
On iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, Express Cards with power reserve is available for up to five hours when your iPhone needs to be charged. You can press the side button to check if Express Cards are available when your iPhone needs to be charged. Doing this often may significantly reduce the power reserve for Express Cards. If you choose to power off your iPhone, this feature will not be available.
There are some surprises: in addition to transit, you can recharge Suica with cash and you can purchase things. iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica with power reserve Express Transit behaves just like a plastic Suica card for up to 5 hours. Here is quick video of iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica Express Transit with reserve power performance in the field.
Suica purchase and recharge in addition to transit are very handy when you are in a power pinch and need to pick up something on the way home from the station. Students with the new Student ID Cards may be able to do more than just go through door locks with power reserve, at least within the 5 hour reserve battery mode.
iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance
This is subjective as I have to go by gut feeling in lieu of actual measurements. FeliCa is very fast: NFC-F response speed is about 50 milliseconds (ms), JR East transit gate transaction speed is stated as “within 200ms” but actual speed is closer to 100ms.
Apple Pay Suica works great but never seems to match the magic bulletproof performance of a plastic Suica card. Maybe it is the iOS overhead. Maybe it is the occasional iPhone screen lag showing the Suica card and ‘Done’ check mark that fools the brain into thinking iPhone transaction speed is slow when it’s not. But there are definitely times when the ‘good to go’ blue transit gate light is a little slow with iPhone 7 and iPhone X. In my experience PASMO transit gates exhibit this occasionally but not JR East transit gates.
I compared Apple Pay performance on iPhone XS and Revision B iPhone X both running iOS 12 (16A366) with plastic Suica. Bear in mind this is subjective and based on limited testing, your experience may be different:
JR East Transit Gates (Asagaya, Koenji, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro)
Plastic Suica: A+
iPhone XS: A
iPhone X (Rev-B): A-
PASMO Transit Gates (Ogikubo, Asagaya Minami, Higashi Koenji, Shinjuku)
Plastic Suica: A+
iPhone XS: A
iPhone X (Rev-B): B+
iPhone X (Rev-B) is usually snappy but occasionally feels a little slow on PASMO transit gates. A12 Bionic powered NFC definitely gives iPhone XS an edge over Apple Pay Suica on other devices. It’s very close to a plastic Suica and performed like a champ with all the different transit configurations I threw at it. Suica essentials run on A12 Bionic without iOS. This removes iOS overhead from Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XS and makes all the difference. Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XS A12 Bionic powered NFC is finally ‘bulletproof’, and the Express Card power reserve feature knocks iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance out of the park.
iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with power reserve and 4×4 MIMO enhanced Gigabit Class LTE are only small parts of a much bigger picture and only have meaning for iPhone users in Japan. 4×4 MIMO network coverage, like all network technology, is a work in progress. It’s nice to have with great potential as Japanese carriers roll out extensive 4×4 MIMO network coverage, which is happening quickly, but it’s not an upgrade must have item at this point in time. 4×4 MIMO LAA is an investment in the future.
Express Cards with power reserve is a very nice feature for the here and now and a ‘must have’ for some users. It’s a big stress relief for Suica road warriors and surprisingly flexible. iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance is bulletproof and the best I have experienced on iPhone to date, with absolutely none of the iPhone X NFC problem nonsense. Taken together, iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance with power reserve Express Cards is worth the upgrade if Apple Pay Suica is important to you.
This is a dilemma for iPhone X users in Japan who have yet to obtain a Revision B iPhone X exchange for problem iPhone X devices: to upgrade or not to upgrade. There might be some incentive to upgrade if your carrier offers a good trade-in price for your iPhone X, the iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica performance is a huge step up from a problem iPhone X device.
If you don’t choose the upgrade option and have a problem iPhone X, be sure to exchange it for a Rev-B iPhone X as it is easier to do in Japan than anywhere else. You can certainly live with a Rev-B iPhone X for a while. I feel sorry for university kids with FeliCa powered Student ID Cards on iPhone X in America when they start noticing how wonky iPhone X NFC performance really is: under the current Apple support internal guideline they are not eligible to exchange for a problem free Rev-B iPhone device.
Westerns were a little perplexed in 2016 when Apple unveiled FeliCa Apple Pay but only on the Japanese model iPhone 7 and Apple Watch Series 2. Industry experts assumed that the credit card consortium created EMV contactless standard would conquer everything NFC and that FeliCa was non-standard and headed for oblivion. Why would Apple go to all that trouble if FeliCa was headed for the scrape heap?
In 2017 Apple quietly incorporated global FeliCa into all iPhone 8, iPhone X and Apple Watch Series 3 models. Anybody with those devices could add Suica to Apple Pay and enjoy cutting edge contactless transit and payments while visiting Japan. Global FeliCa is something that Android still hasn’t come up with.
And now in 2018 Apple has added Express Cards with power reserve that work with Apple Pay Transit Express cards in Japan and China, and Student ID Cards in America. The interesting thing is that outside of China, all Express cards with power reserve are FeliCa NFC-F. An unexpected twist in an unexpected story. Blackboard is working with Apple to deliver Contactless Student ID Cards to Duke, Oklahoma, Alabama, John Hopkins and Temple.
What I find fascinating is how Apple lists the new A12 Bionic powered Express Card feature. At first Apple limited mention of Express Cards with reserve power to iPhone XS/XR spec pages in just a few countries but later updated it to pretty much every market (Apple Canada for some reason omits it for XS but lists it for XR, a glitch?). Apple didn’t do that for the 2017 global FeliCa rollout. It only mentioned the feature on their Japan site.
If Express Cards with power reserve can only be used in China, Japan and a few universities in America, why list the feature everywhere? Is it just marketing, or is it something else? I’ll go with something else. Maybe not now, or even this year, but more Express Cards with power reserve for transit and ID cards are coming to more places.
Apple obviously saw more strategic long-term value in adding the FeliCa middleware stack to iOS first rather than MIFARE which powers a lot of transit card systems around the world. TfL Oyster may be big but Suica is Godzilla with e-money attached. Add China Transit into the mix and Apple’s strategy is clear: transaction volume. Apple Pay credit cards recharging all those stored value Express Cards in China, Japan and American universities is what Apple is really after. It’s a well-defined and enriching technology bundle that Apple can spread to other markets and segments, an intriguing mix of transit and higher education.
Apple’s global vision is also unmatched by the competition. Samsung Pay for example isn’t available in Japan simply because Samsung want to make more money selling Galaxy as a JP carrier locked Osaifu-Keitai premium device. The Google Pay Japan flop was also because Google wants to promote Android as a premium JP carrier locked device. Samsung and Google strangle their own children for money and market share.
Apple’s focused long-term strategy and global vision for Apple Pay and all things NFC remains a very intriguing one. I think it’s going to be another interesting year.