Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with power reserve on iPhone XR and iPhone XS

iPhone XR and iPhone XS both have the A12 Bionic powered “Express Cards with power reserve” feature. This feature can be used with FeliCa based Suica and Student ID cards, and China Transit Beijing and Shanghai transit cards. Another bonus of using Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XR and iPhone XS is that A12 Bionic bulletproofed Apple Pay Suica performance is so much better than all other devices.

Engadget JP reporter Takahiro Koguchi did the duty of running his iPhone XR test unit down into Express Card power reserve mode and running it through a transit gate. It works great. I wonder how many hours of Pokemon play it took Koguchi san to run into power reserve mode with the longer battery life of iPhone XR? Even on iPhone XS at 35% battery it took me 2 hours of Pokemon and 4 cups of Beck’s coffee until power reserve mode kicked in.

I covered the iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with power reserve feature in my earlier video. If anything the shorter battery life of iPhone XS means that Express Cards with power reserve might actually come in handy as Apple Pay Suica still works for transit, purchase and cash recharge for up to 5 hours.

Come to think of it the new 7-Eleven ATM Suica cash recharge service might actually work better/faster with Apple Pay Suica Express Card in power reserve mode as the pesky and unnecessary Touch ID/Face ID step is removed. If I have a day of Pokemon and Beck’s coffee to run my iPhone XS battery down and try it out, I’ll let you know.

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Global FeliCa vs Galapagos Syndrome QR Codes

Back in the pre-iPhone era Japanese manufactures were busy churning out internet connected, e-wallet capable handsets with high quality cameras (for that time) that most of the western IT media pooh-poohed: ‘nobody needs all that fancy stuff’.

Unfortunately the Japanese IT media paid way too much attention to it all endlessly handwringing over the Galapagos Syndrome of Japanese technology that nobody seemed to need or want. Worse than that, people actually bought the media con. Then something strange happened in 2016 when Apple unveiled FeliCa Apple Pay and went global with it in 2017.

Google is now following the same path with a FeliCa Pixel 3 in Japan. Why would Apple and Google do that if FeliCa was stranded in the Galapagos? There is business value there, otherwise they would not be spending resources to do it. Most of the Japanese IT media has ignored this fascinating turn of events, focusing instead on the new darling of manufactured “QR Code mania” payment platforms: AliPay, Origami Pay, Docomo d-PAY (d-HARAI), Line PayRakuten Pay, Pay Pay. The merits are dubious:

Demerits of OR Code Payments

  • QR requires a good network connection
  • Slow transaction speed
  • Weak Security and QR Code Chinese payment apps keep transaction records in Mainland China
  • Device needs be on and screen active
  • No ‘on the spot’ refunds

Merits of FeliCa (NFC-F) Payments

  • Works without network connection
  • Very fast transactions
  • High security and transaction records stay in Japan
  • Device can be in battery reserve mode sleep or screen off
  • On the spot refunds

Fortunately there is one Japanese journalist who is calling it: Masahiro Sano. Sano san’s latest piece on Nikkei notes the irony of Japanese companies falling over each other to roll out useless redundant QR Code platforms because QR Codes are “standard in China” (and nowhere else), while Apple and Google are deploying FeliCa as one more standard checklist item on their digital wallet platforms.

Fake QR Code payment mania confuses customers. Put another way QR Code payment platform apps are about de-centralizing the digital wallet into an ever-growing collection of apps while Apple Pay and Google Pay are about centralizing different technologies into a unified and smooth user experience for payments, tickets, IDs, reward cards and more. Which approach do you think will win in the long run?

Sano san thinks QR Code payment platforms in Japan are not about public demand or customers actually using them. They’re just a fad that will fade and eventually be shipped off to the Galapagos. I think he is right. The evidence so far certainly backs him up.

A12 Bionic Bulletproofed Apple Pay Suica

Anybody reading this blog is undoubtably confused by the endless discussion of Apple Pay Suica errors and problems. Here is some explanation to help you understand them and how A12 Bionic in iPhone XS and iPhone XR solves them.

Apple Pay Suica problems are not problems with FeliCa technology. The problems are caused by the way Apple implements FeliCa technology on their hardware. Instead of using a real FeliCa chip from Sony, Apple created a virtual FeliCa chip on the A-Series chip with per device unique keys licensed from FeliCa Networks.

Apple’s custom implementation of FeliCa on the Apple Pay platform is clever and cost-effective in many ways but there are downsides:

  • iOS/watch OS has to be running for Apple Pay Suica to work. Japanese Android devices with FeliCa chips can still use Suica when the battery runs down.
  • Different iOS/watchOS versions affect Apple Pay Suica performance in good ways, and bad ways.

Apple Pay Suica Express Card Software Problems
Wireless radio technology like NFC, WiFi, Bluetooth and cellular is a delicate balance of software and hardware that often seems like a black art. A small code tweak or tiniest hardware flaw can easily upset the balance and wreak havoc. Remember the ‘you’re holding it wrong’ iPhone 4 anntenagate crisis? Like that.

Occasional iOS versions have caused Apple Pay Suica Express Card performance problems:

  • The iOS 10.1 Apple Pay Suica debut release worked pretty well but occasionally tripped up at transit gates, slamming them shut and forcing a re-read. By iOS 10.3 Apple Pay Suica performance was great.
  • The Apple Pay Cash iOS 11.2 release made life miserable for all Apple Pay Suica users. Apple fixed it with the iOS 11.2.5 update.

iOS Suica Express Performance Timeline

iOS Suica Express Performance Timeline 2

It’s happening again with the iOS 12.0/iOS 5.0 debut release. iPhone 8, Revision B iPhone X, Apple Watch 3/4 users are experiencing unresponsive Express Cards or just good old error flicker (Suica error correction algorithms on JR East transit gates are truly amazing BTW). Apple iOS engineers are on it and Apple Pay Suica performance bug fixes are due in the iOS 12.1 update.

Express Card Power Reserve Mode
Express Card power reserve mode on iPhone XS and iPhone XR lasts up to 5 hours. You can use it for transit, recharge and purchase.

The A12 Bionic Difference
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. iPhone XR/XS users do not have Suica problems on iOS 12 thanks to the new A12 Bionic architecture and Secure Enclave that powers Express Cards with power reserve. Here is what we know so far:

The superior performance of Apple Pay Suica on iPhone XR/XS suggests that the A12 Secure Enclave and Secure Element layer loads FeliCa keys and code and uses them not only in power reserve mode but also for regular mode Express card operation completely removing all the iOS overhead and interaction for basic Suica operations. It is much closer to how a Suica smartcard works. This makes iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica ‘bulletproof’ to any given iOS version. It just works, even when the battery runs down.

Apple Watch Series 4 still uses the ‘OS has to be running scheme’ as the Apple S4 does not support Express Cards with power reserve. I think the Apple Chip design team must be working on a S-Series chip that will have the same features of the A12 Bionic Secure Enclave and Secure Element architecture. Express Cards with power reserve and bulletproof Suica will be a great selling points for Apple Watch in Japan when it arrives.

Most of this explanation is about FeliCa and Apple Pay Suica but the same methods can be used for all other middleware stacks: Express Cards with power reserve work with Apple Pay Transit in China.

The iPhone X Suica Problem
Last but not least there is the iPhone X Suica problem which I have covered extensively over the past year and is causing new headaches and confusion as iPhone X users run into new problems after updating to iOS 12.0. This is a completely different beast from all of the above, a unique and rare Apple failure unrelated to iOS or A-Series Secure Enclave architecture. The iPhone X Suica problem is a NFC hardware problem with iPhone X units manufactured before April 2018 and is fixed in Revision B iPhone X units manufactured after that date. Exchanging a problem iPhone X unit is the only way to resolve the problem. Unfortunately Apple is making exchanges very difficult for iPhone X customers with problem devices who need help. I hope Apple will come its senses and issue a repair program for iPhone X customers who really need Apple’s help.

iPhone XS Japan Exclusives: Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with power reserve, 4×4 MIMO LAA

Docomo 4x4 MIMO
Docomo 4×4 MIMO Premium 4G advertises top download speeds approaching 1GB

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.

For comparison iPhone 8/X were originally rated for download speeds of up to 500Mpbs on Docomo Premium 4G with 3CC Carrier Aggregation (CA). An interesting side note is that the Apple Japan specs page originally published the iPhone 8/X top download speed as 800Mpbs then changed it to 500Mpbs.

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.

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.

Express Card Power Reserve Mode
Express Card power reserve mode on iPhone XS and iPhone XR lasts up to 5 hours. You can use it for transit, recharge and purchase.

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
  • Express Cards with power reserve in battery reserve mode only last up to 5 hours.  The updated Using Suica on iPhone or Apple Watch in Japan states:

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.

Summary
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.

By the way, does anybody want a slightly used Revision B iPhone X?

Update: sold, here are a few tips if you want to sell a used JP model iPhone X in Japan

Express Cards with power reserve reveal Apple global FeliCa strategy

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.

Update: a review of iPhone XS Apple Pay Suica Express Cards with power reserve