The iCache Geode

A while back when writing about my Kickstarter happiness rating being 40%, I mentioned I was hopeful for the future and listed projects I had backed which had not shipped, among which was the iCache Geode. I described it thusly:

Geode from iCache is a dream I’ve had for years, potentially fulfilled at long last. If this thing works as well as they depict it, goodbye wallet.

Three months later and the Geode is in my hands. It was with great excitement that I unpackaged, configured and crammed my phone into it today and then I headed out into the world to see if it could truly replace my wallet. Unfortunately, my results were less than stellar. The iCache Geode is a great idea and a decently made product that simply doesn’t deliver on its concept. That, and it might just be a hugely dangerous object to be selling to the public.

geode.png

 The Hardware

It’s decently made, but boy is it big, bulky and heavy. It makes the iPhone 4 twice as thick at least, and about three times heavier. It felt like it was weighing my jeans down and it fit snuggly in my back pocket. It’s not hideous but it’s not all that attractive–it’s a big, black box. The back is a little nicer because of the e-ink screen and the Geode card sticking out, but it still looks many orders of magnitude less sleek than the iPhone itself.

Getting the iPhone into/out of the case is a bit laborious because of the rubber inside, so it’s not something you’d want to do over and over on a daily basis. Unfortunately, because it’s so big and heavy with the case on you’re probably going to want to do just that every day. I wouldn’t want to use the iPhone in my home office with it inside the Geode case–it feels quite silly.

Generally, the hardware seems to work. My card reader worked and the Geode programmable card seems to take an imprint. One weird thing I wasn’t expecting: When you imprint a credit card to the Geode card you have to whack the card to enable it and the card will then flash a small LED. Because of this extra technology, the Geode card is noticeably thicker than a standard credit card (which lead to issues as you’ll see below). It’s also very strange. I’m not sure why this is necessary technically, I just know it’s one additional strange step you have to take when trying to pay with the Geode.

The iCache Geode is meant to replace your wallet, but it’s missing one key feature necessary to do so: A place to hold your driver’s license/ID.

 The Software

It gets the job done, and it feels mostly bug-free. I’ve seen lots of complaints in the App Store, but those appear to be mostly hardware-issue-related. It’s a fairly pretty app and it makes it very easy to add new cards, manage existing cards and choose cards to imprint. The biggest problem is this whole process isn’t terribly speedy–if you’re in a checkout line you must open the Geode app, choose a card, imprint it (and wait for the imprint to happen), remove your Geode card and whack it before you can pay. Suggestion: Start doing this as soon as they start ringing you up, because it took around 30+ seconds on average for me from start to finish.

 Real-World Failures (and Minor Successes)

I ran several errands this afternoon and tried to use the Geode for all of them. I brought my wallet with me just in case, and I’m glad I did because I had nothing but problems:

Petco

The customer-facing card reader wouldn’t read the Geode card no matter how I swiped it. It always registered a specific error message. The clerk tried to swipe it herself on the register card reader without luck. Paid with the real card because the line behind me was long and I felt bad wasting everyone’s time.

Bank of America

I tried to use the Geode card at the ATM, but the machine wouldn’t accept the card at all. Because the Geode card is slightly thicker than a standard credit card, it seems the ATM knew and wouldn’t let it in. After failing at the ATM, I used the Geode card at the counter and it worked (Bank of America’s system is to have customers swipe their cards through a reader at the counter and enter their PINs). The first swipe was successful, although the customer service person was very uncomfortable. He asked what kind of card it was, if it was an official BoA card, and where I got it. He seemed to think I was running some sort of scam. But it worked. Unfortunately, this means with Geode you can never use an ATM (or, at least, BoA ATMs).

Best Buy

Ten swipes on the customer-facing card reader, all failures. The clerk then swiped an additional ten times on his register without success. But he had heard of the iCache Geode before and was excited to see it work, so he tried twice more–very slowly–and the second time it worked. I got excited. Perhaps the other issues were flukes? Then he looked at the card and asked, “Wait, how do I get the CCV?” I told him I had it and I could tell him. He said that should be fine, although normally they must see it themselves on the actual card. This is something I feared since many companies require verifying the CCV of American Express cards at point-of-sale.

Walgreens

Customer-facing card reader seemed to swipe successfully but the clerk reported the register claimed an error trying to process the payment each time. He tried swiping it and had the same problem–the swipe worked but the card wouldn’t successfully complete the transaction. Had to use the real card again.

Yuko Kitchen

A small Japanese restaurant near our apartment that I love and proceeded to annoy trying to get the Geode card to work in their little credit card machine. The waitress tried about ten swipes without luck (nondescript error each time), after which I re-imprinted the card and asked her to try it very slowly. No dice. Had to use my real card again (and apologize).

Five stops, one success (Best Buy) and one partial success (Bank of America). That’s about 20%. If I had left my wallet at home I wouldn’t have been able to get anything done.

I’d love to say I know these issues can be worked out with software and firmware updates, but I have no idea. The Geode card itself is thicker, contains more electronics than any other credit card (LEDs and such) so it seems very complex and, honestly, sketchy.

The iCache Geode has a fingerprint scanner, so your credit card information is relatively safe. If someone stole your phone they wouldn’t be able to get into the Geode app to read your data without your prints (or, at least, not easily–I’m not a security expert so I’m not sure how hard it would be to crack the Geode app).

The real security issue is the iCache Geode comes bundled with a credit card reader (a small USB hardware dongle you attach to the case which has a slot to read from magnetic card swipes) which digitizes credit cards instantly. It’s great for setup purposes: You swipe each card in your wallet and you’re done. Consumers having easy access to a credit card reader is not a new thing–Square and the like have been shipping them for years now. But there is one key difference making the iCache Geode much scarier: It contains an imprinting system that can effectively masquerade as any credit card.

Unlike Square, where swiping a card only gives you the account number, Geode can be used to read and clone any credit card nearly instantly. Imagine giving your credit card at a restaurant to a waiter who walks into the back, takes out his Geode and scans your card. He now has a real, usable, cloned version of your credit card. He can walk into any store and imprint his Geode card with yours at point of sale and use it (assuming he actually gets it to work). Frankly, I’m surprised the iCache Geode is legal to sell in the United States. It could effectively be used as a skimming and cloning system. The price point of the iCache Geode is low enough that nearly anyone could afford to buy it and go around cloning credit cards.

Then again, the Geode card works so poorly at this point we don’t have much to worry about.

 
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