Bitcoin in the real world: Using the Coinbase app

Monday 28 April 2014

Coinbase have established a reputation as the ‘PayPal of bitcoin’ thanks to their emphasis on ease of use and their aspiration to become a one-stop-payment-shop for bitcoiners. The site not only allows you to buy and sell bitcoins, but includes a secure wallet service (that is, a separate wallet, unlike the way most exchanges operate) and merchant tools to make integrating bitcoin payments with your website straightforward. Continuing our series of reviews on different wallet apps, is this reputation well-founded when it comes to paying with bitcoins in the real world?

Coinbase basics
CoinbaseSigning up for an account couldn’t be easier. It just takes an email and password. You then receive a verification email (preceded by a slightly sneaky sign-up email for their blog, which you could easily click on thinking it was your verification token, if you weren’t paying attention).

Figuring out your bitcoin address is a bit confusing to start with. Your addresses are hidden away under account Settings (left sidebar) and you’ll have to generate an address to get going – you’re not given one by default. Not only that, but Coinbase create new addresses for each transaction, plus a load more as they move bitcoins to and from cold storage. These addresses stick around forever and can be reused, if you want. It seems like an odd system, but we’ll assume they know what they’re doing for now. When you’ve created a first address, you can transfer bitcoins in – or else buy them from Coinbase itself, though this will entail jumping through a few more hoops to verify your bank details, wait for transfers, and so on. I gave the address a label, in the hope that this would help me further down the line in case I had to wade through the thousands of redundant addresses that might be created in the course of simply using my account.

Having transferred in a nominal 0.01 btc (around $4.60 at present, more than enough for a cup of coffee), it’s time to take a look at the app itself.

The Coinbase App
Coinbase App review BitScanThis was, again, a little confusing. The ‘apps’ tab at the top of your account doesn’t take you straight to the Coinbase app. Instead, you are presented with a collection of apps that use Coinbase’s API. Not super helpful, and perhaps another point where Coinbase’s commitment to user-friendliness butts up against its need to make a profit. The Android app is there, though it’s not given special prominence.

Ah well. Google ‘Coinbase Android’ on your smartphone and you’ll find what you need at the Play Store. A couple of taps and it lands on your phone. Sign in, confirm you really do want the app to access your account (which seems a little redundant) and you’re good to go. A couple more taps to orient yourself and you’ll find an option for scanning barcodes, which should be all you need to buy anything from just about any merchant who’s set up properly for bitcoin.

Back to the pub
In the interests of conducting a fair review, I’ve decided to control as many variables as possible and return to the Devonshire Arms where I tested the Blockchain app by buying a cup of coffee.

Much the same drill this time. Go in, order my coffee and ask to pay in bitcoin. Select the ‘scan barcode’ option from the menu and wave it over the receipt they brought me. This time there was a slight awkwardness as I tried to line up the camera and QR code, but no major problems. A brief conversation with the bartenders established that this is one of the reasons they don’t always appreciate people coming in and paying in bitcoins; often it means they’re just experimenting with their new app and when the bar’s crowded, that doesn’t do anyone any favours...

Still, job done with a minimum of fuss in my case. Once the app had logged the QR code it was a simple matter of confirming the transaction and the coffee was mine. An email arrives from Coinbase to let you know you’ve made it, just in case you’d missed it somehow... In fact, this genuinely could be a problem, because as far as I can tell there’s no security on the app itself. Once it’s installed, anyone who has your smartphone can apparently access it and make payments. That means you’re trusting your bitcoins to the security of your phone alone, which can’t be a good thing. It seems so unlikely that I question whether I’ve missed something. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, this fact was concerning enough to make me delete the app off my phone as soon as I had finished using it.

Well, Coinbase itself is pretty good, though it’s got a few quirks that are somewhat confusing. No major problems there, but a company that prides itself on the usability of its services might have avoided some of those. The app itself – once I’d found it – installed and worked perfectly well. The apparent security lapse continues to worry me, though. A little Googling suggests there might be options to set a pin within the app, but frankly I’d expect it to be something required by default.

Verdict: A little underwhelmed and sadly just 6/10 and a ‘could do better’. Admittedly the bar was set pretty high by the Blockchain app, but even so, Coinbase’s app was all just a little too clunky for my liking, with one or two glaring holes that need fixing before I’d want to go near it again.

Check out the review of the Blockchain App here.

Brandon Hurst

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