Square’s New Credit-Card Reader Is Slicker, Inside and Out

The new custom design is both sexier and more reliable.

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When a gadget company sells its products for big bucks, it has every reason to refine its designs on an ongoing basis, making them ever more tempting to paying customers. But if the gizmo in question is a freebie, you might think that the prime objective would be to crank it out as cheaply as possible.

Not in the case of Square’s Reader. Square gives away the little swiper dongle for iPhones, iPads and Android devices, which works with its apps and service to let anyone accept credit cards; it makes its money by charging a transaction fee when the Reader gets used. But more than most companies in Silicon Valley, Square is obsessive about elegance and simplicity. So maybe it’s not that surprising that it’s releasing a new version of the Reader which has only one new feature: It’s nicer than the previous one.

Jesse Dorogusker, the company’s head of hardware, recently gave me a sneak peak at the updated model, which is now shipping. (Retail stores that offer the Reader — they sell it for $10, with a $10 credit — will get his version early next year.)

Like every other iteration of the Square Reader to date, the new one is a rounded, white square. But it’s 45 percent thinner than the old one — which, though tiny, was a little on the chubby side. The swiper is now centered on the edge and the plastic is what Dorogusker calls “a more pristine white,” both of which add to the classier look.

“This, I think, is harmony,” Dorogusker told me as he showed me a credit card, the new Reader and an iPhone, neatly arranged on a table in a conference room at the company’s new headquarters. “This tells the story completely.” He’s right. The slimmer Reader looks more like it’s the size it should be, rather than the size that Square managed to make it.

PayPal Here and Intuit GoPayment

PayPal, Intuit

The Square’s Reader was already more stylish and svelte than PayPal Here and Intuit’s GoPayment — two headphone-jack mobile credit-card readers from larger companies which arrived after Square became a phenomenon — and the new version widens the industrial-design panache gap even further.

Of course, most of the people who use Square to handle payments probably haven’t been sitting around waiting for a more aesthetically pleasing Reader. So while Square was tweaking the gadget’s guts to fit in a thinner case — it has seven components, vs. 40 for its predecessor — it also redesigned them to maximize the odds of a successful swipe and reduce the chances of hardware failure.

Borrowing a term from the fashion biz, Square says that the new version has a “bespoke” — that is, custom-designed — magnetic head. Half the thickness of the old one, it’s built to handle more cards more reliably, which it does in part by reading two redundant tracks of data. It works with a minuscule custom chip, also engineered by Square.

Previous Readers were powered by a battery, which not only added bulk but also introduced a point of failure, since they were connected by a wire which sometimes came loose, especially if the Reader took a tumble. Now the device draws its power from the phone or tablet, through the headphone jack.

“If we’re doing our job right,” says Dorogusker, Square’s customers “aren’t thinking a lot about the Reader.” Which means that if they pretty much ignore all of the new version’s exterior and interior upgrades, it’s O.K. It just means that Square lets them accept credit cards and then go about their business, without pausing to contemplate the rather remarkable chunk of hardware that makes it possible.