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TEST DRIVE: PNC's Enhanced Virtual Wallet

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PNC has piled an abundance of features onto its Virtual Wallet online banking account since the product's 2008 launch, and the underlying technology has creaked loudly under the strain. Read: agonizingly slow load times.

Last week, PNC took its first meaningful step toward improving this technology and, by extension, bettering the overall experience for its Virtual Wallet customers.

Virtual Wallet is a combination of three checking and savings accounts presented in a sophisticated calendar view. In 2010, PNC began letting its credit card customers add their transactions to the same calendar. This addition, which is meant to simplify account management at PNC, made the Virtual Wallet calendar very, very slow to load.

"It is not just you," Mike Ley, PNC's vice president of e-business and payments, acknowledged in a June interview.

"From what you've told me about your experience … you have the credit card, you have all those other things, so we're loading a lot of data for you," he said. "That's one reason" for the slowdown.

The other was the underlying technology, Adobe Flash. Had I read between the lines of Ley's comments in June, I might have realized Flash's days at PNC were numbered.

"We're in the midst of working on things to make it load even faster, as well as make the Virtual Wallet 'application,' if you will, more compatible from a surfing perspective from other platforms," he told me.

Last week, PNC finally pulled back the curtain on its fix for Virtual Wallet: the bank now allows its customers to switch away from the original Adobe Flash-based site to one written for HTML5, the latest version of the HTML markup language.

At the same time, PNC updated its Virtual Wallet iPhone app to add Fiserv's Popmoney, a person-to-person payment system the bank has long offered through its website.

Is the new online experience snappier? PNC lets users switch back and forth between the Flash and HTML5 versions, so it's easy to compare the two.

On my 2009 Mac Mini's Safari browser, the old site took 24 seconds to load. Switching to the HTML5 version, which looks just like the Flash one, cuts that load time down to 16 seconds. It's still not speedy, but it is a noticeable improvement. (To be clear, this is how the site performs for my accounts and transactions. Other customers may have a different experience based on their transaction volume and whether they link a credit card to Virtual Wallet.)

Another perk of HTML5 is it can display on smartphones such as the Apple iPhone, which has never supported Flash. PNC already had a bare-bones mobile site for Virtual Wallet users, as well as a dedicated app that provides a version of the Virtual Wallet calendar view shrunk down for an iPhone's screen.

Loading the full HTML5 site on my iPhone 4 took an agonizing 62 seconds over my home Internet connection.

On my third-generation iPad, the HTML5 site takes 29 seconds to load.

Once the site came up on the iPhone, I had the entire Virtual Wallet experience at my fingertips. It was clearly not designed for the iPhone's smaller screen, but if I want to zoom in on a particular week or day to review my transactions, I get exactly what I would see on my desktop computer's screen.

And that's a problem — with a mobile app, I get access to my phone's hardware, particularly the camera for mobile check capture. With PNC's standalone iPhone app for Virtual Wallet, I'm offered different views of my account based on how I want to hold the screen. There's even a feature that lets me move money by shaking my phone. None of these features appear if I'm using Virtual Wallet in the phone's browser.

The dedicated Virtual Wallet apps also load faster than the HTML5 site. From the moment I submit my password on my iPhone 4 app, it takes 28 seconds to see my recent transactions. On the iPad app, it's just 20 seconds.

The iPhone app's fresh addition of Popmoney is welcome. Person-to-person payment systems are worthless if they are not available when you need them, so this update was overdue. I had to dig to find the feature, and in the menu the app uses Fiserv's old "Pay Other People" label instead of the "Popmoney" brand, which doesn't show up until after I've tapped the link (on PNC's website, it does the same branding shuffle in reverse). But once I found the feature, it was easy to send a $10 test payment to a payee I had earlier enrolled online.

Overall, PNC added no meaningful features in this update, nor did the bank promise to. The company said on its blog that, other than snappier performance, this update is not meant to change the Virtual Wallet experience. However, the HTML5 site lays the foundation for further improvements that would not have been practical under the original Flash site.

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