Under-display fingerprint scanners were supposed to be cool. Just place your finger on the touch screen like you would anyway, and a built-in sensor will unlock the phone. That was the dream, but in reality they are worse than the alternatives.
A Brief History of Fingerprint Scanners
Fingerprint scanners first appeared on smartphones in the 2010s. Apple released the iPhone 5S with a fingerprint scanner in 2013, and Samsung followed suit with the Galaxy Note 4 a year later.
These early fingerprint readers used capacitive technology. The sensor is covered in tiny electrodes, and the capacitance between the electrodes is how your fingerprint is scanned. It changes depending on the distance between the ridges of your finger.
By the late 2010s, the vast majority of smartphones included fingerprint scanners. However, the change was coming. Apple started moving towards facial recognition with Face ID in 2017. Meanwhile, Android maker Vivo was rolling out the first in-display fingerprint scanners.
Today, Apple has pretty much abandoned fingerprint scanners for Face ID; only the “retro” iPhone SE has Touch ID. There are still plenty of Android devices with the original type of fingerprint scanner, but in-display scanners have become the mainstream of “flagship” Android phones.
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The promise of in-display fingerprint scanners
The first smartphone with an in-display fingerprint scanner, also called an under-display fingerprint scanner, was the Vivo X20 Plus, released in early 2018. It used an optical scanner, which lights up your finger and takes a photo of him with a tiny camera.
I remember being very intrigued by this new concept. At the time, it was still quite common for fingerprint scanners to be on the front of phones, positioned on the bottom bezel. An in-display fingerprint scanner allowed it to still be on the front, but without taking up space on the bezel.
It felt like a very futuristic feature. How cool is it to just put your finger on your phone screen and it automatically scans your finger and unlocks it? Don’t look for a specific spot on the bezel or the back of the phone. Just tap the screen!
Of course, that’s not how early screen scanners worked. You did you have to put your finger in a very specific place, usually indicated by a fingerprint icon on the screen. They were also much slower than the “old” style fingerprint scanner.
That was fine, though. Cutting-edge technology always has its problems, but the potential is exciting. I could imagine a future where you don’t have to put your finger in a very specific place and wait a second for it to be scanned. A future where all you have to do is swipe across your lock screen to scan your finger.
The future we have in place
Fast forward to today, the year 2022. High-end Android phones are still being released with in-display fingerprint scanners. Samsung has been using the technology since 2018. Google didn’t adopt in-screen scanners until the Pixel 6 in 2021.
Technology has improved in the last five years. On-screen optical scanners, which do not have the best security, have slowly been replaced by on-screen ultrasonic scanners. They use ultrasonic pulses to map your fingerprint.
The problem is that these improvements have not been big enough. Using an on-screen scanner in 2022 isn’t as big an upgrade in 2018 as I would have hoped. In fact, I’d say they’re still not as good as “old” style fingerprint scanners.
For example, the Galaxy S22, Samsung’s latest and greatest series of flagship smartphones, features in-display fingerprint scanners. You’d think it would be good by now, right? Of course, different people will have different experiences, but it’s almost unusable for me.
I regularly have to place my finger on the scanner three or more times before it registers. It has become so frustrating that I have enabled Samsung’s facial recognition feature, which is still not as good as Apple’s Face ID. If it wasn’t for Android’s “Smart Unlock” feature, this would annoy me even more.
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hug the face
Apple seems to think facial recognition is the future, and having used Face ID, I think I agree. The potential for under-display scanners seemed great, but real-world implementation leaves a lot to be desired.
It’s been almost five years since the first on-screen scanner appeared on a smartphone. Why are they still outperformed by old-style scanners on cheap Android phones? If Android manufacturers don’t want to use the old-style scanners, they should focus on competing with Face ID.
In my experience, Face ID is just as fast and reliable as an old-style fingerprint scanner. It’s certainly not perfect, it’s less accurate when using a skin for example, but it’s very good. However, the great benefit of Face ID is that it is actually secure.
On iPhones, Face ID can be used as a security measure for things like making purchases from the App Store. That’s not the case with facial recognition features on Android phones. If you choose to use that method on the lock screen, you’ll need a secondary security method for purchases and other things.
The dream of a phone with a full touchscreen that can scan your finger was nice, but it hasn’t happened. At this point, I’m not sure we’ll ever get there. It’s time to move on to something better.
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