In-display fingerprint readers — biometric sensors embedded within the screens of many new phones — are garbage. They must be purged from all future devices unless they get significantly better soon.
There, I said it, and boy does it feel great to get that off my chest. Because it’s true.
As a tech reviewer, I’m in the enviable position of being able to test out new devices before they trickle down to everyone.
Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not. It sucked to live without a headphone jack on the iPhone 7, but was life-changing to use AirPods before anyone else could. It was really fun to use phones like the Vivo Nex S and Oppo Find X, with its motorized cameras, and even the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, with its fidgety sliding design.
But I can’t get behind the in-display fingerprint sensors that are being included in virtually every new Android phone.
They’re all terrible.
Unlike physical fingerprint readers such as Touch ID on the iPhone 8 (and older), the Pixel Imprint sensor on the back of Google Pixel phones, or the reader on the back of the Galaxy S9 and Note 9, in-display fingerprint readers are slower and less responsive.
For an in-display fingerprint reader to be considered an upgrade, it needs to succeed at two things:
Work as fast (or faster) than the physical one it replaces.
Work as as reliably or better than the sensor it replaces.
At the time of this rant, no in-display fingerprint reader meets both of these two requisites.
It was fine to give Chinese phone maker Vivo a pass for the wonky, first-gen in-display fingerprint reader inside of the X20 Plus. But that phone was the first of its kind to include the new biometric tech.
To shrug and give new phones launching in 2019 the same break for including half-baked in-display fingerprint readers simply because it’s new tech is not OK. It’s unacceptable to spend $1,000 for a Samsung Galaxy S10+ only to get a fingerprint reader that’s inferior to the one on the previous Galaxy S9.
I’ve tried just about all of the in-display sensors — Galaxy S10, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, OnePlus 6T, and even the one on the new Nokia 9 PureView — and none of them live up to the hype.
Tradeoffs are inevitable when it comes to new technologies, but when new innovation is a noticeable step backwards from what came before, we should stop and ask big tech companies why?
What good is using an in-display fingerprint reader for unlocking your phone if it’s constantly telling you it failed to recognize your fingerprint or to press harder into the screen?
It’s kind of mind-boggling when somebody needs to make a video showing how it makes no difference if you tap or tap-and-hold your finger on the S10’s in-display reader.
Another problem with in-display fingerprint readers: many screen protectors don’t play nice with them. Because some sensors, like the one in the OnePlus 6T, require light to illuminate your fingerprints before capturing an image of them, screen protectors can actually get in the way.
Same goes for ultrasonic fingerprint readers like the one in the Galaxy S10 and S10+. Only instead of blocking light, many third-party screen protectors can block the ultrasound waves emitted from the grooves of your finger when it touches the sensor. And the only one that seems to work takes like 30 minutes. No thank you.
Regular fingerprint readers don’t have issues with screen protectors because they’re not inside of the display.
But if in-display fingerprint sensors aren’t good enough yet, shouldn’t phone makers put more dollars into research and development to make facial recognition and face unlock systems more reliable and secure? Since face unlock is often touted as more convenient, anyway?
You would think yes. But the opposite seems to be happening. Whereas the Galaxy S8 and S9 both had secure iris scanners, the S10’s doesn’t. As a result, the face unlock feature on the S10 is wimpy — like comically easy to fool with a printed photo or video on your phone. Unbox Therapy’s Lewis Hilsenteger was able to bypass the S10’s face unlock with a YouTube video of himself. Another person fooled the face unlock on her brother’s S10 and they’re not even twins. Like, oh damn.
The reality is, you can’t get a notch-free display or screen with only a “hole punch” if you want a secure facial recognition system like Face ID on the iPhone X, XS, and XR. Unlike the 2D-based face unlock recognition on phones like the S10, the 3D-based Face ID on the latest iPhones requires many sensors (i.e. flood illuminator, infrared camera, dot projector, etc.) housed in the notch. Some phones like the Oppo Find X get around this by hiding the front-facing camera and its sensors inside of a motorized mechanism, but that introduces its own durability issues.
Using these crummy in-display readers made me realize one very obvious thing: Apple was right to go with Face ID instead of trying to put Touch ID in the screen. Face ID isn’t perfect by any means — for example, it doesn’t work well sideways in bed or at all if you’ve got a scarf or mask covering your mouth — but more times than not it does work quickly and reliably. The same just can’t be said for in-display fingerprint sensors.
So why did we want these in-display fingerprint readers again? Does anyone really want them if they’re so bad? So that we can get sleeker phones without a sensor on the back or on the side? Thinner phones? Give me a break. If this was true, the Galaxy S10e and its side-mounted fingerprint reader wouldn’t exist.
Until these in-display fingerprint sensors get significantly better, they’re going to be a stain on otherwise excellent phones.