The dream of in-display fingerprint scanners is dead

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The under-display fingerprint scanners should have been great. Put your finger on the touch screen as you would anyway and a built-in sensor unlocks the phone. That was the dream, but in reality they are worse than the alternatives.

A brief history of fingerprint scanners

The silhouette of an iPhone with the Touch ID logo on the screen.

Fingerprint scanners first appeared on smartphones in the 2010s. Apple launched 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 with tiny electrodes, and the capacitance between the electrodes is how the fingerprint is scanned. It changes depending on the distance between the ridges of the finger.

By the end of the 2010s, the vast majority of smartphones included fingerprint scanners. However, it changes what is coming. Apple began switching to facial recognition with Face ID in 2017. Meanwhile, Android manufacturer Vivo was rolling out the first in-display fingerprint scanners.

Nowadays, Apple has almost abandoned fingerprint scanners for Face ID – only the “retro” iPhone SE has Touch ID. There are still many Android devices with the original type of fingerprint scanner, but in-display scanners have become mainstream on “flagship” Android phones.

RELATED: What is Face ID?

The promise of in-display fingerprint scanners

Person touching a biometric identification app on a smartphone.
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The first smartphone with an in-display fingerprint scanner, also called an under-display fingerprint scanner, was the Vivo X20 Plus, launched in early 2018. It used an optical scanner, which illuminates the finger and takes a picture. with a small 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 in the front, but not take up space on the bezel.

It looked like a very futuristic feature. How cool is it to put your finger on the phone display and it automatically scans your finger and unlocks? No problem with a specific spot on the bezel or back of the phone. Just touch the screen!

Of course, that’s not how early in-display scanners worked done 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” fingerprint scanner.

Still it was fine. 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 spot and wait a second before it gets scanned. A future where you just need to swipe the lock screen to scan your finger.

The future we have instead

Justin Duino / As a geek

Fast forward to today, the year 2022. High-end Android phones are still being launched with in-display fingerprint scanners. Samsung has been using the technology since 2018. Google didn’t adopt in-display scanners until the Pixel 6 in 2021.

Technology has improved over the past five years. In-display optical scanners, which do not offer maximum security, have slowly been replaced with in-display ultrasound scanners. They use ultrasonic pulses to map your fingerprint.

The problem is, these improvements weren’t big enough. Using an in-display scanner in 2022 isn’t as significant for an upgrade over 2018 as I would have expected. In fact, I would say they still don’t measure up to “old” style fingerprint scanners.

For example, the Galaxy S22, Samsung’s latest and largest series of flagship smartphones, is equipped with an in-display fingerprint scanner. You would think it would be okay by now, right? Obviously, different people will have different experiences, but for me it is almost unusable.

Very regularly I have to place my finger on the scanner three or more times before it registers. It got so frustrating that I enabled Samsung’s face recognition feature, which is still not as good as Apple’s Face ID. If it weren’t for Android’s “Smart Unlock” feature, this would bother me even more.

RELATED: Google tries to justify the Pixel 6’s slow fingerprint scanner

Hug your face

the "Use Face ID with a mask" screen on iPhone.
Justin Duino / As a geek

Apple seems to think facial recognition is the future, and having used Face ID I think I agree. The potential of the under-display scanners seemed great, but the real-world implementation left a lot to be desired.

It’s been nearly five years since the first in-display scanner appeared on a smartphone. Why are they still overtaken by old-fashioned scanners on cheap Android phones? If Android makers don’t want to use old-fashioned scanners, they should focus on competing with Face ID.

In my experience, Face ID is as fast and reliable as an old-fashioned fingerprint scanner. It’s certainly not perfect — it’s less accurate when wearing a mask, for example — but it’s very good. The big advantage of Face ID, however, is that it’s actually secure.

On the iPhone, Face ID can be used as a security measure for things like shopping in the App Store. This is not the case with the facial recognition features on Android phones. If you choose to use that method on the lock screen, you will need a secondary security method for purchases and other things.

The dream of a phone with a full touch screen that can scan your finger was cool, but it didn’t happen. At this point, I’m not sure we’ll ever get there. Time to move on to something better.

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