What Apple understands about fingerprint scanners that HTC needs to learn

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Some very interesting things are happening in mobile design these days. And I don’t mean interesting as a euphemism for weird, like we’ve seen from elaborate designs such as the Kyocera Echo, where things ended up being more different than actually useful. Instead, we’re seeing designs like the LG G2, where the phone manages to free up space around edges – and thereby allowing for a larger bezel – by moving button hardware around back. It’s totally unlike what we’re used to, and while it has its drawbacks (as we discuss in our new G2 review), it seems to be a largely successful idea.

finger-1But the most interesting new design idea I’ve seen recently hasn’t come from Android, but over on the iOS side of the fence, instead. There, with the iPhone 5S, Apple managed to come up with a phone featuring a fingerprint scanner that’s graceful, unobtrusive, and effortlessly blends in to the existing iPhone look.

I was been pretty darn resistant to the idea of such scanners on phones in the months leading up the 5S launch, and while I’m not quite yet ready to admit that Apple found a way to make it work the way it should (let me get my hands on one of these puppies first), what I know about the implementation makes it appear to be orders of magnitude ahead of the sort of system Motorola had in place for the Atrix a couple years back.

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to have learned that lesson, and the other big phone on the horizon that’s looking likely to arrive with its own scanner gives me pause: the HTC One Max. Why is Apple’s implementation so inspired, while I’m dreading HTC’s?

A feature like a fingerprint scanner is going to live or die based on two main factors: recognition accuracy and the user interface. Now that accuracy business I really can’t get into just yet – we don’t even know how well the iPhone’s scanner is going to perform (despite Apple sure doing a convincing job talking-up the quality of its tech), let alone HTC’s.

atrix-scanBut as to that interface, I think there’s a lot to talk about just based on positioning. As far as I’m concerned, one of the big failings for the Atrix was how Motorola expected you to use the scanner. Rather than the simple press-your-finger-against-the-window action that Apple’s doing with the 5S and HTC is presumed to do with the One Max, Motorola required users to swipe their fingers past the scanner. Of all the unnatural motions I can think of for smartphone use, stroking my phone’s top edge like I’m trying to rub some gunk off it ranks pretty high on my list.

In contrast, Apple’s positioning of the scanner is one of the biggest reasons I’ve become so supportive of the idea – pressing your fingertip to the phone’s home button is just about one of the most natural motions there is, and one users already do dozens, if not hundreds of times a day. As such, fingerprint-based authentication doesn’t become a chore or something you associate with being an administrative task that is separating you from enjoying your phone – rather, it blends right in with your natural phone-using behavior.

max-scanNow, HTC is already doing itself a solid with that good-sized square scanner – don’t expect any swiping here – but I just don’t know about that rear positioning. For one, you can’t simultaneously see the phone’s screen and align your finger. It’s difficult to tell from the pics we’ve come across to date, especially if they represent non-final hardware, but it sure looks like HTC’s scanner is going to be mostly flush with the phone’s back (unlike the incomplete hardware in the image to the right). Perhaps you’ll be able to feel the difference between material finishes well enough to know when you’re finger’s on the scanner, but I can easily imagine new users needing to constantly flip their phones around to double-check they’re doing it right.

To HTC’s credit, it’s not obvious to me how it might have done things like Apple and placed the scanner on the phone’s front – no hardware buttons to co-opt or anything – and there’s really not much room for a stand-alone scanner.

But that doesn’t mean that this positioning problem isn’t real, and isn’t going to hurt how popular a feature HTC’s scanner ends up being among users. Sure, I imagine that a very large fraction of new One Max owners will be playing with it out of the gate. It’s just that as the months go on, and novelty fades, I bet we’re going to see fewer and fewer users still taking advantage of the scanner. In contrast, Apple doesn’t seem to be setting itself up for the same fate, and so long as accuracy doesn’t get in the way of things, Apple’s scanner could well find a permanent place in the lives of 5S owners.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!