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The Galaxy S 5’s fingerprint scanner is basically invisible – which may be just as well

by Michael Fisher on

Earlier today, I posted a piece arguing that the Galaxy S 5 doesn’t deserve all the crap it’s getting from smartphone enthusiasts who were expecting more from Samsung’s new Android flagship. While I stand by that opinion, the device’s flaws still need pointing out – and I think a very big one can be found in the Galaxy S 5 fingerprint scanner.

There are certainly larger laments to air when it comes to the newest Galaxy. The storage problem, the familiar look of TouchWiz, the resemblance of the back cover to a Band-Aid – all of it is important (in the way that arguments about the minutiae of smartphones are “important”), but that’s the stuff everyone’s already talking about. Amid all the fuss, no one seems to have noticed that with the Galaxy S 5 fingerprint scanner, Samsung uses the wrong technology … and it uses it in the wrong place.

This isn’t a piece about why fingerprint scanners don’t make sense (our own Stephen Schenck already penned one of those last year, as did Adam Doud). Because like it or not, fingerprint authentication on smartphones is a reality in 2014: Motorola introduced it on the first Atrix back in 2011, and Apple brought the concept to the masses with its most recent iPhone. And despite some hiccups, it’s worked pretty well.

touch-id-full

Of Apple’s major competitors launching devices in the new iPhone’s wake, HTC was the first out the gate with the HTC One max. We weren’t the max’s biggest fans, and the fingerprint scanner was a huge part of that, as we mentioned in our review:

The capacitive fingerprint scanner on the One max is nothing like Apple’s Touch ID sensor for the iPhone 5s, which performs very well and results in a positive ID nearly every time on our review iPhone. The max’s scanner requires a more precise swipe gesture that’s nowhere near as reliable, and the scanning window’s position beneath the camera ensures you’re constantly smudging your lens. […] Thankfully, you don’t have to use it. 

The Galaxy S 5 doesn’t place the scanner in the same cumbersome position as the One max does; Samsung’s reader is integrated directly into the home button beneath the screen (to the surprise of exactly no one, except perhaps Apple’s legal team). The problem is that instead of continuing the copying wholesale by implementing a touch-and-hold sensor like Apple did, Samsung has opted instead for the older, far clunkier swipe method used by everyone else. See the quick look at 2:47 in yesterday’s Galaxy S 5 hands-on:

Can you imagine using a swipe-to-unlock scanner at the bottom of your smartphone on a daily basis? There’s a reason HTC, Motorola, and others put their swipe-based fingerprint readers on the back or top edges of phones, after all: based on the way most folks hold their phones, it just makes more sense up there (even if it is innately cumbersome due to the swipe gesture itself).

This is a perfect example of the “old Samsung” I lamented in today’s earlier piece: the company that latches on to a competitor’s concept and implements it, but only carries the execution to the 75% mark. A fingerprint reader belongs on the home button only if using it is a natural extension of the button’s function. In this way, Apple succeeds with TouchID, while Samsung misses the point entirely with the Galaxy S 5. After all, you don’t commonly swipe buttons in everyday life.

Unless it looks like this. And  for this, you need to live in the future.

Unless it looks like this. And for this, you need to live in the future.

I may be wrong about all of this: despite my initial takeaway from yesterday’s hands-on time, this system could ultimately work very well – especially if Samsung is able to integrate fingerprint authentication into all of the services it would like to. Only a full review will determine that.

But in the face of all the real improvements the Galaxy S 5 brings to the table like the beefed-up camera suite, honed software build, and immersion resistance, the fingerprint scanner seems an anomaly – a relic of a less-mature company whose old habits are dying very hard. So while the scanner itself may be easy to ignore, hidden as it is behind the facade of a mild-mannered home button, I find its implications troubling. For my part, I hope this feature only lasts one generation in its current form.

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