Passcodes are outdated. They're a pain to use, and they aren't secure when they are based on easy-to-guess digits, such as a birth date or street address. Many people don't bother using them on phones, even though that means any thief can get instant access to email, banking apps and more. Fortunately, phone makers have started to come up with alternatives to passcodes.
I take a deeper look at those options as I debut an occasional series, A Closer Look. Over the weeks, we'll explore features in various gadgets and services. Rarely does one feature make or break a buying decision, but these elements collectively might push you in one direction or another. And for those who already own these gadgets, it's a way to discover features you might not know about.
Apple included a fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5s last year. Later, HTC included one on its HTC One Max, while Samsung added it to its latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S5. Samsung's Galaxy Tab S tablets also have fingerprint sensors. With all of these, you can unlock the device with your fingerprint and avoid typing in numbers on the screen.
The iPhone's sensor still works well after nearly a year of use. I begin by training the phone to recognize up to five fingers. To unlock the phone, I simply touch the home button for about a second. It works when my finger is upside down or sideways, but the sensor has trouble when it's wet or greasy. In such cases, I can go back to using the passcode.
Samsung's approach is similar, except it recognizes only three fingerprints, and it requires you to swipe down on the home button rather than simply touch it. The fingerprint can be used to authenticate purchases using the PayPal app or to unlock the device's private mode, which lets you hide photos and other documents you designate as sensitive.
The HTC One Max's sensor is on the back rather than on the home button. Unfortunately, it often fails to recognize my print. I like that I can instruct the phone to open a particular app automatically depending on the finger I use. The sensor isn't available with the HTC One M8, which came out in March.
Many security experts have expressed concerns that once a finger's compromised, you can't replace it the way you can a passcode.