Biometric authentication has been a part of countless science fiction films. Films such as Minority Report and James Bond series have shown fingerprints, retina scans or simply a person's face being used to access restricted areas.
The transition from science fiction to reality is often not as smooth as one imagines. The first implementation of any new technology is full of bugs and often hard to use. Fingerprint scanners have gone through that phase. Over the years, many laptops have included these to provided an added layer of security, but they rarely worked as advertised. Those used in offices for attendance are often slow and unreliable. This year, two phones with fingerprint scanners hit the market – iPhone 5S and HTC One Max. Do these really work? Read on.
Apple iPhone 5S
Apple's flagship phone has a fingerprint scanner, called Touch ID, on the home button. The placement is perfect as the home button is the most-used button on the iPhone. It is right under the screen, so unlocking the phone and using it feels like a fluid motion.
What's cool: It takes less than a minute to let the device store the print of each finger -- you can store up to five. Touch ID recognises the fingerprint almost instantly and once I got used to it, unlocking other phones felt cumbersome. Touch ID makes passwords, codes and patterns feel outdated. For those worried about fingerprint data being stolen, Apple says the data is stored on the device and not online. It can only be used to unlock the phone and while installing apps. If the fingerprint is not recognised, which happens often if your fingers are wet, then you can quickly key in the four-digit passcode.
What needs improvement: As of now, Touch ID can be used to unlock the phone and as a replacement for entering passwords while installing apps. I'd like to see system-wide implementation of this. There are instances when the Apple ID password is requested, such as when trying to review apps on the App Store. These should be linked to Touch ID. Providing third-party apps access to fingerprint data may not be what Apple wants to do, but it would be wonderful if apps such as Dropbox, iMessage, Mail and WhatsApp could be locked using Touch ID.
There are some bugs that need to be ironed out on Touch ID. During tests, once a week or so, Touch ID failed to activate no matter which finger I used to unlock it. I found a workaround by pressing the home button to activate Siri and then pressing the button again. After that it recognised the fingerprint without fail. This appears to be a software issue. Some users have complained that Touch ID stops working after a month or so of use, as noted in this BGR report. For them a software reset fixed the issue.
HTC One Max
HTC One Max has a fingerprint scanner on the back panel, under the camera. The placement is far from ideal as the scanner is difficult to access and users cannot see it while trying to unlock the phone. This is bound to cause a lot of frustration.
What's cool: You can assign fingerprints to apps. For example, you can use the left index fingerprint to open camera or Chrome. This lets you open the app you most use without going through the app drawer.
What needs improvement: A lot of things need to be done for the One Max's fingerprint scanner to be easy to use. The phone asks you to swipe downwards to unlock and more often than not, I found it hard to place a finger on the scanner. You have to swipe the finger a particular way for it to recognise your fingerprint. If your finger moves off that trajectory, then you will have to swipe again. This is frustrating, given that you cannot see the scanner while unlocking.
The problem with assigning fingers to apps is that if you forget which finger is assigned to which app, then it will be annoying to close that app to get to the home screen. It would be better to have a reminder on screen while unlocking to avoid this issue.
The device prompts you to set an alphanumeric password in case the fingerprint isn't recognised. It takes too much time to key this in, as opposed to a numerical passcode on iPhones.
HTC's implementation of the fingerprint scanner feels like a prototype that will get better in future releases, whereas Apple's is a quality addition to the iPhone 5S.