Synaptics’ Clear ID fingerprint sensor feels like the way of the future

Edge-to-edge screens are poised to be the new hotness of smartphone design in 2018, but pushing pixels right out to a device's borders leaves little room for the range of sensors we've come to know and love on the front of a phone—especially fingerprint sensors. By all accounts, Apple is dealing with this new reality by gradually retiring the fingerprint as a biometric input. You can still get a Touch ID sensor on an iPhone 8 or some MacBook Pros, but the future as seen from Cupertino clearly relies on Face ID, its array of depth-mapping hardware, and the accompanying notch.

Fingerprint sensors still have some advantages over face-sensing tech, though. They allow owners to unlock their devices without looking directly at the front of the phone, an important capability in meetings or when the device is resting on a desk or table. They can't be tricked by twins, and they can't be as easily spoofed as some less-sophisticated forms of facial identification. It's simple to enroll multiple fingerprints with most fingerprint sensors, as well, whereas Face ID is limited to one user at the moment. I appreciate being able to enroll several of my ten fingers with my iPhone to account for my left and right hands, for example, while other owners might enroll a spouse's fingerprint for emergencies. Ideally, we'd have both technologies at our disposal in the phones of the future.

Some Android device makers have been coping with the demand for ever-shrinking bezels by introducing less-sophisticated facial unlock schemes of their own, but the overwhelming majority of serious biometric inputs on those devices comes from a fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone. Sometimes those back-mounted sensors are placed well, and sometimes they aren't. As a long-time iPhone user, I believe that the natural home for a fingerprint reader is on the front of the device, but edge-to-edge displays mean that phone manufacturers who aren't buying Kinect makers of their own simply have to put fingerprint sensors somewhere else.

The intensifying battle between face and fingerprint for biometric superiority, and the question of where to put fingerprint sensors in tomorrow's phones, is fertile ground for Synaptics. You might already know Synaptics from its wide selection of existing touchpad and fingerprint-sensing hardware, and last week at CES, the company made a big splash by showing off the first phone with one of its Clear ID under-screen fingerprint sensors inside: a model from Vivo, a brand primarily involved in southeast Asian markets.

The demo Vivo phone. Fingerprints go on the glowing blue spot.

In short, Clear ID sensors let owners enjoy the best of both edge-to-edge screens and front-mounted fingerprint sensors by taking advantage of the unique properties of OLED panels to capture fingerprint data right through the gaps in the screen's pixel matrix itself. Clear ID results in an all- (or mostly-) screen device with no visible fingerprint sensor on its face and no notches for face-sensing cameras at the top of the phone. We covered Clear ID in depth at its debut, but I was eager to go thumbs-on with this technology in a production phone.

What's most striking about Clear ID is how natural it feels to use. Enrolling my fingerprint required the usual lengthy sequence of hold-and-lift motions that most any other fingerprint sensor does these days. Once the device knew the contours of my thumb, though, unlocking the phone proved as simple and swift as resting my opposable digit on a highlighted region of the screen that's always visible thanks to the self-illuminating pixels of the Vivo phone's OLED panel. The process felt as fast as using Touch ID on my iPhone 6S, and it may even have been faster when I got the phone in a state where it would unlock without playing the elaborate animation you see above.

In the vein of the best innovations, Clear ID feels like the way fingerprints ought to be read on phones with edge-to-edge screens, and it'll likely serve as a distinguishing feature for device makers planning to incorporate OLED panels in their future phones. The backlight layer of LCDs won't let fingerprint data pass through to Clear ID sensors, so the tech won't be coming to phones relying on those panels yet, if it ever does. Clear ID is so obvious and natural in use that it was my immediate answer when folks asked about the most innovative thing on display at CES, and I'm excited to see it make its way into more devices soon.

Comments closed
    • Kretschmer
    • 2 years ago

    Supposedly Samsung was supposed to include this tech on the S8 series, but the tech was not ready in time. The solution was to stick the fingerprint reader next to the camera lens, which was a one-way ticket to smudgesville.

    I don’t care if the sensor is on the front or back as long as its convenient. For one-handed unlocks, wouldn’t middle back be easier than front screen? I worry that “cool” has overtaken functionality in the smartphone space, as if the engineers are hogtied in the basement of the marketing division.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 2 years ago

    Next up, require both fingerprint and facial recognition. Now you get to control when you’re authenticated, and it should be (I’m guessing anyway) harder to fool.

    • Kevsteele
    • 2 years ago

    I’ve got an LG V30, and the back-mounted sensor is literally under my index fingertip when I grip the phone. Having the sensor on the front at the bottom of the phone means you can’t easily unlock one-handed (at least, I couldn’t with my Samsung S7).

    I’ve gotten very used to grabbing my phone and it’s instantly ready to go. I’ve come to love the back-mounted sensor.

      • ludi
      • 2 years ago

      Same, using Google phones. An index finger on the rear-mounted sensor and the phone is alive. All one-handed if need be.

      • mudcore
      • 2 years ago

      Yep I’m a fan of the sensor on the back. For the reasons you stated plus I’ve found it helps to stabilize larger phones when using them one handed.

      • RdVi
      • 2 years ago

      Agreed. Holding the phone so your thumb can comfortably reach the front fingerprint reader/home button makes holding the phone awkward for general use, especially with larger/taller devices IMO. I’d rather have a back one since I can unlock the phone with the grip I use it with, not unlock then juggle to a new grip – or worse, shifting grip when using the home button and when needing to press something near the top of the screen.

      • Flying Fox
      • 2 years ago

      How do you unlock when the phone is laid flat on the table and you want it to stay there? Personally I’m not a fan of that ring thing that ensure that the phone can never be laid flat on its back.

        • Kevsteele
        • 2 years ago

        For me, the only time I use my V30 like that is at home, and with Google’s Smart Lock I don’t need to use the fingerprint sensor when I’m hooked up to my home wifi. I just double-tap the screen and it’s on and ready.

        That said, I can see how a front-mounted sensor would be more convenient when you’re not holding the phone.

          • jmorey
          • 2 years ago

          How did you configure this as Smart Lock does not normally allow configuring wifi connections?

        • etana
        • 2 years ago

        double-tap, swipe up, draw pattern.
        Not that the phone is heavy enough that picking it up is any kind of burden

      • Bauxite
      • 2 years ago

      Same thing with V20, and I like it there. I wanted to find something newer but removable battery & SD is a requirement for me going forward and last gen “top end” stuff gets huge discounts as a bonus.

      • jessterman21
      • 2 years ago

      Same here with my Nextbit Robin. The power button is the thumbprint reader.

      • Firestarter
      • 2 years ago

      unlocking my OP3T with the front sensor comes natural to me and it has the benefit of being able to unlock it when you put it down on your desk

      • derFunkenstein
      • 2 years ago

      I’m not finding the rest sensor particularly natural on my Pixel 2, but I’ve only been at it three months. *ahem*

    • frogg
    • 2 years ago

    I’m tired of this so called “progress” ; i’m actually more than happy with the fingerprint reader beneath the ‘start’ button (Sony Xperia Z5compact); i do 2 things at once with my thumb ; restart my phone AND authenticating .

    Why not just reduce, not suppress bezels ? Plus, my guess is screens are now much more fragile . As smartphone sales have been slowing down it’s maybe a trick to sell more ? Progress , but for who ?

      • tsk
      • 2 years ago

      They will not stop til a phone is only screen, front and back.

        • nico1982
        • 2 years ago

        Foldable, hopefully.

      • ChronoReverse
      • 2 years ago

      The side power button reader is easily the best (in my experience with the Xperia X compact) but there are patents blocking its usage in the USA.

      Hurray for patents!

        • Flying Fox
        • 2 years ago

        It now appears to be not a patent but a prior agreement with a carrier, likely to be Verizon.

      • strangerguy
      • 2 years ago

      You are not the only one jaded.

      Good to have? Yes. Pay a new phone just for it? Hell no. The fact all these little improvements are always hyped up to the moon and back is a symptom for how little innovation actually is.

    • Waco
    • 2 years ago

    Touch unlock isn’t a security feature – it’s convenience. I’ll stick with a passcode TYVM.

    EDIT: I see we have many non-security folks here. Do we need to have the discussion about how biometrics aren’t passwords?

      • alloyD
      • 2 years ago

      [quote<]Touch unlock isn't a security feature - it's convenience.[/quote<] True. [quote<]Biometrics are for authentication, not authorization.[/quote<] Eh... authentication is an important part of authorization. The problem isn't that biometrics get used for authentication/authorization, it's that a fingerprint (or face) scanner is a really weak form of authentication. Other biometrics can be much better, but they're not convenient (yet).

        • Waco
        • 2 years ago

        Using any biometric as a source of both authentication and authorization is a very bad idea. As ludi pointed out below, you should be using something you know (password), something you have (crypocard, token key, etc), and a biometric of some sort (eye, finger, etc).

        All three is best, but using one in place of all the others is a very bad idea.

          • alloyD
          • 2 years ago

          You’re using the term “authorization” incorrectly and it’s obscuring your point. Biometrics aren’t ever authorization. They used for authentication. Authorization is what the system does with your authentication information after it’s been established. Step 1 (authentication) – Establish identity (or lack thereof). Step 2 (authorization)- Grant/deny access.

          Fingerprints are just weak authentication. They can be spoofed. They’re better than no authentication. Passcodes can be weak or strong. And yes, like ludi said, more factors in an authentication system is usually stronger authentication.

            • Waco
            • 2 years ago

            I fully admit to not being an expert in this, and I’m probably using terms wrong like you said. 🙂

      • ludi
      • 2 years ago

      Something you know, something you have, something you are. Pick at least two.

        • Waco
        • 2 years ago

        Exactly – and preferably not just the last two, since they can be stolen (in many cases). All three is best.

          • Inkling
          • 2 years ago

          Maybe I’m being naive because I’ve never been the victim of a major hack or digital theft. But since I log into a device dozens of times per day I want it to be near instantaneous. On my devices I don’t carry nuclear codes, uninsured/unprotected digital currency, or trade secrets or IP that can’t be reproduced or defended fairly simply.

          I’ve had credit card numbers stolen, a personal bank account hacked, and physical documents stolen, so I understand there’s a significant hassle and some expense to recover from such incursions. But, looking back, that sort of thing has happened about… every 5-6 years, and each time it required a couple hours to get everything back to “normal.” However, if I’m delayed 5-10 seconds logging into every device, account, or app that requires multiple highly-secure authentications and then 5-10 (or many more) *minutes* periodically when one of those factors is forgotten or fat-fingered or the system just doesn’t like the pattern of behavior it’s detecting is a much greater inconvenience.

          Ideally, users could always choose the level of security they’d like, because I’d rather save thousands of seconds in everyday behavior, even if I have to deal with a moderate hassle once once or twice a decade.

            • mudcore
            • 2 years ago

            I’m just speculating but if you’re using the number of accounts/apps that require verification that you indicate I have to imagine you’ve probably got a significant portion of who you are and who you know stored on your device. Probably to a degree that if the wrong person got your device could lead to headaches for years.

            Email. All your contacts and whatever information you have stored about them in there. Certainly more than enough information to establish where you are on the typical day and when your house would most likely be unoccupied, etc.

            Hard to say about you specifically. I think the bigger issue is that in reality most people don’t live convenient, clean lives. They put lots of information about who they are, what they do, where their money is or isn’t, etc. on their phones these days AND they live around people who can exploit that against them. People seem to be holding out for Apple or Google to save the day but I think that’s quite foolish personally.

            • Inkling
            • 2 years ago

            I suppose a bad actor could access my email (Gmail), contacts, and facebook app if they were able to log onto my phone, but I don’t allow browsers or Android to save passwords to online interfaces of financial accounts or the like. Maybe it’s knowing that I’m a low-value target for the vast majority of criminals that I’m not that worried about it and would rather have convenient access than unbreakable security. :-/

            If a criminal is going to use my digital data to facilitate a basic home burglary, they’d have to deal with some very old-school security, in the form of a German canine and an Austrian polymer-framed personal-protection “accessory.” Given our odd work arrangements there’s nearly always someone home.

            • Waco
            • 2 years ago

            I have a different perspective I guess. Much of my personal information has already been leaked (thanks OPM!), so we’re super careful about identity theft. Adding a financial or identity theft wrinkle into the mix due to lax security would result in pain and additional work for multiple years to clean things up.

      • 7c0
      • 2 years ago

      TL;DR Authentication and authorization are rather different processes. Biometrics can play role in the first, not really in the second.

      So when you logon to a web site with a password, what do you call the process? I say it’s called authentication, or proving that you are the person _who_ claims to have the given user name (or email). Biometrics can partially contribute to this process, but are still far from having the strength of a reasonably complex password.

      Authorization is the process of deciding _what_ you’re allowed to do after you have successfully authenticated. I don’t see what role biometrics could play here, as the capabilities you’re granted don’t really depend on who you are but rather on what role(s) you’ve been assigned within the authentication context.

        • Waco
        • 2 years ago

        Yes. Thanks for the clarification!

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