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The position of the fingerprint sensor on smartphones and how it has changed

Rear position of the fingerprint sensor on galaxy s8

Mobile phones have really come a long way, and at each step of the way are more features added to improve functionality and better the overall experience. While a phone is just a phone and nothing more or less fifteen years ago, that's no longer the case. We now have what we called "dumb phone" and "smart phone", each having an entirely different definition of what a phone is and what it can do depending on its specs and features.

It was not until 2011 that the first phone with a fingerprint sensor came into limelight, the Motorola Atrix; it was the first smartphone publicly released to have a fingerprint sensor, which was positioned at the top and uses an optical sensor to register fingerprints. Aesthetic is lacking in those days, but nevertheless, the build of the phones of those days were of much quality compared to the phones of today.

Fingerprint sensor on Motorola Atrix
The fingerprint sensor placed at the top of the Motorola Atrix

Despite the achievement, the position of the fingerprint sensor on the Motorola Atrix is not what you would find convenient to use by any means, but things got much better years later when the tech is much developed. The first iPhone with a fingerprint sensor, the iPhone 5s, launched in late 2013, harbored its capacitive fingerprint Touch ID beneath the display - this placement offered comfort of use and conveniency and most of the iPhones (and even iPads) launched years after used the same spot, though that's no longer the case.

iPhone 5s fingerprint touch id
Apple iPhone 5s circular fingerprint TouchID below the display

Most of the Android phones released between 2014 and 2016 have the fingerprint sensors placed at the front beneath the display, but Apple started it first. However, things changed for the better as manufacturers began to have more concern about the aesthetic design of their smartphones thereby focusing on the screen-to-body ratio. To reduce the bezels of their phones for the screen to stretch longer and wider, the fingerprint sensors were moved to the side or to the rear in their later release.

A good example of this was Samsung design-transition from Galaxy S7 to Galaxy S8. Samsung stopped mounting the fingerprint sensor to the bottom of the display on its Galaxy S flagships after the Galaxy S7; this enabled Samsung to make the Galaxy S8 (and other newer models) display larger and their bezels thinner compared to older models. Although, the firm didn't first got it right because the fingerprint sensor was placed near to the rear camera thereby making it difficult to use without smudging the camera lens. There were a lot of complaints by users.

Close-up look at the Galaxy S8 rear fingerprint sensor beside the camera
Galaxy S8 fingerprint sensor at the right side of the rear camera

Nowadays, we have the fingerprint sensor positioned at the rear below the camera because naturally that's where we rest our thumb when holding our smartphone. The main purpose of fingerprint login is not only to make our device more secured, but to also let us access our device faster and easier compared to using password. That's why the position of the fingerprint sensor matters - there is no essence in using it if we find it difficult to use because of where it is mounted.

Rear-mounted fingerprint sensor google pixel
Google Pixel fingerprint sensor placed below the rear camera

Phone manufacturers want to make our phones slimmer, more good-looking, lighter, and more feature-packed, but the conveniency attached to using phones are being washed down through the drain in the process. In-display (or in-screen) fingerprint sensor, also known as under-display fingerprint sensor, is the latest trend and it is by far the most easiest to use. Since the sensor is directly embedded to the screen, an user can easily lock/unlock his phone by just tapping the screen without much fumbling.

Vivo was the first tech firm to introduce a phone with an in-display fingerprint sensor, the X20 Plus, at the CES event in 2018. Other firms embraced the new tech months later and it is becoming increasingly popular nowadays. Samsung joined the queue in 2019 when it launched the Galaxy S10, which happened to be its first phone to use the tech. There are presently two different types of in-display fingerprint sensor used in smartphones, optical and ultrasonic, both having their cons and pros.

In-display fingerprint sensor seem to have entirely solve the headaches attached to using fingerprint sign-in, but the tech has not yet reached its full potential. It sucks. It is slow, it lags, and it does not allow the use of standard screen protector since it will hinder the fingerprint recognition. Perhaps its more-worrisome disadvantage is that if the phone screen shatter you may be locked out of your phone. Replacement aren't cheap either.

In-display fingerprint sensor
In-display fingerprint sensor

So far, the rear placement seem to be the best spot at least until in-display fingerprint sensor matured. I particularly like how LG implemented the fingerprint sensor on LG G5 - the fingerprint sensor was rightly mounted to the back where the thumb rest when held and it also serve as the power button. Some phones have the fingerprint sensor mounted to the side below the power button, and in few it also double-up as the power button. These are the best position that fingers can easily reach with no cons attached.

Functionality, conveniency, and usability are of greater value to phone users than aesthetic. It is not about the gimmicks and curves and glittering, but about the usability, reliability, and performance.



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