It’s been a long time since you could point to a single item on a spec sheet and say that it distinguishes the latest smartphones from their predecessors. The must-have features in phones are usually more ephemeral, such as a camera that’s easy to use and a design that appeals to one’s senses as well as sensibilities. Fingerprint readers are today’s exception to that rule: they draw a clear line of hardware distinction between the phones of the past and those that we’ll be using in the future.
2015 has been a great year for fingerprint scanners in two major ways. Firstly, all companies figured out how to make or acquire really fast and accurate sensors. Last year, only Huawei and Apple could lay claim to having the technology at a usable state, but now we have the Samsung Galaxy S6, HTC One A9 and M9+, Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact, and even the LG V10. The world’s suddenly full of very good fingerprint readers, and two of the best among them are the Nexus Imprint duo used on the Nexus 6P and 5X. This is the other big advance: Google’s endorsement of fingerprint authentication. New Nexus devices always signal the future direction of Android, and Google has made fingerprint readers a core, branded feature of Android 6.0.
Like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay before it, Google’s Android Pay is going to rely on your fingerprints to make mobile payments both quick and secure. Each of these services is still in its developmental stages, but the momentum and technology are finally there for contactless mobile payments and biometric identification to become a mainstream thing. Google’s participation means that both dominant mobile platforms are now aligned in the same approach, and its stringent accuracy and security requirements in Android 6.0 — sensors "must have a false acceptance rate not higher than 0.002%" — should ensure quality and peace of mind for non-Nexus users as well.
Mobile payments and fingerprint security were made for one another
Payments are the most obvious application of fingerprint ID, but even so, their convenience can often go overlooked. Services like Apple Pay are going to be hugely disruptive because of how easily they can slot into a person’s daily routine, whether that’s for buying the morning cup of coffee or paying for groceries in the evening. Once you build Samsung, Apple, or Android Pay into your life, you’ll still be able to back out and return to paying for things the old way, but you probably won’t want to.
The same is true about unlocking your phone biometrically. The moment you get accustomed to a phone with a fast and reliable fingerprint sensor, you start to marvel at other people fiddling with silly pattern or PIN unlocks. We unlock our phones hundreds of times each day, and it’s frankly a minuscule form of masochism to have to perform finger gymnastics every time we want to check our Twitter mentions. What’s more, this year’s generation of fingerprint sensors are so stupendously fast that they’re bypassing the lock screen before a user can even see it.
It’s actually illuminating: fingerprint security shows what an alien concept it is to have a lock screen at all, and could eventually obviate the lock screen altogether. Google’s Nexus Imprint is already fast enough to let you unlock a phone in less time than it takes to bring it up to look at it. Think about that kind of fluidity and then consider all the potential of a rich notification or summary page — one that isn’t bound by the same privacy concerns as lock screen notifications — replacing what you’re used to seeing when just checking your phone. Or, alternatively, how about a phone that switches between business and leisure modes depending on which finger you unlock it with? Touch ID and Nexus Imprint are excellent in technical terms today, but they’re also opening the door to tons of software innovation and creativity tomorrow.
Yes, it's a spec that really, truly matters
The companies that are sitting out of the fingerprint race so far, Motorola and Microsoft most notable among them, stand to miss out because of it. The Moto X Style is a pretty great Android smartphone, but it won’t stand a chance at being considered the best without offering the fullest and best Android experience — which Google has now tied to a fingerprint reader. Similarly with the upcoming Lumias, which tout a lot of advanced technology and promise great camera performance, the absence of a fingerprint reader seems puzzling. Microsoft opts to use iris scanning instead to unlock the new Lumia 950 and 950 XL, though it will likely need a proper fingerprint security system to introduce its own mobile wallet service.
For most of this year, fingerprint readers have been a nice extra to have, an advantage for the priciest phones but not a great loss to anyone shopping in a lower price bracket. That situation is rapidly changing, with Google’s unequivocal endorsement marking a tipping point in the importance of the feature. As Android 6.0 proliferates and new phones come on the market, uses and implementations of fingerprint ID are going to quickly ramp up in both number and diversity. It’s for this reason that your next phone should, perhaps must, include a fingerprint reader.Verge Video: Nexus 6P review