After an entire year of speculation about whether Apple or Samsung might integrate the fingerprint sensor under the display of their flagship phones, it is actually China’s Vivo that has gotten there first. At CES 2018, I got to grips with the first smartphone to have this futuristic tech built in, and I was left a little bewildered by the experience.
The mechanics of setting up your fingerprint on the phone and then using it to unlock the device and do things like authenticate payments are the same as with a traditional fingerprint sensor. The only difference I experienced was that the Vivo handset was slower — both to learn the contours of my fingerprint and to unlock once I put my thumb on the on-screen fingerprint prompt — but not so much as to be problematic. Basically, every other fingerprint sensor these days is ridiculously fast and accurate, so with this being newer tech, its slight lag feels more palpable.
Vivo is using a newly announced Synaptics optical sensor, which has been in development for years. It works by peering through the gaps between the pixels in an OLED display (LCDs wouldn’t work because of their need for a backlight) and scanning your uniquely patterned epidermis. This is likely the tech that Synaptics and Samsung were collaborating on for the Galaxy S8 for last year, right up until it became apparent that it wouldn’t be ready in time for the phone’s release. Things are different now, as Vivo is close to announcing this as-yet-unnamed phone properly and Synaptics is already in mass production with the so-called Clear ID sensor.
The uncanny thing for me with this phone is how obvious and immediately intuitive the in-display fingerprint system is. This 6-inch phone has the minimal bezels of something like the OnePlus 5T, but it also happens to unlock when I put my finger at the bottom of its screen. The technological aspect is just totally invisible and, if you’re not paying attention to how challenging this is technically, it feels almost pedestrian and unimpressive. Like, of course, that’s how it always should have been.