Beyond Touch ID: Where mobile fingerprint scanners are headed

CNET talks to Synaptics, a provider of fingerprint recognition technology, to see how the industry will counter Apple.

The HTC One Max's fingerprint scanner is on the back. Sarah Tew/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- Apple isn't the only one looking to shove a fingerprint sensor onto its smartphone.

There will be several high-profile smartphones that will include fingerprint scanners, according to Michael Maia, vice president of sales for the biometric division of touchscreen and touch pad company Synaptics. Its product will ship in the first quarter, and more phones should come out in the second half, he said.

"It will be fairly mainstream," he told CNET at the sidelines of the Consumer Electronics Show.

Fingerprint recognition technology hit mainstream awareness when Apple decided to make it its marquee feature on the iPhone 5S. Pretty soon, millions of people were putting their finger on the home button to unlock their phone.

Now, other companies are looking to add the same feature to their own flagship smartphone.

The HTC One Max was the first to follow the iPhone 5S to include a fingerprint sensor, which was supplied by Validity, the fingerprint ID company that Synaptics purchased last year. Like previous fingerprint ID systems, the HTC One Max required a person to swipe down with their finger to unlock the phone.

It's similar to the thin fingerprint sensor found in laptops. Validity had virtually the entire share of that market and continues to support PCs under Synaptics.

In contrast, Apple used a different technology from Authentec, which it acquired in July 2012 . Rather than swipe, a person just has to place their finger on the home screen, where it is scanned and recognized. Analysts have noted that the placement of the scanner on the home button, a natural place for a finger to rest, makes it easier for consumers to warm up to it.

The HTC One Max's sensor is on the back, and Maia said a lot of smartphones with a fingerprint sensor would likely include them somewhere on the back. He noted that Apple has the luxury of placing it on its physical home key, while many phones running Android or Windows Phone lack the space on the front of the phone. Either the phone has capacity touchscreen buttons, or the bezel around the phone is too small to allow for a physical key.

The Holy Grail, Maia said, is to get the fingerprint scanner embedded under the glass, negating the need for a physical scanner. But he noted that was likely still far away -- certainly more than a year from now.

Meanwhile, Synaptics is working to create different versions for different handset makers looking to stand out. Unfortunately, Maia wouldn't comment on which vendors were looking at his technology.

Synaptics has developed a keyboard where they keys respond to gesture controls. Roger Cheng/CNET

At least one big player, Samsung Electronics, had looked at the technology. Samsung initially planned to include a fingerprint scanner in the Galaxy Note 3, people familiar with the device told CNET, which would have beaten Apple's iPhone 5S with the feature. However, Samsung scrapped the plan before the device's September unveiling because the technology proved to be unreliable and complicated, the people said.

Samsung could be including fingerprint-reading technology, but the latest word is that the company may use an iris-scanner instead.

Apple wasn't the first to use a fingerprint scanner either. Motorola, before getting absorbed by Google, came out with the Atrix, the first phone with a fingerprint scanner embedded on the top of the device. It used technology made by Authentec, although it was clunky and also used the swipe method.

Beyond biometrics, Synaptics showed off a few prototypes of laptop keyboards with built-in capacity sensors beneath them. Allowing you to do gesture controls by swiping across keys, or lighting up the keys just by touching them. The company said laptops with this feature might come during the holidays.

CNET's Shara Tibken contributed to this story.

Read the full CNET Review

HTC One Max

The Bottom Line: The HTC One Max has a display big-screened phone shoppers want, but the Samsung Galaxy Note 3's superior design and display make it a better buy. / Read full review

About the author

Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan.

 

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