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10 July 2017

An iPhone 8 without a fingerprint sensor wouldn’t make any sense

In a few months, the wait for the “iPhone 8” will finally be over, and for a brief moment, we’ll all get a break from the rumor mill churn.

Despite Apple’s doubling down on secrecy, the iPhone 8 has leaked, and leaked, and leaked. We know a lot about the phone. We’re pretty sure it’ll have a new glass and stainless steel design, an edge-to-edge OLED display, wireless charging, a vertically-aligned dual camera, no headphone jack, and — this is a big one — no home button.

If you, like us, keep tabs on every single iPhone 8 rumor, you’ll know that speculation constantly flip-flops.

One day the iPhone 8 will have a Touch ID fingerprint sensor embedded underneath the display. The next day it’s an ugly hole on the back of the phone. And now reports say there won’t even be a fingerprint sensor on the phone at all.

Which one is it? Everything’s a rumor so, honestly, who the hell knows. Even the guys who always seem to know Apple’s plans aren’t even sure.

KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo and Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman have an impressive track record when it comes to reporting on unannounced Apple products, but there’s something that just doesn’t feel right about their latest reports claiming the iPhone 8 won’t come with a fingerprint sensor at all.

We can’t go back to using easily-crackable PIN codes.

Apple introduced Touch ID on the iPhone 5S in 2013 and has improved on it ever since. The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus come with the second-generation fingerprint scanner, which is 2x faster than the original.

Since its introduction, all flagship Android phones have adopted their own fingerprint scanners as a way to unlock the phone and protect user data from prying eyes.

Simply put, fingerprint scanners have made our most private and important possession safe. It’s the best way to secure your phone — safer than PIN codes, or passwords, or pattern unlocks.

If Apple does ditch the fingerprint sensor on the iPhone 8, what will replace it? We can’t go back to using easily-crackable PIN codes.

Kuo and Gurman both say Apple’s working on advanced “3D sensing for facial recognition.” Sounds high tech — Samsung’s Galaxy S8/S8+ use face recognition to unlock the phone in addition to the rear-positioned fingerprint sensor — and while it’s possible Apple might have figured out how to make it more secure (or so they’ll claim) than a fingerprint there are other problems that sprout from a lack of a fingerprint sensor.

The Galaxy S8's iris scanner

The Galaxy S8’s iris scanner

Image: lili sams/mashable

For example, would the the face recognition work in the dark? I’ve tried unlocking the S8 with my face in the dark and, boy, does it not work great. You could get around the darkness issue on the S8 if you turn on the phone’s iris scanner, which sees right through the dark, but you can’t have it and face recognition both on — it’s one or the other. In the middle of the night, or the backseat of an Uber at 2:00 a.m., or at a dimly-lit bar, a fingerprint sensor just works more efficiently.

And with no rumors about Apple including an iris scanner on the iPhone 8, it seems highly unlikely it’ll make an appearance this late in the game.

More importantly, how will Apple Pay on the iPhone 8 work without fingerprint authentication? On the S8, face recognition can’t be used to authenticate Samsung Pay transactions; you need to use the fingerprint scanner or the iris scanner.

Unless Apple’s face recognition tech is somehow way more secure than Samsung’s, Apple Pay would get sliced at the knees and there’s no way that’s gonna happen.

So what’s Apple gonna do? There’s one theory that makes sense: move the sensor to the power button. Every leaked image, prototype, or dummy has shown the iPhone 8 sporting a longer than usual power button.

A translated Weibo post (via BGR) suggests Apple might move the fingerprint sensor to the home button. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it’d be a hell of a lot better than a sensor on the backside below the Apple logo.

It’s not unprecedented for a power button to double as a fingerprint sensor. Sony’s flagship Xperia phones (all the ones not sold in the U.S.) have had the sensor in the power button for years, and you know what? They work just fine.

Embedding Touch ID underneath the screen would’ve been ideal, but the challenges associated with doing so could’ve stalled things. 

Samsung ran into issues with getting Synaptics to develop sensors within displays, which is why the S8 has a fingerprint sensor on the back and upcoming Note 8 will probably have the same, too. Vivo recently announced it had embedded a fingerprint sensor under a display using Qualcomm technology, but it’s only on a prototype, and the feature won’t make it into commercial phones until the first half of next year.

Phones are all about tradeoffs. I could live with Touch ID in the power button, but if there’s none at all? That would really suck.

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