Why the new iPhone doesn't have an in-display fingerprint sensor



Credit: Christopher Hebert/IDG

If you're wondering the Apple still hasn't released a smartphone with an in-display fingerprint sensor, the answer is actually simpler than you might think: devices like the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro don't need one.

As long as things are secure enough that you don’t have to worry about it, most consumers are likely to opt for a faster and more reliable technology over a safer one. While in-display fingerprint sensors were one of 2019's hottest smartphone trends, the level of real-world convenience they offer simply can't compete with the hands-free appeal of solutions like Face ID.

In 2019, Samsung, Huawei, Oppo and other Android smartphone brands embraced the appeal of an in-display fingerprint sensor. Moving the biometric sensor from the back of a device to underneath the screen renders it invisible and the benefits are immediately apparent. Early in-display fingerprint sensors were convenient, reliable and futuristic. 

In 2020, in-display fingerprint sensor continued to be dominant and a standard part of the flagship formula - though not all fingerprint sensors are born equal. Compared to their predecessors, more recent in-display fingerprint sensor tech tends to be both faster and more generous in terms of the physical size of the sensor.

Regardless, Apple's iPhone 11, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max have all opted to exclude the feature in favor of Face ID. Now, the reason for this and the argument for why it isn't a terrible decision isn't terribly complicated.

Apple's latest iPhones don't bother with rear-mounted fingerprint sensorsCredit: Jason Cross/IDG
Apple's latest iPhones don't bother with rear-mounted fingerprint sensors

Face ID is still pretty much the gold standard for face unlock tech in smartphones. When it comes to security, Apple's Face ID is regarded as significantly more secure than the 2D Face Unlock systems found in Android smartphones.

While they still lag behind the high level of protection offered by fingerprint sensors, Face ID still has the edge in speed and convenience. For many, the pitch of a futuristic smartphone that you can unlock with a look trumps one that you can open with a single tap. After all, even a single tap comes second place to none at all.

Of course, just because Apple has chosen to let you unlock your phone using your face rather than your finger this time around doesn't mean Touch ID can't be brought back later down the line. After all, there are plenty of older and cheaper iPads and iPhones like the new iPhone SE that still rely on Touch ID.

Wondering how in-display fingerprint sensors work? Check out our guide here.

In-Screen Fingerprint DisplayCredit: Oppo
In-Screen Fingerprint Display

Some analysts have speculated that with 2019's iPhones being a refresh of the device's internals (specifically the processor and camera), a more substantial redesign is likely to debut in 2020 or 2021. If that's the case, it's entirely Apple could well resurrect Touch ID using an in-display fingerprint sensor.

In July 2020, AppleInsider spotted a pair of patent applications related to the technology filed by Apple. The first of these is for a system of optical sensors that can be embedded beneath the display of a device. The second is for an optical-fingerprint detection system. While patents like this are hardly prophecy, it adds credence to earlier rumors that Apple might be looking to retool Touch ID in the near future.

According to Bloomberg, this new version of Touch ID wouldn't be as limited or restrictive as current in-display authentication tech. They say "the upcoming fingerprint reader would be embedded in the screen, letting a user scan their fingerprint on a large portion of the display, and it would work in tandem with the existing Face ID system."

Apple's new iPhone SE brings back Touch IDCredit: Apple
Apple's new iPhone SE brings back Touch ID

It's not hard to imagine the company using this new take on Touch ID as a substitute for Face ID in cheaper iPhones and a complement to the security of higher-end models.

Apple might be a little bit behind the curve compared to Samsung and other Android brands when it comes to introducing an in-display fingerprint sensor but that's nothing new. Whether we're talking about wireless charging, OLED displays or multi-lens camera hardware, Apple have always introduced new features and technology at their own pace. In that light, their current approach to in-display fingerprint sensors is hardly an exception to the rule.

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Fergus Halliday
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