iPhone’s fingerprint reader a pleasant surprise: Peter Nowak

More than a gimmick


While moving just over a month ago, I was surprised by some of the old junk I found in my closet. One such item was a fingerprint reader for a PC, a device I used for a couple of weeks and tried to like before deciding it was a counter-productive waste of time.

The idea behind the reader was that it was supposed to save time and effort when it came to remembering and punching in passwords, whether it was to access the computer itself or web services such as email. But it didn’t work all that well. It took too long to register my fingerprint and it sometimes took multiple tries to do so. The old method of simply typing in passwords turned out to be much faster and more reliable. And I was fairly certain no one could crack my access with a simple piece of Scotch tape, as I suspected they could with the reader.

It’s because of this experience that I was skeptical of the fingerprint reader on the new iPhone 5S. When Apple confirmed the feature as the device’s big marquee innovation a few weeks ago, it was a letdown. I was sure it wasn’t going to be the clunky, barely-working reader that I had once hooked up to my PC, but I also wasn’t expecting something that’d be terribly useful.

Boy, was I wrong. After using the 5S for the past week, I’m not only pleasantly surprised by what I thought would be a meaningless feature, I’m now having trouble imagining how I might get by without it.

The reader itself is quite intelligent. To register a print, you have to place your finger on the scanner a few times in a few different positions. That’s so the phone can get an accurate scan, but also so that it knows how to read your finger from the different angles it’ll inevitably come from. Over a week of use, I haven’t had a single failure yet.

That’s not why I dig it, though. Prior to the 5S, I’d generally go without a PIN code on my phone, largely because I found it to be more hassle than it was worth. I’ve generally even eschewed the pattern codes that you have to draw on Android phones. In both cases, I typically unlock my device many, many, many times a day, and with each code or pattern entry taking a second or two – well, that’s a pain in the butt when you add it all up.

Apple’s fingerprint sensor doesn’t work without first inputting a PIN code, but once it’s in, you almost never have to use it again because your print take its place. That’s fantastic because it provides the security of a PIN code, without the hassle. And it works every time.

Under Steve Jobs, Apple got much credit for supposedly coming up with products that people never knew they wanted. The fingerprint reader, on a much smaller scale, fits that bill for me. I now have more piece of mind in the event that I ever lose my phone, which is obviously something I’d never really put much thought into before.

Of course, the sensor can be cracked, but as Marc Rogers – a security expert who did the hacking – has written, that’s not really something to be worried about. At least for now, it’s not a simple job and “relies upon a combination of skills, existing academic research and the patience of a Crime Scene Technician.” Germany’s Chaos Computer Club, for example, had to resort to making a fake finger. As the New York Times‘ David Pogue writes, if someone really wants to steal your data that badly, there are many easier ways to do so.

Make no mistake, the new iPhone is still lacking in a few areas – its small screen continues to be a sticking point, and why oh why does Apple still refuse to include Near Field Communications despite everyone else doing it? But the fingerprint reader is one of those nice, practical additions to what is already an otherwise finely tuned machine. No wonder a zillion of them have already sold.