Smartphones with in-display fingerprint sensors coming in 2018

Biometrics company Synaptics has begun mass production of an in-display fingerprint sensor with a “top five OEM”. The long-awaited arrival of the technology, dubbed Clear ID, will allow smartphone manufacturers to install front-facing fingerprint sensors on mobile devices with elongated “bezel-less” displays.

Synaptics’ Clear ID optical sensors have been designed to effectively replicate the experience of using a standard front-facing system but without the need for a visible button. Instead, the US firm’s technology sits underneath the display, with fingerprint authentication performed via the touchscreen.

Bezel-less displays are far and away the hottest trend in the mobile industry right now, with the sector’s elite manufacturers like Samsung, Apple, and Google all seeking to remove as much redundant space from their flagship devices as possible.

The increasing popularity of phone screens with wider aspect ratios (usually 18:9) has forced those same companies to confront a troublesome dilemma, however: What happens to the fingerprint sensor?

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Once a niche feature, fingerprint sensors are now commonplace on smartphones across all budgets. As an example, Apple’s Touch ID technology had been a staple feature of its iPhone range since its debut on the iPhone 5S in 2013.

That all changed with this year’s ultra-premium iPhone X, of course. Apple has positioned its facial recognition system – Face ID – as Touch ID’s natural successor, with the latter forced to abandon its usual home due to the iPhone X’s longer OLED display. Most companies, though, went a much simpler route and decided to simply move fingerprint sensors to the rear of their devices.

Although some rear-mounted sensors have been praised and are usually as accurate and responsive as their front-facing counterparts, others have been criticized. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and Note 8 flagship phones have been singled out as some of the worst offenders in this regard, with many users bemoaning the sensor’s placement right next to the camera.

While Apple has denied that it ever thought about retaining Touch ID in some form for its 10th anniversary iPhone, Samsung has frequently been linked with the type of technology that Synaptics is now producing.

As well as the obvious practical benefits, repositioning the sensor within the screen means it is protected from scratches and damage by the display itself. Synaptics says its final product will not only work in all weather conditions but is also faster than other biometric systems (such as facial recognition) and provides the same level of security as regular fingerprint sensors.

Synaptics isn’t the only company in the race to revolutionize smartphone biometrics – San Diego giant Qualcomm showcased its own take on the technology earlier this year in prototype form – it is, however, the first to go into mass production with what it calls a “top five OEM”.

By market share, the top five are currently Samsung, Apple, Huawei, Oppo, and Xiaomi as of the third quarter of 2017 (according to Statista). Synaptics’ reference to “OLED infinity displays” has led some to speculate that Samsung is involved in the deal, as the South Korean giant promoted the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8 screens as having “Infinity Displays”.

Regardless of the mystery partner’s true identity, the announcement will no doubt encourage other smartphone makers to consider in-display fingerprint sensors for their devices in 2018 and beyond.

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