Should iPhone 8’s Touch ID be on its back? [Friday Night Fights]


A sacrifice worth making?
A sacrifice worth making?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Recently “leaked” schematics for Apple’s next-generation iPhone reveal the company could be returning to a sharper, squarer form factor similar to that of the iPhone 5. They also hinted at a big change for Touch ID.

Friday Night Fights bugWith Apple expected to eliminate the Home button from this year’s iPhone, its fingerprint scanner could be relocated to its back — like on many Androids. This would free up space on the front of the phone for a larger display, while maintaining the secure and super-fast biometric sensor we all love.

But is a rear-facing fingerprint scanner a smart move, or should it remain on the front of the iPhone? Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight as we battle it out over the iPhone 8’s Touch ID button.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke Dormehl: Personally, I’m skeptical about whether Touch ID really will be on the back of the next iPhone, but I really, really hope that it’s not.

Originally, reports suggested that Apple had a way of incorporating the Touch ID fingerprint recognition sensor under the display of its new handset, which would be an innovative move that would allow Apple to enlarge the size of its iPhone display, without having to increase the size of a bezel. Apparently it’s run into problems with this implementation, however, which is why we’re now hearing about Touch ID being relocated to the rear of the device.

If true, this would be an incredibly messy solution to a problem that, frankly, I don’t think exists. The Home button is an iconic part of the iPhone design, and getting rid of it is only going to be a net positive if Apple can do something that’s noticeably better. If it relocates the sensor to the back, it’s harder to reach, comes across as a clumsy and unintuitive option and — frankly — would be indicative of some other equally clumsy design decisions that have plagued Apple recently: from the weird charging position of its newer mice and Apple Pencil to the Touch Bar no-one asked for on the new MacBook Pro. This would be even worse, though, because unlike charging your mouse or your iPad stylus, everyone unlocks their iPhone multiple times per day.

I cannot think of a single reason to justify moving the Touch ID sensor. Frankly, the only thing worse would be a Touch ID dongle. But perhaps you disagree?

Killian Bell FNFKillian Bell: I certainly do disagree. Apple cannot afford to deliver another iPhone with ugly bezels after rivals like Samsung and LG just rolled out spectacularly stunning smartphones with displays that take up almost all of the space on the front of the phone. I’ve only been using the Galaxy S8 for 24 hours, and already my iPhone 7 looks outdated and boring.

Samsung has shown us the future of smartphone design with its latest flagships, and other handset makers will be following suit. Almost all of them are working to eliminate bulky bezels that serve no purpose, other than making a phone look unsightly. Apple is doing the same, according to recent rumors — and if it doesn’t, it is making a big mistake.

A fingerprint scanner on the back of a phone isn’t hard to reach. You cannot pick up a phone without placing some of your fingers on its back, so they’re already in the right position to use the scanner. Lots of Android handset makers have employed rear-facing fingerprint scanners, and they work. Read the reviews and you’ll find very few complaints.

In fact, you’ll find more complaints about Android phones that have physical home buttons with front-facing fingerprint scanners these days. The vast majority would prefer a larger display with virtual buttons, that fits into a smaller footprint, than a physical key that has very few functions and requires a thick bezel.

I would certainly prefer a Touch ID button embedded beneath the iPhone’s display, but if Apple can’t do that, I’ll take a rear-facing scanner and slimmer bezels any day. You can’t tell me the iPhone is still one of the prettiest handsets on sale today when you look at more recent competition.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: The Galaxy S8 has definitely come a long way from the earlier Galaxy handsets, at least visually. But ultimately what I’m looking for from a handset is functionality. Form should follow function, and Apple’s biggest mistakes in the past have come from it letting that balance tip in the wrong direction. Would an edge-to-edge infinity display be nice? Absolutely it would. Would I trade it for the ability to quickly and easily unlock my phone? No. It’s a compromised solution, and there’s no defending it as anything other than that. Maybe over time Apple will perfect other biometric technology that would allow it to downgrade the Touch ID sensor to a backup solution, but that point most likely isn’t now.

As I say, though, I’m still holding out hope that what we’ve seen from schematics is actually related to wireless charging or something else, as opposed to proof that Touch ID is going to be moved to an incredibly inconvenient new location.

Killian Bell FNFKillian: You’ve clearly never used a smartphone with a rear-facing fingerprint scanner. They’re not difficult to use. Your fingers are already on the back of your phone when you pick it up, so if anything, they’re even more convenient. Calling them a compromised solution is just ridiculous, and the reviews of smartphones with rear-facing scanners prove that.

“Just below the camera is the perfect place for a fingerprint sensor, simply because it’s where my finger naturally rests when I pick up a phone,” writes Max Parker of Trusted Reviews in his LG G6 review.

“LG equipped the G6 with a rear fingerprint reader, which is definitely the fastest option for unlocking a phone by pulling it out of your pocket,” says Ars Technica.

“Its position on the back, below the camera, is a natural place for your index finger to rest when holding the device,” says The Guardian in its review of the Nexus 5X. “I found I unlocked the phone simply by picking it up and I never felt like I was going to drop it when unlocking it, as I have done with home button-style fingerprint scanners.”

“I’ve also become a master at unlocking my phone before it’s even out of my pocket thanks to the new fingerprint sensor on the back of the 5X,” reads The Verge’s review. “I was really skeptical that this would be as good as a front fingerprint scanner, like you’d find on an iPhone or Samsung device, but the 5X’s scanner falls perfectly under my index finger and is lightning fast. By the time I’ve gotten the phone out of my pocket and up to my face, the screen is on and it’s unlocked.”

“Where the fingerprint scanner is on the Nexus 5X is just perfect,” according to TalkAndroid. “It’s always accessible because you’re guaranteed to have your index finger close to it while using the phone.”

I could continue quoting reviews, but I think I’ve made my point. Sure, it might take a little bit of getting used to, but moving Touch ID to the back of the iPhone won’t have a negative impact on the user experience. That’s complete rubbish. And since when was Apple concerned about that anyway? It just removed the damn headphone jack from iPhone 7, forcing us all to use a dongle.

Apple’s hardware design used to be unmatched. For years after the iPhone was unveiled, it was impossible to find a smartphone that looked as good. That’s no longer the case. Samsung and others are making much prettier devices now, and their slimmer bezels are a major reason for that. Big bezels aren’t attractive, and it’s time for them to go. I don’t understand why you’re happy for Apple to stick with them.

Luke Dormehl FNFLuke: I’m not arguing against making a phone pretty. Heck, the distinctive design of Apple products is probably what brought a lot of people here to the brand in the first place. What I’m saying is that I prize technology that works over technology that simply looks nice. Now maybe Apple can get Touch ID to work well in its new home, but what we’re talking about here is the definition of compromised: Apple started with one idea, embedding Touch ID under glass, and is now having to move the sensor because it couldn’t get the technology to work. I have great expectations for the iPhone 8, but after a lot of excitement early on, it’s sounding less and less of a “must have” device.

Let’s hope Apple can prove me wrong. But, as I’ve mentioned, this wouldn’t be the first ill-advised design feature Apple’s made in recent years. Man, I can’t believe you’re the one defending this move!

Killian Bell FNFKillian: I’m defending it because I’ve used smartphones with rear-facing fingerprint scanners, and I’ve never thought that they’re worse than front-facing scanners. They’re better, if anything, because they’re more convenient. And all the reviews I quoted above — and many more you’ll find online — agree with me. It’s interesting that you had no response to those.

Let’s see what the readers think now. Would you be happy for Apple to relocate Touch ID to the back of the iPhone in favor of a larger display with slimmer bezels? Or are you happy with the way the iPhone looks today, with its front-facing Home button and big borders? Let us know down in the comments.

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?


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