The push to slim down bezels on smartphones has brought us devices with bigger screens in a more manageable footprint, which is great. However, it also means device makers have to get creative with the fingerprint sensor. Some Android OEMs like Samsung and OnePlus have moved their sensor to the back, and Apple just got rid of the fingerprint sensor altogether on the iPhone X. At CES 2018, Chinese smartphone maker Vivo is on hand to show off the first ever phone with a fingerprint reader inside the display. It’s really the best of both worlds.
Vivo isn’t a name most people in North America associate with smartphones, but it’s consistently in the top five worldwide for device shipments. Most of those are in China, where Vivo and its parent company BKK Electronics are based. Vivo makes Android phones, but the devices that ship in China run a forked version of the platform called Funtouch OS (Chinese Android phones don’t run Google services). Vivo usually pops up on our radar when it shows up at a trade show with a “first ever” feature on smartphones. That’s essentially what’s going on at CES.
The prototype Vivo phone at CES is close to a final design, but it probably won’t launch outside China. The important thing here is the inclusion of a Synaptics in-display fingerprint reader. Synaptics announced this hardware several months ago, saying it would license the technology to device makers. Vivo is just the first to take the company up on that offer.
You unlock the Vivo phone like any other phone with a front-facing sensor — just tap, and the phone unlocks. However, you’re tapping a small section at the bottom of the screen. The display appears to have a sleep mode that highlights the correct area on the OLED panel where the sensor resides. Otherwise, it would be difficult to know where to tap. Early reports claim this sensor is accurate and fast enough, but it can’t match the speed and accuracy of the best dedicated fingerprint sensors.
This technology will only work for phones that use OLED displays because the sensor looks through the spaces between subpixels from under the panel. An LCD has a backlight that would interfere with the process.
Look for phones to begin shipping with in-display fingerprint readers in the coming months. Samsung may even have a custom version of this technology at some point, but it’s not expected as part of the Galaxy S9. The next OnePlus phone seems like an ideal candidate for in-display fingerprint tech. It’s owned by the same parent company as Vivo, and it recently moved to using larger 18:9 displays in its phones.