Surprise! Touch ID Isn’t Perfect!

November 19th, 2013

So a popular online publication has posted an article with an astounding revelation, that the fingerprint sensor that debuted on the iPhone 5s, known as Touch ID, isn’t quite perfect. Rather, it’s an “epic fail.” It doesn’t work for everyone, implying that maybe Apple is cheating its customers by not delivering absolute perfection.

The article in question which, because of the publication’s lack of respect for facts, doesn’t deserve a link, includes anecdotal reports from people who just cannot get Touch ID to work reliably. They report no success, or intermittent success, and it’s also reported that an unknown number of iPhone 5s owners have complained about the feature’s alleged lapses in Apple’s support site.

Now to be fair, no security solution can be 100%. It is possible for someone to make a 3D cast of a fingerprint, and use that to activate the sensor. But that requires time and energy, and having access to someone’s fingerprint so that it can be dusted. Just remember how the crime scene investigators on the “CSI” TV show do it, and you’ll realize you can’t just take a snapshot of an iPhone’s Home button and get a usable image without some extra work.

Regardless, maybe it makes sense to just take a look at what Apple has done, which was accomplished as the result of buying a well-known Florida-based fingerprint technology company, AuthenTec, for $356 million. Certainly news of the transaction made it quite clear that some sort of fingerprint sensor would appear on a future Apple gadget, and the iPhone was ideal.

Now understand that fingerprint sensors have, up till now, not been terribly easy to use. Consider a recent HTC smartphone, the 5.9-inch One Max, in which the sensor was placed in the rear, below the camera. Talk about inconvenient. The few reviews I’ve read about the feature echo what I said, that this was a totally stupid design decision, though perhaps there are patents covering Apple’s version, which may make it difficult to use a Home button to detect a fingerprint. But I don’t claim to have all the ins and outs, other than to suggest that no company that spent more than 30 seconds doing user testing would do what HTC did.

In any case, Apple’s well-known approach is to take complicated technology and make it as simple as possible. Setting up Touch ID merely requires going to Settings>General>Touch ID and Passcode. From there you have to set up a passcode, first, before you do the fingerprint thing. Once the passcode and configured, there’s a Touch ID setup on the next screen, where you tap Add a Fingerprint and continue.

The setup process doesn’t require explanation. Just follow the screen prompts. You can configure up to five fingerprints, which can be your own, or a mixture of yours and those of members of your family. The more prints, the longer it takes for the sensor to work, but it’s about a second give or take in most cases. If you find that you’re not getting a good result, you may want to scan the same finger two or three times so that there are enough variations to improve accuracy. Your decision.

As you might expect, there are times when your fingerprint won’t be accurately sensed. Maybe you have dirty, greasy fingers, or used too much skin lotion. Regardless, Touch ID tries five times and, if it fails, you just enter your passcode. Remember the passcode? If you restart your iPhone, the passcode is always required. If no amount of setup succeeds, or if the results aren’t consistent after you scan a finger a few times, don’t fret. Use the passcode for now, and give Apple time to make it better. There’s no reason to get out of shape over technology that doesn’t work as advertised every single time.

But since this is Apple, the press just won’t give them a pass for imperfection. The magazine in question didn’t write an article about HTC’s miserable implementation of fingerprint sensing, what one reviewer called “an exercise in frustration.” No, it’s all about Apple not being finger perfect.

Of course, I can’t speak for anyone but me when it comes to Touch ID. I set it up as advertised, and found that it works most of the time, though sometimes I have to tap the Home button a couple of times to get a successful result. However, that slight annoyance is still quicker than entering the passcode. At the end of the day, if more iPhone users add this important security step just to try it out, that’s a great achievement.

Compare it to Time Machine, Apple’s OS X backup solution. I can go into the reasons why it’s not the perfect solution. There’s no disk clone feature, for example, where you can boot from another drive if something goes wrong with your Mac’s startup drive. But Time Machine is so convenient to set up that millions of Mac users who never backed up their files now do it routinely. So in that respect, Time Machine has been a huge success. If you want more granularity in the setup, or a true mirror or clone backup, there are third-party software solutions that’ll offer those features. At the end of the day, any backup solution is probably better than no backup solution.

The very same applies to Touch ID.

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8 Responses to “Surprise! Touch ID Isn’t Perfect!”

  1. Ted Schroeder says:

    Well put, Gene, and I agree 100%.

    There are many in the press who think Apple’s wrong about damn near everything.

    I guess it still gets clicks.

  2. William Timberman says:

    It works for me every time, as long as the registered digits are reasonably clean and dry. I especially like the fact that a quick click gets you the lock screen, and a slight pause at the bottom of the click, then a quick release, takes you right to the home screen. SInfully clever. The only question I have now is whether or not it will continue to work reliably for the two years I have to go until the end of my contract. Time will tell.

  3. DaveD says:

    Usually if there is a problem there are many more complaints like the recent iWork changes. What I have read is that Touch ID would have been a desirable feature on the new iPads. I’m guessing one of the reasons why that Apple chose not to is to gather information from the iPhone 5s users for a proper analysis of how Touch ID is performing. Did this person contact Apple? I chose to not read the article.

    I happened to click on an article in The Guardian over the weekend. Initially thought it would be a constructive criticism piece on Apple. But, it was utter garbage after reading the first paragraph. Bad move on my part.

  4. AlfieJr says:

    Apple already advised that people with fingertip scars, callouses, etc. may not be able to use Touch ID. this happens to include my wife – it won’t work reliably for her (but works every time for me). that article is just pure hit-whoring.

    as to security, if you are really paranoid about your fingerprint being replicated somehow, then just use your knuckle instead, dummy. i tried that, and it works fine too. OMG, that was so hard to figure out!

  5. David C says:

    In December 2013, I upgraded my daughter’s phone to a 5s. After a couple of weeks, I asked her how she liked the phone, and she said fine, except for the fact that the Touch ID failed so frequently that she turned it off and went back to the passcode. She said she’d tried resetting it a couple of times, but it was just too unreliable to use.

    I wrote that off as her just not being patient enough to get the Touch ID to work — that is, until I upgraded my phone to a 5s. The Touch ID seemed to work well enough for the first few days, but after about 10 days it started to produce multiple “try again” messages. I reset the Touch ID and it worked better for a while, but it started to degrade after some use.

    The Apple apologist who wrote this article used the “well, it’s still better than an HTC” equivocation, implyiing that it’s unreasonable for users to think that this technology should work reasonably well. I’m sorry, but that’s a pantload of excuses for a technology that, while not an “epic fail”, is nonetheless a pretty major failure.

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