The Galaxy S8’s misplaced fingerprint scanner was probably a last-minute change

Ask anyone to tell you where a smartphone’s fingerprint reader should be and, though the answers will vary, you’ll never be told “off center, right next to the camera lens on the back.” But lo and behold, that’s exactly where Samsung plopped its fingerprint scanner on the new (and otherwise delightful) Galaxy S8. It’s a perplexing decision if we consider it as a deliberate design choice, but reports ahead of the S8’s launch, which now seem validated by the device itself, suggest that it was a last-minute alteration enforced by the slower-than-desired development of more ambitious technology.

A March 13th report out of Korea lays it all out lucidly. Samsung, working in collaboration with Synaptics, had initially hoped to build the fingerprint sensing tech directly into the screen itself. “Samsung poured resources into Synaptics’ fledgling technology last year but the results were frustrating,” an informed source is quoted as saying. “With the production imminent, the company had to decide to relocate the fingerprint scanning home button to the back of the device at the last minute.”

I’ve handled the Galaxy S8 myself and noticed how much time Samsung has committed to recreating the tactile home button it’s had at the front of its phones since the Galaxy S series’ inception. There’s localized haptic feedback at the location of the new on-screen home button on the S8, and Samsung’s demo staff are fully trained up to explain the difference to uninitiated users. Even the lock screen has a “place finger to unlock” graphic that hovers immediately above the software home button’s spot — which would also be the most logical place to find an integrated fingerprint reader.

It may be circumstantial supposition, but I’m far more willing to believe Samsung made a bad compromise late in the development process of its new flagship than I am to think that the company intended to have the current design all along. Samsung has gotten too good at industrial design for that to be the case.

What I’m noticing these days is that the leading hardware companies are clashing with engineering problems and limitations more often than ever before. The Galaxy Note 7 debacle last year was the result of Samsung trying to squeeze every last bit of battery that it could into its premium phone. A few months later, Apple’s MacBook Pro refresh was supposed to come with a tailored battery design, which apparently didn’t pan out in time and the laptop was eventually released with a more conventional battery setup. The more mature a tech category is, the harder it becomes to accomplish the next great jump forward.

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As far as the Galaxy S8 is concerned, we’ll have to wait until we’ve reviewed the new phone to decide if its fingerprint reader location is as bad as it looks at first glance. Maybe we’ll all develop the alacrity to unlock our Samsung phones without always smudging up their camera lenses. Either way, we can probably look forward to seeing Samsung and Synaptics finishing off their work and releasing a phone whose all-encompassing display is capable of reading its user’s fingerprint directly. Perhaps in time for the Galaxy Note 8.

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