After I set up Samsung’s new Galaxy S10 Plus phone last week, I showed it to my partner and said with atypical enthusiasm, “Check it out — this phone has the fingerprint sensor built directly into the screen.”
I pressed my thumb down on the screen, where the fingerprint sensor was embedded. “No match,” a message on the phone read. I pressed down again and got the same message. After five failed attempts, it asked for a passcode.
“Great demo,” my partner said as she turned back to browsing Instagram on her phone.
A few days later, Samsung issued a software update that it described as a security patch for biometrics. After I installed it and re-enrolled my fingerprints, the Galaxy’s reader showed a marked improvement. The phone registered my print to unlock the phone the majority of the time, though there were still occasional failures.
My bumpy experience with the print sensor firmed up one conclusion: Face recognition is a more convenient method for unlocking phones, and Samsung is behind Apple in this area.
That is unfortunate in an era of skyrocketing phone prices: If you’re shelling out this much cash for a phone, you expect to get the best of the best, not a compromise. The Galaxy S10 Plus is no modest gadget, with a starting price of $ 1,000. And Samsung is preparing to push prices up even higher with the Galaxy Fold, a highly anticipated $ 1,980 tablet that physically folds into a pocketable cellphone, which will become available in late April.
Apple phased out fingerprint sensors in its newest iPhones after fully embracing its face-scanning technology, which works by spraying your face with infrared dots to create a 3-D image. That image is then used to check whether you are the smartphone’s owner before unlocking the device.
Face recognition has proved to be more difficult for thieves to manipulate; it also logs you into your phone more consistently than a fingerprint sensor. Samsung’s phones also have face scanners, but they use a less secure method for authenticating you. More on this later.
Despite the hiccups, I enjoyed using Samsung’s Galaxy S10 Plus, its new flagship device, which will become available on March 8. The device was an upgrade from Samsung’s Galaxy S9 phones, which were also excellent Android devices. Notable new features include a 6.4-inch high-definition screen, an ultra wide-angle lens for taking broader shots, the ability to use the phone to wirelessly charge another device’s battery and an improved battery that made the phone last all day.
After I used the Galaxy S10 Plus for a week, here’s what I found.
Impressive wide-angle shots
I began my tests by taking the Galaxy S10 Plus outdoors to try the new camera. The back of the device has a triple-lens system, meaning it has one more lens than some of last year’s Galaxy phones that had dual-lens cameras.
The new camera has a so-called ultra wide-angle lens for taking shots with a wider field of view than traditional phone cameras, which makes it handy for shooting landscapes or large group gatherings. To take an ultra wide-angle shot, you pinch inward to zoom all the way out.
The results were impressive. One shot on a beach was so encompassing that it captured people standing on the sand, the ocean waves and the adjacent parking lot.
Another ultrawide shot showed my dogs running alongside a pond and the surrounding trees, blue sky and grass fields. The details of the ripples in the lake and the clouds in the sky looked stunning.
Initially, I was skeptical about needing yet another camera lens on a smartphone, but ultrawide photography was delightful. I look forward to this feature coming to other phones this year.
An excellent screen and a robust battery
The new Samsung device’s 6.4-inch screen is on a par with the 6.5-inch screen on Apple’s iPhone XS Max and the 6.3-inch display on Google’s Pixel 3 XL. All produce sharp, rich images with accurate colors and excellent shadow detail. (If you asked me which screen was best, I would call it a draw.)
As for the battery, the Galaxy S10 Plus had such long battery life that by bedtime after a busy day, the device still had about 25 percent of juice remaining. Samsung said it expanded the size of the battery while also improving the software to manage energy use.
Samsung is so confident in the new Galaxy phone’s battery that it designed the device to wirelessly charge other gadgets, like smart watches and other phones. The feature, Wireless PowerShare, uses induction, which involves tapping an electrical current to generate a magnetic field that powers other devices.
To use the power-sharing feature, you hit a button in the phone’s settings and place another device that supports wireless charging onto the back of the Samsung. I stacked my iPhone and the Galaxy S10 Plus back to back, and it took the Samsung about 15 minutes to replenish 5 percent of the iPhone’s battery. That’s a slow charge rate, though Samsung said the feature was primarily intended for charging accessories like wireless earbuds or smart watches.
An improved fingerprint sensor, but weaker biometrics than the iPhone
I found that the fingerprint reader on Samsung’s Galaxy S10 Plus was an improvement over past models. But the device’s biometrics over all were still weaker than the features on Apple’s iPhone, Samsung’s biggest rival.
In previous Samsung phones, the sensor was a physical button on the back of the phone near the camera, which often led people to accidentally bump the camera lenses when attempting to unlock their phones.
Now the sensor is on the front and embedded in the screen. Its ultrasonic technology uses sound waves that read the ridges and valleys of a finger. This means you can now unlock the phone while it is flat on a table, and the ultrasonic technology will be able to scan your print through water or grease. In addition, because the captured image is so detailed, the print becomes much more difficult to spoof than with past fingerprint sensors.
In my tests, I was able to unlock the phone while my hand was damp.
On the downside, Samsung is behind Apple in face recognition. While Apple uses infrared scanning to create a precise 3-D map of a person’s face, Samsung’s face scanner uses the camera to take your photo and then compares it with an image stored on the device. So a thief could fool the system by holding a photo of your face in front of the camera.
Because a person’s head shape is unique, the likelihood of bypassing infrared-based facial recognition with an incorrect face is one in a million, according to Qualcomm. In contrast, the false-acceptance rate of older face-scanning techniques like Samsung’s is one in 100, and the false-acceptance rate of fingerprint scanning (including the new ultrasonic technology) is one in 50,000.
Nonetheless, I tried Samsung’s face recognition feature. When you set it up, Samsung shows a warning that face recognition is less secure because someone who looks like you or uses an image of you could unlock the phone. After taking a photo of my face, the feature was quick to detect my mug and unlock the phone, but it did not instill me with much confidence.
I shared my concerns with Samsung. Drew Blackard, a director of product marketing at the company, said that based on customer feedback, the fingerprint sensor was the most popular method for unlocking devices. As a result, the company focused on improving that feature.
He added that Samsung was studying face recognition and had made it more difficult to trick the scanner with a photo of a person’s face. “Is it an area that we’re continuing to look at? The answer is: Of course,” Mr. Blackard said.
I have to say Samsung’s decision to focus on fingerprint sensing instead of upgrading its face scanner is not particularly satisfying. User feedback isn’t generally an ideal way to design security features. After all, many people also enjoy using the same weak passwords across all their internet accounts.
It also bodes ill for other Samsung phones, such as the Galaxy Fold, which is among the most anticipated handsets of the year. If tomorrow’s smartphone folds up like a book but lacks some of today’s best security features, it would certainly give me pause.