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Galaxy S10 has an ultrasonic fingerprint scanner. That's why you should bother

The Galaxy S10's fingerprint scanner on the screen may look like the one on OnePlus 6T, but don't be fooled. Samsung's flagship Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus are the first phones to use Qualcomm's ultrasound on the fingerprint technology screen, which uses sound waves to read your print. In conjunction with ultrasound at a doctor's office, this "3D Sonic Sensor" technique works by bouncing sound waves off your skin. It will capture your details through water, lotion and grease, at night or in daylight. Qualcomm also claims that it is faster and much safer than the optical fingerprint sensor you have seen in other phones before. That's because the ultrasonic reader takes a 3D capture of all the ridges and valleys that make your skin compared to a 2D image &#821 1; basically a photo – like an optical reader captures with light, not sound waves. The debate between ultrasonic and optical fingerprint scanners comes at a time when biometric security lies on the ascent. Fingerprint readers on the screen are a hot trend in phone design because they do not pick up any space in the face of the phone and require less groping than a sensor embedded on the phone's power switch or rear cover. That design looks good with the move towards a full-screen face with barely visible elements. The Galaxy S10's fingerprint reader on the screen comes with a ripple effect. Sarah Tew / CNET "Security and biometrics have been integrated into mobile platforms at a…

The Galaxy S10’s fingerprint scanner on the screen may look like the one on OnePlus 6T, but don’t be fooled. Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus are the first phones to use Qualcomm’s ultrasound on the fingerprint technology screen, which uses sound waves to read your print.

In conjunction with ultrasound at a doctor’s office, this “3D Sonic Sensor” technique works by bouncing sound waves off your skin. It will capture your details through water, lotion and grease, at night or in daylight. Qualcomm also claims that it is faster and much safer than the optical fingerprint sensor you have seen in other phones before. That’s because the ultrasonic reader takes a 3D capture of all the ridges and valleys that make your skin compared to a 2D image &#821

1; basically a photo – like an optical reader captures with light, not sound waves.

The debate between ultrasonic and optical fingerprint scanners comes at a time when biometric security lies on the ascent. Fingerprint readers on the screen are a hot trend in phone design because they do not pick up any space in the face of the phone and require less groping than a sensor embedded on the phone’s power switch or rear cover. That design looks good with the move towards a full-screen face with barely visible elements.

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The Galaxy S10’s fingerprint reader on the screen comes with a ripple effect.


Sarah Tew / CNET

“Security and biometrics have been integrated into mobile platforms at a rapid pace,” said Alex Katouzian, Senior Vice President of Mobile Technology in December, at Qulalcomm’s Annual Technical Summit in Hawaii. “This is the future of fingerprint technology.”

The ultrasonic fingerprint sensor built into the screen layers replaces iris scanning as the biometric sensor selected on the Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus in particular. (Galaxy S10E has a traditional capacitive fingerprint reader on the switch.) Iris scanning has been around since the Galaxy S7, so Samsung’s move from it is a surprise on the face. Rumor has it that Google can add 3D face scanning to next version of Android called Android Q .

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For an animated explanation of how ultrasonic fingerprint scanners work, make sure to also check out the video in this story. Meanwhile, this is what you need to know about the ultrasonic screen on the fingerprint reader on the Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus.

What is an “ultrasonic” fingerprint sensor?

The 3D Sonic Sensor fingerprint sensor developed by Qualcomm uses sound waves (this is the “sonic” part) to “read” your fingerprint when unlocking your phone. The trend these days is to embed this fingerprint sensor under the display so that you unlock the phone by putting your finger or thumb in the center of the screen – it is also called a fingerprint reader on the screen – but this type of sensor could also be found on a device home button. CNET saw a prototype of this ultrasonic sensor 2015.

In this case, the ultrasonic sensor is integrated into one of the multiple layers that make up your phone’s display. When you put your finger on the target area, move the glass that fits your phone, not the sensor. But your skin sends out a small electrical pulse that activates the sensor and causes it to do its thing. It has been snoozing but by touching the phone you give it a wake up nudge.

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 oneplus-6t-3435

OnePlus 6T was the first phone with an American operator to get an (optical) fingerprint reader on the screen.


James Martin / CNET

How exactly does the ultrasonic sensor work?

When your electrical signal hits the sensor, it emits sound waves bouncing up to your skin. Your skin surface is not flat – your fingertip is a unique pattern of ridges and valleys, making fingerprints a useful form of identification. These ultrasound waves bounce back to the processor, which maps your fingerprint based on the pressure reading of the sound wave that bounces off your skin. Specifically, you calculate different voltage levels based on your ridges and valleys.

In a simplified example, say that your ridges are a 1 and your valley is a 0. The ultrasound sensor module can map that data to form a detailed 3D image of your fingerprint. Soundwaves can also detect your blood flow and would reject a pressure from a separated finger. It cannot be fooled by false fingers or synthetic skin.

Ultrasound against optical fingerprint reader: How is it different?

An optical fingerprint reader – like the one powered by component synaptics like we first saw in Vivo phones – bounces light up to the finger and back down to the sensor, which interprets the reading as a 2D image. It essentially takes a fingerprint to determine the pattern of ridges and valleys. But experts say that this approach is easier to fool with a photo, a fingerprint transfer (for example, if someone lifts your print) or a prosthetic fingerprint.

Qualcomm claims that its ultrasonic fingerprint sensor is powerful enough to get a reading of 4 millimeters deep when it scans your pressure. It’s the pore level. We haven’t tried the Galaxy S10s ultrasonic fingerprint reader yet, so we can’t say for sure if it’s right. But it is certain that everyone in the security community will test it to the limit.

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Goodbye, capacitive fingerprint reader. Hi, ultrasound.


Angela Lang / CNET

How does ultrasound differ from a physical fingerprint reader?

When you put your finger on a smooth reader on the phone’s back, side or home button, your fingerprint is taken by a capacitive fingerprint sensor. Yes, “capacitive” is the same term that applies to your phone’s touch screen, where your finger releases trace amounts of electrical charge for the screen to determine where exactly you are touching.

It’s the same here. Capacitors throughout the scanner detect the location of your finger tips by measuring electrical charge and then matching the pattern of these charges to your registered fingers.

 qualcomm-5g prototype phone

 qualcomm-5g prototype phone


Jessica Dolcourt / CNET

What is the advantage of using this over Face ID and other features for face unlocking?

Apple’s face ID uses a depth map of 30,000 infrared dots to map your face contours. Samsung used competing technology to scan your irises, but removed it for the new phones. The Galaxy S10 phones use a third method that is baked in Google Android, which essentially takes a photo of your face. Facial ID and iris scanning are considered safe enough to use for mobile payments, but the Android Pie Face Recognition option does not support mobile payments. It is there for convenience, but does not give you strong protection.

It is possible that Samsung had difficulty getting a 3D face scanner facing the front to work on time for the Galaxy S10 launch. It’s also possible that Samsung binds its fate to anything Google supports to save money on an investment that may be just a few months away. It would not be completely unlimited to think that Samsung wanted to save a Face ID style option for an August edition of the Galaxy Note 10.

Whatever the plan, regardless of motivation, it is likely that the ultrasound in the screen fingerprint reader will stop for generations – especially if it turns out to be as fast, comfortable and safe as Qualcomm says.

Published: December 4, 2018.
Update : February 21, 2019 at 10:01 pm PT.

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