by Al Sacco

Fingerprint Faceoff: Apple Touch ID vs. Samsung Finger Scanner

Jul 16, 20148 mins
Consumer ElectronicsiOSiPhone

Apple's iPhone 5s and Samsung's Galaxy Tab S both pack fingerprint scanners for authentication. The scanners work well, but they have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.

My single favorite feature of the iPhone 5s is the Touch ID fingerprint scanner, which lets you unlock your device with the tap of a finger. So when Samsung recently sent me its new Galaxy Tab S 10.5″ tablet for review, the first thing I did was test the Tab S fingerprint scanner.

It was immediately clear that Tab S’s scanner is more “finicky” than Touch ID, but it’s also more functional. Here’s a quick breakdown and comparison of the iPhone 5s Touch ID scanner and Galaxy Tab fingerprint scanner. 

Apple iPhone 5s Touch ID

Apple’s Touch ID sensor sits just beneath the circular sapphire-crystal panel of the device’s home button. Setting up Touch ID and recording fingerprints is simple and intuitive. You can tap the sensor from any angle to unlock the device or to make purchases in any of Apple’s on-device stores.

That’s it for functionality. Apple plans to integrate Touch ID with more services, and it announced at its recent WWDC that third party apps will get access to Touch ID as part of iOS 8, which is expected in the coming months. But for now, Touch ID really doesn’t do much.

What it does, it does well. As mentioned, Touch ID is my favorite iPhone feature. It just works. It’s not perfect; if you’re sweaty after a workout, or if you’ve just washed a bunch of dishes and your fingers are pruned, it might not recognize a digit. But in normal circumstances, it works like a charm. I’m already so used to Touch ID that it feels like a burden to manually enter password on my other devices.

Touch ID lets you enroll as many as five fingers, so you don’t have to use just one — though Apple says Touch ID could take slightly longer to recognize a finger if you store multiple prints. (I store five prints, and I haven’t noticed any reduced responsiveness.) You can edit and rename the finger listings in the Touch ID fingerprint manager. And a helpful feature lets you tap the sensor while in the fingerprint manager to see the fingers that correspond with specific readings. Apple also says that “[a]s you use Touch ID, it will continue to learn and improve recognition of your fingerprint.”

When I first purchased my iPhone 5s, I was a bit concerned with the security and privacy implications of storing my fingerprint on my Apple device. At first, Apple was relatively tight-lipped about the details of Touch ID security, but it has since published a related Web page.

From that Apple Touch ID security page:

“Touch ID doesn’t store any images of your fingerprint. It stores only a mathematical representation of your fingerprint. It isn’t possible for your actual fingerprint image to be reverse-engineered from this mathematical representation. iPhone 5s also includes a new advanced security architecture called the Secure Enclave within the A7 chip, which was developed to protect passcode and fingerprint data. Fingerprint data is encrypted and protected with a key available only to the Secure Enclave. Fingerprint data is used only by the Secure Enclave to verify that your fingerprint matches the enrolled fingerprint data. The Secure Enclave is walled off from the rest of A7 and the rest of iOS. Therefore, your fingerprint data is never accessed by iOS or other apps, never stored on Apple servers, and never backed up to iCloud or anywhere else. Only Touch ID uses it, and it can’t be used to match against other fingerprint databases.”

For more on Touch ID and how it works, check out Apple’s Touch ID page.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S Fingerprint Scanner

Like Apple’s Touch ID sensor, the Galaxy Tab S’s fingerprint reader lives beneath the device’s home key. Like Touch ID, it’s easy to register new fingerprints. The Galaxy Tab S home button is a long, thin oval, and it’s just wider than the average finger. For the most part, the scanner works well, though it also doesn’t like sweaty or pruned fingers. 

To use the scanner, you need to slide a finger with a firm, smooth swipe across the height of the oval. You cannot tap or touch the scanner to unlock the Tab S. You can’t swipe from side to side to unlock the device, even if you flip the tablet vertically. This is a real drawback, because the fingerprint reader only works if you slide your finger in the exact way it requires.

You can’t, for example, flip the tablet into portrait, or vertical, orientation and then swipe a finger vertically over the length of the oval home button. You can, however, slide from the bottom of the scanner to the top, as long as you slide your finger across the height of the oval.

The Galaxy Tab’s fingerprint scanner integrates with more services than Apple’s Touch ID. For example, you can not only unlock your device with a fingerprint, but also authenticate your Samsung account, which is used to access some Samsung-specific apps and services. You can also use a fingerprint within the PayPal payment app to pay for online purchases or by items in stores where PayPal is accepted. (See the video below for details.) You can’t, however, pay for Google Play purchases with the swipe of a fingerprint.

Two unique fingerprint-based Galaxy Tab S features: Multi-user authentication and access to private mode. If you create multiple user profiles on the Galaxy Tab S, you can easily switch between each user on the device’s lock screen, and the Tab S recognizes fingerprints for each individual. (This feature is more suited for a tablet than a smartphone, because while many people share tablets, it’s less common to share a smartphone.) The Galaxy Tab S also has a unique private mode that lets you store certain apps and contents in a “secure” space within a user profile. You need to log in to the private space to access this content, and you can use your fingerprint to unlock it.

You can log three separate fingerprints per Galaxy Tab S user. You can quickly edit and rename your fingerprint settings using the fingerprint manager feature, though it’s a multistep process that could be simpler.

As for security, here’s what Samsung says: 

“The Galaxy Tab S does not store fingerprints, [only] partial patterns. It only saves the information necessary to recognize the fingerprint through a hardware-based protection mechanism. The information that is required to recognize the fingerprint cannot be sent outside of the device…The information is encrypted using a key value unique to each device. In addition, processing of the information is only conducted inside Trusted Execution Environment protected by a hardware-based mechanism utilizing the unique key value. Thus, the information is comprehensively protected throughout the storage and the processing.”

Apple iPhone 5s Touch ID vs. Samsung Galaxy Tab S Scanner: Conclusion

While both Touch ID and the Galaxy Tab S fingerprint scanner may seem like somewhat insignificant features, they’re features that their owners will very likely use more than any other. Security has also never been more important, because users today store all kinds of sensitive information on their mobile devices. So passwords and device locks are important, and fingerprint scanners make it simpler to use and remember logins.

Touch ID works better than the Tab S scanner. It’s quicker and more responsive; you just need to tap a finger to the sensor to unlock, as opposed to swiping your finger. Touch ID also works in any orientation, so you can hold your device sideways or upside down and it still works.

The Galaxy Tab S fingerprint scanner integrates with more services. Some, though, such as the multi-user mode, are tablet features, so it’s difficult to directly compare them to Touch ID features. (The Samsung Galaxy S5 also has a fingerprint scanner.) Touch ID is only available on the iPhone 5s, and Apple’s iPad doesn’t have a fingerprint unlock feature yet — though it very likely will in the future.

Is one fingerprint scanner more secure than another? It’s hard to tell. The comments from Apple and Samsung are very similar. In both cases, fingerprint data — not an actual fingerprint — is stored locally on your device, and it’s never sent outside of your smartphone or tablet, according to the companies. The fingerprint data is also encrypted within a secure module, the companies say. There’s still risk associated with storing this kind of data, because a Bad Guy could potentially access your device, crack the encryption and steal the fingerprint info. But there’s little Apple or Samsung could do in that situation.

Overall, I prefer Touch ID, because the experience is close to seamless. I do wish it integrated with more services, though, and I appreciate the Galaxy Tab S’s multi-user and private-mode finger authentication features. Preferences aside, I’m a big fan of both Touch ID and Samsung’s finger scanner. I hope to see many more devices equipped with better, fuller-featured fingerprint scanners in the future.