As I wrote this weekend, I am one of the unfortunate minority for whom the Touch ID fingerprint scanner on the new iPhone 5S is not working swimmingly. In my case it’s been almost a full fail. Of the three fingers I registered prints for (twice) only the thumb of my left hand worked at all, and not very reliably. After a while I just went straight to the passcode in haste. I was curious if I was alone in my frustration so I started to ask around. A few friends and acquaintances reported having problems, but I wanted data. Fast.
So I set up a quick poll using the Polar app to see if I could get a sense of what proportion of users thought Touch ID “works great,” and what proportion was experiencing “too many fails” (see image above.) You can vote on it yourself through the app by searching #iosprints or by going to that tag page on the Polar website.
So far the poll has recorded 662 responses and here is the interesting thing, the proportion of negative responses has been steady between 23 and 24 percent. Doing a quick back of the envelope (actually searching google!) calculation of margin of error on a sample size of 665 out of a population of, let’s say 5 million new iPhone 5S users (that’s what Apple sold in the first week for the launch of the iPhone 5), gets us ±3.81%. So that would give us a range of people having problems with Touch ID at between 19 and 28%. That’s shocking. Would Apple really ship that?
OK, I’m taking a deep breath. Yes, they would and they did. Here’s why not to freak out. First, the fingerprint scanner is a progressive enhancement, as we say in web development, if it doesn’t work, one’s experience of the phone is still pretty great. Second, answering my own question from a previous post, I am almost certain that the problems people have been having (myself included) are software related and will be (and already have been) improved over the course of successive iOS 7 updates.
This second point is really important because software updates (particularly among Apple’s users) are fast and easy whereas hardware recalls are slow, painful and would be expensive for Apple and damaging to ongoing 5S sales. There has been no direct acknowledgement from Apple that I have been able to find indicating that the first two iOS 7 updates (7.0.1 and the current 7.0.2) contain bug fixes related to the quality of the Touch ID fingerprint scans, but from my own experience, something has clearly improved.
If you look at the Apple forum for a thread entitled Touch ID being erratic, you might get the impression, as I did, that one had to take your install down to the studs and start clean, or press your fingers on the sensor in very particular ways to register the prints, in order to overcome these problems. I think there is no question that rough, work-worn hands are a challenge for Touch ID, but I am wondering if it is more of a registration problem than and issue with ongoing use.
It is possible that a small number of Touch ID problems are the result of genuinely defective hardware (requiring a trip to the Apple store) but I think it is extremely unlikely that a fifth of the iPhone 5Ss released so far are lemons. Most likely, earlier versions of the system software created false positive validation for print registrations that were not, in fact, good enough.
Another issue that certainly confused me, which has been resolved in 7.0.2 is the matter of how you delete fingerprints you have registered before trying again. At launch, the only method for deleting a fingerprint was to go to the settings page and swipe the fingerprint to delete it (just like the way you swipe to archive now in Mail.) But if you didn’t try to swipe you were left scratching your head and wondering where the little minus sign was to click, as has been the convention in iOS. In the latest update, the swipe has been replaced with… a red circle with a minus sign in it! Now it is much more obvious that you can just delete prints and try again.
As a side note, this is an example of a way that the “flatness” of iOS 7 is not just graphic but conceptual. The hierarchy of decision making has been flattened and, as in the case with deleting the fingerprints, some obvious actions are not made obvious enough. iOS 7 is kind of like an attractive person who does not make eye contact. You like having it around, but don’t entirely trust it!
Full disclosure, as well, that I am not an engineer by temperament. I don’t dig into settings and config files for fun. I don’t relish a jailbreak so I can do something with my iPhone something that no one else has ever thought of. When I encounter a problem with consumer-level hardware or software, I do what other civilians do—I thrash around looking for the most obvious solution. Even though I cover technology and design software for a living, I try to pretend I don’t know all that when I first evaluate new products. It’s the tech equivalent of Jackie Chan’s role as Lu Yan, the Immortal Drunken Kung Fu Master in Forbidden Kingdom. I try, as much as possible, to use Luke Wroblewski’s “one thumb, one eyeball” method on my iPhone, and in this case it has gotten me into trouble.
So, if you are on of the the perhaps 20% or one million iPhone 5S users (like me) that have been having trouble, here are the easy step to do to fix the problem:
- Got to Settings -> General -> Passcode & Fingerprint, enter your passcode and tap Fingerprints.
- Hit Edit in the upper right corner and then click the red minus buttons next to each existing fingerprint.
- Just to be safe, wipe the home button/scanner with a soft cloth to remove any dirt or oils.
- Tap Add a fingerprint… and follow the instructions for each finger you want to be able to use.
This should now work a lot better. If it doesn’t, make a Genius appointment at the Apple store. Either way, post your experience on that Apple forum thread so Cupertino can see if the fixes are working or if it needs to try harder. If you have particularly dry, rough hands and the above steps don’t work, speak up because Touch ID should work for you too.
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