When Apple announced the iPhone 5s, we lauded the thumbprint sensor as a step forward in security. We loved how it was so subtly integrated into the device, providing 360 degree detection without spoiling the feel of the phone. Now, Android has it too in the form of the FingerQ line of products which have just been launched in Singapore about 2 weeks ago.
We’ve been given launch day access to both the PrivacQ Case for the Galaxy S4 and the QKey 180 Mini. Both these devices work by micro USB, and require the Q-Manager app which you will be prompted to download from the Play Store. The Q-Manager security suite offers numerous advantages to the Android platform. Fingerprint locking is not just limited to unlocking the phone or downloading apps. Instead, you can lock individual apps. Thus, if you have confidential or sensitive information on just a few apps, you can request for Q-manager to secure just these apps. Additionally, you can encrypt specific files to your fingerprint, or even block incoming calls/SMS. These features are highly significant to just about everybody in an age of dwindling privacy, and you can feel safe about lending your device to potential prying eyes. To top it off, FingerQ provides a chat service known as FingerQ Chat which works like a thumbprint-protected WhatsApp.
Once the appropriate security restrictions have been granted to the Q-Manager app, it directly brings to you the process of registering your fingerprint. Whilst it is not as intuitive as the iPhone’s Touch ID set-up, it gets by with a cheekily worded tutorial instructing you how much pressure to apply on the sensor, and which area of your finger you should scan.
The process did not go as smoothly as expected though. The software obtains a 3D map of your finger through 3 repetitions of scanning my finger flat on, and tilted 45 degrees to each side. The print the sensor is able to obtain then appears on the screen. It soon became evident though that the sensor would never get a clear, consistent image because the pressure applied would be different. Unlike TouchID on the iPhone, the thumbprint sensor here was extremely pressure-sensitive. This was particularly problematic on the PrivacQ Case because it was difficult to scan the sides of my finger when the sensor was located at the back of the phone. Expectedly, this lack of consistency was a problem because the sensor could only detect my fingerprint accurately 2 out of 5 times at best.
Accuracy issues aside, the sensors are a huge drain on battery. They were obviously not designed to stay permanently connected to the phone. Every 5 minutes or so, the system warns you that TouchQ sensors are draining battery, and for good reason. 5 minutes of use ate up 10% of my Samsung Galaxy S4’s battery. If you are using the QKey, this means fishing the thumbprint sensor from the depths of your pocket, fitting it into the USB port, waiting for the security to load (which in itself takes a few seconds thanks to the laginess of TouchWiz), then repeatedly attempting to swipe your thumbprint in the hope that it would be correctly recognized soon. If you activated app locking, this means a good one minute or so delay before you can open whatever app that is. The PrivacQ case does not alleviate these issues either. Whilst the sensor is constantly attached to the phone, one needs to fumble with the on-off switch every time the sensor is used, and still have to face an ominous black screen waiting for security to load. In short, using the TouchQ sensors for any of the more advanced features like app locking, is thoroughly impractical.
Then, there’s the matter of the price. The basic sensor add-on costs S$ 69 while the case costs S$128. That is a lot of money for what is essentially a novelty. In summary, the sensors do hold a lot of promise, and they are great ideas. However, the problems in execution inhibit it from being an effective product that consumers would choose to adopt. Thus, we recommend that only people in desperate need of high level security purchase this device, and that the general consumer should wait for the next iteration of thumbprint scanners before sinking their money.