Samsung’s new Galaxy S8 is hitting stores this week and it’s bringing a lot features, design, and screen along with it. The S8 (and its larger sibling, the S8 Plus) is one of the best phones ever made and the best phone you can buy right now. I suggest you read my full review for more info on them.
But if you’ve already ordered or bought an S8, you might be wondering what the best way to unlock it is. Because unlike Samsung’s prior phones, the S8 doesn’t have a fingerprint scanner on the front. Instead, it’s on the back of the phone, near the camera. This can present issues with comfort (it’s hard to reach) and practicality (you’re very likely to put your finger all over the camera lens when trying to use it).
So Samsung has introduced a total of five ways to unlock the S8 to make up for the poor fingerprint scanner placement. Which one’s the best? Let’s break it down.
PIN Code / Password
As with every other smartphone, you can use a four-digit PIN code or alphanumeric password to unlock the S8. These are the most secure methods to use, but they are also the most inconvenient and clumsy. When you unlock your phone hundreds of times a day, it gets very tiresome to type in a PIN or worse, a password, every time.
The S8 also supports the standard Android pattern unlock method, whereby you trace a particular line you set through a grid of nine dots. This is the way most Android owners unlock their phones, as it’s more convenient than a PIN code or password. It is slightly less secure than those options, but still considered one of the more secure methods to protect the information on your device.
As mentioned, the S8 does have a fingerprint scanner and you can use this to secure and unlock your device. Unlike other devices, such as the Google Pixel that put the scanner in the middle of the phone where your index finger naturally rests when holding the device, the S8’s scanner is high up on the back of the device and not in the middle. That can make it very hard to reach, especially with the larger S8 Plus, and it can be more difficult for left-handed people that have to move their index fingers awkwardly to cover it.
To make matters worse, the fingerprint scanner is right next to the camera, and “feels” very similarly. So if you’re moving your finger around trying to locate the scanner by touch, it’s very easy to smear the camera lens with fingerprints and oils, which is not particularly pleasant. (Why is it there, you may ask? Samsung says it’s because the location of the battery inside the phone prevented it from being placed lower down.)
All of that said, the fingerprint scanner is a secure method, and the actual scanner on the S8 is very fast. My colleague Walt Mossberg had trouble getting it to register his digits, but I’ve had no issues with it waking and unlocking the phone with my fingers, provided I can actually reach it. I’ve adjusted a bit after some time with the phone, and find myself using the fingerprint scanner a bit more than when I had first picked up the S8. But it’s still annoying and something I have to think about doing, instead of it just happening naturally when I pick up the phone.
To make up for the S8’s bad fingerprint scanner placement, Samsung has included an iris scanning method, which uses special sensors on the front of the phone to identify you and unlock the device. Iris scanning is considered one of the most secure biometric methods we have available, and you can use it for everything from unlocking the device to authenticating purchases with Samsung Pay.
But iris does have its downsides: though it works in low light, it can have a lot of trouble recognizing my eyes in sunlight, and I have to hold the phone up and awkwardly close to my face. It also can have trouble with glasses and takes a second or two longer to authenticate compared to the fingerprint scanner. My colleague Vlad Savov found this to be the easiest way to unlock the S8 Plus in his time with the device, but again, Walt had trouble with it seeing his eyes.
The newest means of unlocking the S8 is Samsung’s new Face unlock feature (not to be confused with the face unlocking feature included in Android since 2011). This method uses the front-facing camera to identify you and unlock the device. It’s designed to be the most convenient way to unlock the phone, but it is less secure than any other method and cannot be used to authenticate Samsung Pay purchases.
In our tests, the Face unlock method was the slowest and least reliable way to unlock the S8. Despite promising to work at various angles and from comfortable distances, this method refused to work the vast majority of the time. It would not see my face in good light or poor light, and when it did work, it would take several seconds of awkwardly staring at the phone before it would unlock.
To make matters worse, some have been able to trick the Face unlock feature with a picture, proving its lack of security. I was not able to replicate this, for, as I said, it wouldn’t unlock with my real face anyways.
So of all these options, which is the best? I’ve settled on a combination using pattern, fingerprint, and iris methods, all of which can be enabled at the same time. I find myself most often using the fingerprint scanner, which both wakes and unlocks in one motion. But if I can’t reach it, the iris or pattern are the fallbacks I use.
Either way, it shouldn’t be this difficult to figure out a simple task such as unlocking your phone and we hope that Samsung uses a better design for its next device.