Apple iPhone's new fingerprint sensor draws complaints

Do you have an iPhone 5s? Are you having trouble getting its signature fingerprint sensor to work consistently?

It turns out, you’re not alone.

The Huffington Post reported Monday that numerous people are complaining about the new TouchID sensor on Apple’s latest flagship smartphone. A forum page on Apple’s own Web site entitled “TouchID being erratic” has received more than 26,000 views. Around two-fifths of the respondents to a poll on The Unofficial Apple Weblog, a Web news site that focuses on the company and its products, said that the sensor worked for them less than 95 percent of the time. Around a fifth said it worked less than three-fourths of the time. 

Media representatives are starting to pick up on the complaints. In addition to the Huffington Post article, Business Insider covered the complaints in an article last week. And a Wall Street Journal business editor tweeted out his own complaints about the fingerprint sensor, comparing it to Apple’s often buggy Siri feature and complaining that it only worked “a very frustrating 70% of the time.”

Of course, none of this is scientific. It’s hard to tell from the reports just what proportion of iPhone 5s owners are having problems with the sensor or how often they are having problems with it.

But I can vouch for the complaints. While I still stand by my overall positive review of the iPhone 5s, I’m grown less and less impressed by TouchID the more I’ve used the device.

The TouchID sensor on my iPhone is thrown off so easily that it works only about a third of the time for me. If I don’t hold my thumb in exactly the right position, the sensor won’t recognize my print. For example, if my thumb is rotated just a little bit left or right, or if I don’t have the bump in the middle of my thumb print right in the middle of the sensor, TouchID won’t recognize it. And if my fingers are wet because I’ve been running or I just washed my hands, the sensor won’t work at all.

I’ve also found that its accuracy varies by finger. It’s much more likely to recognize my right thumb than my left one, for example. I frequently, when trying to use my left thumb to log in, just give up and tap in my passcode.

The frustrations that I — and seemingly others — have encountered run counter to Apple’s promises about TouchID. At the event in which Apple unveiled the iPhone 5s and in a promotional video shown then, company officials assured users that the sensor would be able to read prints in any orientation and that “every time you use it, it gets better at reading your print.”

Apple does warn that fingers need to be clean and dry for the sensor to work. Its primary suggestion for users having problems is to re-configure TouchID and have it re-scan their fingerprints.

But that solution doesn’t seem to be working for all users. 

The TouchID is one of the most apparent differences between the iPhone 5s and its predecessor, the iPhone 5. I previously reported a separate problem with the sensor, that its use could open up a security vulnerability, because it can be configured to allow anyone whose fingerprints are recognized by a particular device to make purchases in Apple’s iTunes store.

Photo and video courtesy of Apple.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (265 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.