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Fingerprint-reading power buttons make securely booting up a seamless process

In today’s digital age, it can sometimes feel like hardware has taken a back seat to the software that drives devices. Button of the Month is a column that looks at some of these buttons and switches on devices both old and new to appreciate how we interact with our devices on a physical, tactile level.

Biometric security on our personal devices is almost always a good thing. When it works, it’s a fast, convenient, and (largely) secure way of getting into our gadgets. And while fingerprint sensors are slowly falling to the wayside in favor of face-scanning IR arrays (like Windows Hello cameras or the iPhone’s Face ID), I’m still particularly fond of fingerprint readers — specifically, fingerprint reader buttons on laptops, which combine the idea of booting up and logging on into a seamless process.

The button I’m highlighting here is Apple’s Touch ID sensor on the latest MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. It’s a particularly good example of the concept that’s bolstered in part by some clever interactive software on the Touch Bar (Apple’s software replacement for its function keys, whose very button-replacing existence is a topic for another time). But this isn’t by any means a unique feature for Apple — Huawei, Dell, and plenty of other Windows computers have done the fingerprint reader / power button combo as well, to great effect.

On these laptops, the execution is similar to the fingerprint readers on our phones, where simply pressing the button powers on and unlocks the device all at once. But the concept to me is even more powerful on a laptop, given the added weight of the power button there: I power my laptop on and off far more often than I do my phone, and my password is far longer and more annoying to type than a simple six-digit PIN.

And the button / reader combo just makes sense, turning the entire boot-up process into a single, seamless event. It sounds simple now, but pressing a button, having your computer turn on and recognize that it’s you all in a single gesture is the sort of thing we’d only dreamt could be possible a few years ago.

It’s not always perfect — some laptops still have multistep boots even with a sensor, or a fingerprint won’t read and you’ll have to lift and press again, which ruins the magic. But when it works, it’s the perfect power button.

Early laptop fingerprint readers had to be swiped (and weren’t always very accurate, which was a whole other issue), and they were separate from the power button, turning the process into a two-step affair. First, turn on your laptop, and then authenticate. It’s one of the reasons I don’t love in-display fingerprint sensors on smartphones: they’re similarly a two-step process, requiring you to wake your phone and then scan your fingerprint.

Plenty of other laptop fingerprint readers still work like this, devoting a random spot on the keyboard or palm rest to the fingerprint sensor, taking up space that is otherwise useless for all the moments that you’re not logging in.

But the fingerprint / power button combo avoids these problems, elevating a key part of the computer experience — turning on your laptop — into a more efficient and elegant process. It’s the best kind of hardware design: the added sensor fits perfectly with the task at hand, making the button better in the process.


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