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Thanks to Fancy New Fingerprint Scanners, Breaking Your Smartphone Screen Is Only Getting Pricier

An attendee holds the Samsung Galaxy S10 and Galaxy S10 Plus at the Samsung Unpacked event in San Francisco, California. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Samsung Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus are very nice-looking phones — I had a chance to spend some time with them in New York a few weeks ago, and the screens are a stunner. (As they should be: Samsung Display not only makes the OLED screens that power Samsung phones, but plenty of other high-end phones, including some models of the iPhone.) It’s bright, vivid, has an impressive edge-to-edge display with just punch-hole cutout for the camera.

It also solves one of the bigger pains for the Galaxy S8 and S9 — the awkward fingerprint-sensor placement. On the S8 and S9, the fingerprint scanner was right next to the back camera lenses, meaning about half the time you tried unlock your phone, you ended up smearing up your camera lens with finger grease. On the S10, the fingerprint is back where users have been asking it to be: the front. It represents years of R&D on Samsung’s end. The end result is an under-screen, ultrasonic fingerprint scanner that reads your thumbprint in much the same way the old-school Galaxy did (or iPhone back when iPhones had home buttons).

But new tech usually also comes with some new downsides. An iFixit teardown of the Samsung S10 series shows that the fingerprint sensor is firmly fused to the screen of the Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus. What does this mean? Per iFixit: “If Samsung has any repair tips they’d like to share, we’re all ears. For now, assume you’re going to pay an arm and a leg for a new screen should the sensor malfunction.” It also means that if you should crack the glass on your screen, you’re also likely looking at an expensive repair. This is particularly worrying since the S10 and S10 Plus use curved glass, which, thanks to the stupid laws of physics, means that the screen is more prone to cracking than a flat plane of glass would be.

One possible solution if you want to get a new Samsung phone but are prone to fumbling your phone? The Samsung S10e, which starts at $749 unlocked, compared to $899 for the S10, and $999 for the Galaxy S10 Plus. Samsung’s slightly less expensive version puts the fingerprint scanner on the side of the phone, meaning a cracked screen should be a little less expensive to fix. It also doesn’t have a curved glass screen, so it may not look quite as cool as its more expensive cousins but is bit more sturdy. Another bonus: While that under-screen, ultrasonic fingerprint tech is cool, reviewers from both the New York Times and the Verge have reported early problems with getting it to work consistently; the power button on the S10e is an old-fashioned capacitive fingerprint scanner, a much more proven tech.

This is a problem that isn’t going to just affect Samsung owners. Apple filed a patent in 2018 for its own under-screen fingerprint scanner that would use multiple cameras to get a 3-D image of your fingerprint. (Apple was reportedly working right up until the deadline to try to include an under-screen fingerprint scanner in the iPhone X in 2017, but ended up having to scrap plans because they couldn’t get the tech quite right.) Apple files patents all the time on tech it ends up not using, and so far the rumor mill is quiet that this fall’s lineup of new iPhones will be bringing some sort of fingerprint reader, but odds are good it will eventually make its way back to the iPhone. And when it does, that’ll mean an iPhone that’s even more expensive to fix when it cracks. (And the iPhone is already a very expensive phone to repair.)

It’s understandable that if you’re going to spend $1,000 on a phone, you want to show it off in all its sleek glory. But as smartphones continue to do more, they’re only going to get more expensive to fix if you drop them. So forgo the vanity and just buy a case — your screen and your wallet will thank you the next time you fumble your phone onto the concrete sidewalk.

Breaking Your Smartphone Screen Is Only Getting Pricier