Samsung’s Iris Scanner Lets You Unlock Your Phone by Looking at It

The standout feature of the Galaxy Note 7 is its iris scanner, which couldn't be easier to use.

Aug 2 2016, 7:00pm

Image: Getty Images

Seated way up in the nosebleed section of the Hammerstein Ballroom, where spiders make their webs, I saw a confident Samsung on Tuesday puff out its chest and tell Apple, in so many words, "Come at me, bro."

It's a different narrative for the South Korean company, which, after a couple years of mediocre efforts, thoroughly impressed critics last spring with the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. For the first time since 2012's Galaxy S3, Samsung pieced together an attractive design, incredible camera, and totally acceptable battery life in a single package.

Well, two packages, with the S7 Edge adding a curved edge screen to the mix.

Now, on 34th Street in Manhattan, just a few steps away from the World's Most Famous Arena, Samsung showed off the Galaxy S7's big brother: the 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 7.

The Note, back in 2011, kicked off the "phablet" era, giving people the ability to watch the likes of YouTube and Netflix on a screen that didn't require a pair of binoculars to enjoy. Large screened smartphones have become so common that the word "phablet" has sort of melted away into the background: Phones are regularly so big nowadays that Apple won cheers from a good slice of the population (including from former Motherboard Managing Editor Adrianne Jeffries) earlier this year just for releasing a smartphone that was smaller than its immediate predecessor.

That's not Samsung's game, where bigger is better and the phrase "feature creep" isn't a bad thing. (Remember this this New York Post headline?) With the Galaxy Note 7, the standout feature is a built-in iris scanner, which Samsung's powerful marketing machinery is already touting as the most secure form of authentication available on a mobile device. Time will tell how well that claim holds, but at the very least it's trivially easy to use.

Once the event ended I scurried down (and down) the stairs of the Hammerstein Ballroom to the large demo area to try out the scanner myself. Enabling it is merely a matter of going into Android's security settings (the same location where you'd add a fingerprint or change your PIN) and selecting to add your irises. The software then instructs you to hold the phone about 10 inches away from your face while it scans the contours of your irises, a process that took all of three seconds. To unlock the phone, you merely hold it in front of your face (glasses don't get in the way), as if you were going to take a selfie, and tap the display. This activates the iris scanner which then unlocks the phone.

Easy as can be.

Besides unlocking the phone itself, the iris scanner can also be used to log into any website where you have to input a username and password (think Facebook, Gmail, etc.) provided you use Samsung's web browser, which may be inconvenient to anyone who has their entire life synced to Chrome. Samsung has also created a special folder called the "Secure Folder" that works in conjunction with the iris scanner. You know how you'll hand over your phone to a friend so you can show them a hilarious snap, but don't really want them snooping inside your photo album or taking a peek at your WhatsApp chat log? Well, the idea with Secure Folder is you place any and all apps and content inside there that you wouldn't want your friend to accidentally stumble upon; the folder can only be opened with the iris scanner.

While Samsung isn't the first smartphone company to embed an iris scanner into a smartphone (Chinese smartphone maker ZTE did the same thing last year), the Galaxy Note 7 is the highest profile implementation to date.

Given that the flashiest feature of this year's iPhone is widely expected to be the removal of the headphone jack, the Galaxy Note 7 marks the last of the high-end flagship devices for 2016. (The hype for 2017 models typically begins just after the holidays in the run up to Mobile World Congress, which takes place in Barcelona in late February.) All the big carriers in the US will begin carrying it on August 19, with prices hovering right around $900. The future, for now, doesn't come cheaply.