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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Your next laptop could have a fingerprint reader and USB-C

Your next laptop may be a lot thinner and the most important interface on it may not be the keyboard, the touchpad or the screen.

The IFA trade show here shows two welcome and rapidly accelerating trends in the Windows PC market. One is the increasing use of USB-C ports to actually charge laptops, rather than just connect external devices, and the other is the addition of fingerprint readers that work with Microsoft’s Windows Hello software to let you quickly and securely log into your PC.

Does this USB port make my laptop look fat?

USB-C ports are a lot thinner than regular USB connectors and have no up or down there’s no irritating moment when you realize you tried to plug in a cable upside down. But they’ve remained relatively rare in laptops since their high-profile debut in Apple’s 12-inch MacBook last spring.

The new Windows laptops on display at IFA, however, show how thin you can make a computer when you adopt USB-C rather than traditional USB ports. Acer’s Swift 7, shipping next month for $999 and up, is just .39 inches thick. And unlike Apple’s mono-port MacBook, it includes two USB-C connectors; you can connect an external drive and charge the laptop at the same time.

Lenovo’s upcoming Yoga 910, starting at $1,299, also relies on USB-C for charging and is almost as thin as the Swift 7 at just .56 inches thick. Unlike the Swift 7, the Yoga 910 is a convertible laptop with a screen that can be folded all the way back to turn the device into a touchscreen tablet.

And if your smartphone also charges via USB-C  an increasingly likely situation if you use an Android device you can use the laptop’s charge to power up your phone and vice versa. And replacing a lost charger won’t require overpaying for a proprietary power adapter.

But because peripherals understandably continue to rely on conventional USB technology, you’ll need an adapter to connect a flash drive or anything else with a traditional USB connector unless the laptop, like the 910, throws in a standard USB port, too.

Say hello to Windows Hello

Windows Hello, the biometric authentication system built into Windows 10 that can either recognize your face or your fingerprint, got a lot more useful with Microsoft’s Anniversary Update. Instead of only logging you into Windows, you can now use it to log into apps and sites much like how Apple’s TouchID fingerprint reader can log you into a variety of apps on the iPhone.

Windows Hello can work with either face-detecting cameras (as seen, for instance, on Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4) or fingerprint-detecting sensors. The latter adds less bulk to a laptop and should be faster to set up and use and with your fingers already on the keyboard, moving one to a sensor is a natural move.

And just like on smartphones, fingerprint unlocking is vastly easier than typing in a password. It may not resist the efforts of a state-level adversary, but for most people a biometric login represents a massive security upgrade over having to type in a password or PIN dozens of times a day which for many of us means either having the simplest PIN possible or none at all.

The Lenovo Yoga 910 and Acer’s Swift 3 and Swift 5 both feature fingerprint sensors. The Swift 7 does not but those two cheaper, thicker laptops also use proprietary chargers. The other new laptops Lenovo introduced here, the Yoga Book and the Surface Pro-esque Miix 510, don’t have fingerprint sensors either.

(Neither of those devices appeals to me anyway. The Miix’s detachable keyboard looks to be as impractical for typing with the device on your lap as the Surface’s, while the Book’s “halo keyboard” you touch images of keys instead of physical keys strikes me as a better demo than a working product.)

As ever, getting a computer vendor to fulfill all of your shopping-list items in a single package can be a frustrating exercise.

The company that’s not at IFA

That brings us to Apple, the biggest computer vendor not exhibiting here. The company’s lineup of laptops has grown embarrassingly obsolete. I haven’t replaced the four-year-old MacBook Air I’m typing this on because the “current” model dates to the spring of 2015. But an updated line of MacBooks with USB-C ports may finally come in October, Bloomberg reports, and some rumors (see 9to5Mac’s roundup) also suggest that a TouchID sensor will come built into them.

If both sets of predictions come true, Apple would jump ahead of most PC vendors. But don’t be surprised if Apple has decided that biometric security only makes sense on its phones and tablets. Apple does what Apple wants, which often fails to intersect with what its competitors do.

(Disclosure: IFA’s organizers are covering most of my travel expenses and those of a group of U.S. journalists and analysts.)
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