REVIEW: BIO-key’s plug-in fingerprint readers for Windows 10 computers

BIO-key loaned me these three models for evaluation. I tested them on two notebooks: one running Windows 10 Home, and the other Windows 10 Pro. Find out the results.

A biometric fingerprint reader makes it convenient to sign into your computer, by just pressing or swiping your finger on the reader which scans your fingerprint. It bypasses the need for entering a password while increasing the level of security for the computer -- anyone can enter your password if they get it somehow, but not your finger, after all. It can also be a convenient and secure system to set up on a computer at work that should be accessed by only a specific person or persons.

In late September, BIO-key launched three fingerprint reader devices for the business and everyday computer user. Each sells for $40: the EcoID, the SideSwipe, and the SideTouch. You plug these readers into an USB port on your computer. They’re meant to be used with Windows 10 and this OS’ biometric sign-in feature, Windows Hello. (The EcoID and SideSwipe also run on Windows 7.)

The SideSwipe and SideTouch are designed to be plugged into a notebook or tablet. (Each includes a bracket to better physically secure it when it’s plugged into a Microsoft Surface tablet.) The EcoID’s form factor allows for it to be connected to a desktop computer with an included USB cable.

The EcoID and SideTouch work the same: you touch your finger upon either device’s sensor for it to read your fingerprint. This unlocks the operating system so you can access the computer.

sideswipe Howard Wen

The SideSwipe may resemble the the SideTouch, but it works a little differently: you stroke your finger across its sensor, instead of just touching your finger upon it. Supposedly, this provides for stronger security if the sensor reads your fingerprint in motion, compared to a sensor that reads a non-moving fingerprint.

BIO-key loaned me these three models for evaluation. I tested them on two notebooks: one running Windows 10 Home, and the other Windows 10 Pro.

Setting things up

With your computer powered on and connected to the internet, you just plug any one of these fingerprint readers into an available USB port on your computer, and Windows 10 should automatically install the driver for it. On both notebooks that I used for testing, the EcoID, SideSwipe and SideTouch each installed without a hitch.

winhello fingerprint 04 Howard Wen

From there, you go to the Windows 10 Settings to activate the Windows Hello feature. The quickest way to get to this is to type “fingerprint” into the Cortana search box (that’s next to the Start Menu button) and then click “set up fingerprint sign-in” which should appear at the top of the results list.

Click “Set up” and you’re asked to put your finger on the fingerprint reader’s sensor. With the EcoID, I tried to follow Window Hello’s “repeatedly lift and rest your finger on the sensor” instruction with my right index finger as much as I literally could. However, Windows Hello failed to recognize my fingerprint, and it suggested that maybe the EcoID’s sensor was dirty. So I wiped the sensor with an antistatic cleaning cloth, and also washed my finger. It took several more tries of touching and moving my finger off the sensor, adjusting my pace, until Windows Hello finally recognized my fingerprint, which seemed to happen by determination and luck.

Getting the SideTouch to read my fingerprint to store it on Windows 10 happened much faster; maybe its sensor was better, more responsive.

With the SideSwipe, you have to get Windows Hello to recognize your fingerprint by setting your finger over the raised ridge of its sensor and brushing your finger back repeatedly in a steady, but not too fast, motion. The way I suggest doing this is to imagine the way you would gently stroke a kitten’s head with your finger, or roll back the mechanical scroll wheel of a mouse.

After your fingerprint has been recorded, Windows Hello will require that you create a PIN (if you haven’t already set up one on your computer). This will serve as an alternate way to sign in, in case something malfunctions with Windows Hello or the fingerprint reader device. Windows Hello won’t allow you to skip this step.

You can add more fingerprints for Windows Hello to recognize. For example, another person can have Windows Hello record their fingerprint so that they can access the computer. Or, you can add the fingerprint from one of your other fingers to ensure you’ll still be able to sign in if Windows Hello fails to recognize your first fingerprint (like, if that finger actually is dirty).

Signing in with your finger

When you first start up your computer, wake it from sleep mode, or sign out of Windows 10, you’ll be shown the lock screen where you can choose to sign into Windows 10 by using the fingerprint sensor.

winhello fingerprint 02 Howard Wen

The first time I tried the EcoID, I tapped its sensor with my index finger, but it didn’t register. I slowed my pace and instead rested my index finger on it -- Windows Hello accepted my fingerprint, and unlocked Windows 10. After a second or two, I was presented with the desktop environment. The SideTouch was just as responsive to reading my fingerprint when I gave its sensor a gentle touch. With the SideSwipe, stroking its sensor (imagine the cute kitty) once or twice triggered a successful sign-in.

Unplugging the reader

Like any other typical USB device, the EcoID and SideTouch can be ejected from the Windows 10 notification area, and then you can unplug it from your computer’s USB port. There is no software that needs to be uninstalled.

For some reason, the SideSwipe did not show up as a listed USB device in the notification area on either of the two notebook computers I plugged it into. It did appear under the “Devices and Printers” page of the Control Panel, from where you can safely eject it from the OS before physically unplugging it.

So what happens if you unplug one of these readers but still have fingerprint scans stored on the computer? They no longer appear listed under the Windows Hello settings. But when you plug the reader back into the computer, the fingerprints stored on the computer will reappear under the Windows Hello settings. From there, they can continue to be used by the fingerprint reader to make a match during sign-ins.

Conclusion

The EcoID was tricky to set up (maybe the unit that was loaned to me was glitchy). It’s also an inelegant contraption, but this is inevitable, obviously, when connecting a fingerprint reader to a desktop computer.

The SideSwipe and SideTouch are the better solutions for a notebook, of course, because of their physical designs. If you’re looking to add this layer of security -- and convenience -- to a notebook that doesn’t already have a built-in reader, they’re also worth a look for their ease of set up and price.

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