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It appears that Apple has come up with a rather ingenious solution to addressing the challenges of using Face ID in the face of the ongoing global health pandemic, as we saw in the first iOS 14.5 developer beta released yesterday.
Although Apple tried to make things easier last year with an iOS 13.5 update that removed the normal delay that appeared before showing the password entry prompt, this was small consolation to those who had become used to the seamless authentication offered by Face ID — you still had to enter your password manually, you simply didn’t have to wait an extra second or two before you could do it.
Needless to say, however, as the health crisis has continued, and mask-wearing has become even more prevalent, it’s become even more frustrating to have to key in a passcode — or worse yet, a full password — every time you want to unlock your iPhone while you’re out and about.
Fortunately, it seems that Apple has been working on a solution, and it was actually kind of right under our noses the whole time — using an Apple Watch to help authenticate the iPhone user.
It’s a feature that Apple Watch and Mac users have already been enjoying for over four years, allowing users to automatically sign in to a locked MacBook or other Mac as long as they’re wearing their Apple Watch. So, it’s no surprise that Apple has taken the same approach to help users unlock their iPhones, but with the feature having been available on the Mac for years, you may also be wondering what took Apple so long to bring it to the iPhone.
How It Works
It turns out it’s not quite as simple as just allowing you to unlock your iPhone automatically if your Apple Watch is nearby. Face ID is still very much a part of the process, but what seems to be the case is that Apple has modified the Face ID algorithm to turn to the Apple Watch only when it determines the user is wearing a mask.
We’ve gotten our hands on the latest iOS 14.5 and watchOS 7.4 betas and taken the feature for a spin, and it’s most definitely geared towards mask-wearing. The iPhone Face ID system still needs to detect your face, and it’s clearly looking specifically for a mask obscuring the bottom part of your face.
In other words, it won’t just unlock your iPhone while your Apple Watch is nearby. The process still begins with Face ID, which only factors in the Apple Watch after a basic Face ID check has been passed that recognizes your face, and determines that you’re actually wearing a mask.
The new authentication actually works really well, but it only works if you’re wearing a mask normally. We tested several other scenarios, such as placing a hand over our mouth, putting a mask over our eyes, and even wearing polarized sunglasses (which frequently trips up Face ID unless you turn off the “Require Attention” setting), and in every case the authentication simply failed outright, just like it would have before.
When actually wearing a mask, however, our iPhone 12 Pro Max unlocked normally, and just as quickly as it would have if we weren’t wearing a mask. In fact, the only clue that the Apple Watch was involved in the process was a haptic vibration and notification on our wrist, although when the Apple Watch was in Sleep Mode, we instead ended up with the password prompt on the iPhone with a message that Mac users should be familiar with: “Turn off Sleep mode on Apple Watch to use it to unlock.”
How to Unlock Your iPhone While Wearing a Mask
At this point, the new unlock feature requires both iOS 14.5 and watchOS 7.4, which are only available as betas to registered developers right now. There’s a good chance that public betas could be coming this week, however, so if you’re already part of the public beta program, or willing to jump in, you can take advantage of it sooner rather than later.
To be clear, the feature is entirely opt-in. It’s disabled by default, and controlled by a setting that can be found in the iPhone “Face ID & Passcode” section in the Settings app:
- Ensure you’ve updated your iPhone to iOS 14.5 and your Apple Watch to watchOS 7.4.
- Open the Settings app.
- Scroll down and tap Face ID & Passcode.
- Scroll down to the section titled “Unlock with Apple Watch”.
- Tap the toggle beside your Apple Watch to enable the feature.
Note that if you have more than one personal Apple Watch paired with your iPhone, you can choose to enable it on some or all of them. For obvious reasons, however, any Apple Watch devices you’ve paired for other family members using Family Setup won’t show up here.
As the description notes, the feature requires that your Apple Watch have a passcode configured on it, that you be wearing it on your wrist (with Wrist Detection enabled), and that it actually be unlocked. As we’ve noted above, it also can’t be in Sleep mode.
Once the feature is enabled, it pretty much just works. Under normal circumstances, when you’re not wearing a mask, Face ID will continue to operate the same way that it always has. However, if your iPhone detects that you’re wearing a mask, it will take the additional step of checking with your Apple Watch, only unlocking your iPhone if the wearable is also nearby, on your wrist, and unlocked.
When the Apple Watch is used to augment Face ID in this way, you’ll get a haptic vibration accompanied by a non-persistent notification to let you know that your iPhone has been unlocked using your Apple Watch. The notification will only remain on your screen for a couple of seconds, so it’s completely non-invasive if you’re the one unlocking your iPhone, but it will definitely clue you in to the possibility that somebody else in the vicinity may have been able to pick up your iPhone and unlock it.
To this end, the notification also includes a “Lock iPhone” button that can be used to immediately re-lock your iPhone, preventing whoever is holding it from continuing to use it. Further, once you’ve re-locked your iPhone this way, Face ID becomes disabled entirely until you enter your passcode, in much the same way as it does after triggering the Emergency SOS feature.
This is particularly important since it looks like the Face ID authentication standards have been significantly dialled down when a mask is detected. In my testing, my 11-year-old daughter was able to successfully unlock my iPhone with her face while wearing a mask about 75% of the time, although it didn’t seem to work at all with others that I tried it with.
Again, though, since the Apple Watch still needs to be within Bluetooth range of the iPhone, there’s a fairly good chance you’re going to know if somebody is doing this, and of course, you’ll have the opportunity to immediately lock the iPhone again as soon as you get the notification.
Further, as the Apple Watch has to be unlocked and not in Sleep mode for the feature to work, it’s easy enough to avoid problems if you’re concerned about people you live with accessing your iPhone while you’re asleep. In fact, we suspect this is the main reason why Apple disables the automatic unlocking feature even for the Mac when the Apple Watch is in Sleep Mode, as there’s no technical reason why it shouldn’t work otherwise.
It’s also worth noting that right now this feature only works for actually unlocking your iPhone. Apps like 1Password and banking services that use Face ID authentication still need to see your actual unmasked face, although this could of course change by the time of the public release of iOS 14.5.
Regardless, Apple is offering this as an optional feature for the convenience of iPhone users, so if you’re still more concerned about the security of your iPhone data than the ease of using Face ID while wearing a mask, you can certainly choose to leave it disabled and everything will continue working exactly as it has since iOS 13.5 was released last spring.
For those of us who regularly venture out on foot and masked up, however, this new feature promises to be a serious game-changer.