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As much as Apple has moved the needle ahead on security features in its iOS devices over the past few years, thanks to features like Touch ID, Face ID, and the revolutionary Secure Enclave, it’s been much slower to bring this technology to its MacBooks, and especially to its desktop Macs.
To be fair, the Mac hasn’t been completely left behind; Apple added a specialized T1 security chip and Touch ID to its MacBooks back in 2016, at the same time it debuted the new Touch Bar, and then debuted an even more powerful T2 chip in the 2017 iMac Pro, which later found its way into the company’s MacBooks and even its 2018 Mac mini lineup.
However, despite the inclusion of the T2 chip in Apple’s desktop Macs, actual Touch ID has thus far been limited to the MacBook Pro lineup, since Apple seems reluctant to implement it on a computer that doesn’t have an integrated keyboard; while there were rumours that Apple was considering a Touch Bar enabled Magic Keyboard, which could have also incorporated a Touch ID sensor, that’s never quite materialized from the company, and so users of the Mac mini, iMac, and even Apple’s ultra-powerful Mac Pro are left without these modern authentication systems.
Of course, you could make an argument that Touch ID is more important in a portable device like a MacBook than a Mac that sits are your desk all of the time, since you’re more likely to need to lock and unlock it more often, and Touch ID definitely makes that more convenient. However, Touch ID is also about a lot more than just logging into or unlocking your Mac; like on the iPhone and iPad, it’s also used to authenticate to other apps on your Mac, unlock security preferences, and even trigger Apple Pay. Some of these can be can also be easily accessed using an Apple Watch, but it’s still something that users are missing if they prefer to use a desktop Mac.
Enter Face ID
In general, however, the iPhone has largely moved on from the era of Touch ID — only the budget iPhone SE still uses a Touch ID sensor as a concession to both price and those users who still prefer it to Face ID — and Apple has embraced Face ID with the higher-end iPad Pro models as well (although it may have other things in store for the rest of the iPad lineup).
While only Apple knows for sure what’s involved in securely incorporate a Touch ID sensor into an external keyboard, it’s possible it could render the whole discussion moot by simply skipping over Touch ID and going with a Face ID authentication system instead.
We actually first saw hints of this last year in a patent filing that referred to a “facial detection sensor” on Apple’s Macs, and now 9to5Mac has found new code in the most recent beta of macOS Big Sur that indicates that a variation on the TrueDepth camera found in the iPhone and iPad Pro could be making its way to the Mac.
Since the TrueDepth camera is a key component of Face ID, it stands to reason that this would also suggest that Apple is planning on bringing that to the Mac as well — in fact, it’s hard to think of any other reason why it would be worth adding a front-facing TrueDepth camera to a Mac, since although it could power other features such as augmented reality, portrait mode photography, and other similar features, these are considerably less important on the Mac than they are on the iPhone.
Specifically, while investigating the code in Big Sur, the team at 9to5Mac found a new extension that made reference to “PearlCamera” — the same internal codename Apple used for the TrueDepth camera before the iPhone X was released back in 2017 — as well as code for “FaceDetect” and “BioCapture” which by their very names sound very much like they’d be used for Face ID. 9to5Mac also confirmed that this was an extension built very specifically for macOS, and not just some code fragment that came over from Catalyst.
The implementation appears to be in the early stages at this point, so it could be a while before we see a new Mac that includes a TrueDepth camera and Face ID support, and it remains to be seen how this might be implemented on systems like the Mac mini and Mac Pro, which don’t even include monitors, much less built-in front cameras. However, with Apple expected to release a redesigned iMac and likely also a redesigned MacBook lineup next year, along with its transition to Apple Silicon, it seems like it would be a good opportunity to swap out the current front camera — which at only 720p is getting a bit long in the tooth — for a much better TrueDepth camera.