5 things Face ID needs to keep us from missing Touch ID

Apple’s new method for unlocking the iPhone X, called Face ID, certainly raised some eyebrows. Is it secure? Is it necessary? And is really going to be as convenient, if not more so, than unlocking the phone with your fingerprint?

This is perhaps the stickiest sticking point: Touch ID has a proven ability to quickly and conveniently unlock the phone. With the home button completely gone on Apple’s most premium phone, you’ll be completely reliant on Face ID. Apple thinks you won’t miss it one bit.

I haven’t yet had a chance to try Face ID, so I don’t know every nuance of Apple’s creation, and even at the iPhone X launch event, the closest we ever came was Apple staff demonstrating the feature. 

Apple’s Face ID may be untested, but I have extensively tested unlocking mechanisms that use your face, from the Lumia 950‘s iris unlocking to Samsung phones’ iris scanning and facial recognition (which scans your face in a different way from Apple and frankly isn’t secure) on the Galaxy S8, Galaxy S8 Plus and Galaxy Note 8.

Here are the problems that repeatedly come up: compared to using a really good fingerprint reader, iris scanning of the past hasn’t always been as accurate, speedy or dependable. Those concerns naturally spill over to Face ID. And with just a passcode pin as your backup, any time Face ID fails is a time you’re punching in that pin.

Of course, we’ll give Face ID a fair shake when the iPhone X comes out — it might convince us that face scanning is the best thing since, well, since Touch ID. And when we do finally go eye-to-eye with Face ID, here’s are the five things we’ll be paying attention to.

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1. Face ID must be easy to trigger, and easy on the arms

faceid-measurements

Where I hold a phone and scan a phone are about 11 inches apart. Your delta may vary based on your height.


Patrick Holland/CNET

If you’re like me, you keep your phone nearby pretty much all the time, often lying face-up on some sort of surface, like a table or desk. The current set of iPhones — and even the newly-announced iPhone 8 and 8 Plus — will unlock easily with your thumb, without you having to do much lifting. 

If you take any other phone with a home button out of your pocket or purse, you can pretty much unlock it by the time you’re ready to read the screen. That goes double for recent iPhones with Touch ID 2, which is lightning fast.

On the phones I’ve tested with iris scanning, that stops being the case the second you unlock it with your face. Unless you’re leaning over it until your eyes hit the target, you wind up raising it higher than you would normally hold your phone (exception: when you’re taking a photo), just to bring it back down again. 

A coworker helped me measure the distance between where I comfortably hold the Galaxy S8 and where I hold the Galaxy Note 8 to use iris unlock (both phones have it, by the way). It was about an 11 inch difference, give or take. 


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How many times do you unlock your phone in a day? A dozen; more? How about in a week? Imagine lifting the phone each time to do so, imagine all that wasted movement.

Apple’s SVP of software, Craig Federighi, noted to Tech Crunch that you can also angle the phone to fit in your eye, nose and mouth, the three elements Face ID needs to work. The video Apple used to explain Face ID suggests that the feature is forgiving, that you’ll barely have to position yourself to make it work at all. If that’s true, it’ll go a long way to making Face ID a convincing Touch ID alternative. If not, get ready for some pissed-off people.

2. Face ID will have to be fast and accurate

Iris scanning is almost instantaneous when it works the first time, but even if Face ID is just as rapid or even faster, it still takes longer to lift your arm up and bring it back down again than it does to press your thumb on a device that’s already in your hand.

Face ID’s additional challenge is that the second generation of Touch ID (which launched on the iPhone 6S) is so quick and convenient, you hardly know it’s there. But even if Face ID is perfectly fast and reliably works every time, it essentially turns Touch ID’s one-step unlocking process into as many as three steps.

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We’ll see how forgiving those angles actually are.


Screenshot by CNET

With Touch ID, touching fingerprint sensor simultaneously:

Wakes the iPhone
Unlocks the iPhone
Gets phone to home screen (if you disable the default “click to unlock” setting)

…all in a fraction of a second.

With Face ID, you seem to have to:

Wake the iPhone by raising it or tapping the screen
Position the phone (or you) so it can scan your face
Swipe to get to the home screen after you unlock the phone (it appears to unlock to the notifications shade)

Why so many steps? Because the phone isn’t always watching you, presumably to save battery life. It’d be wonderful if the iPhone X has an option or you to unlock straight to the home screen or the last app you used, if that’s how you prefer it.

Apple didn’t respond to a request for clarification on that issue.

3. Apple Pay will have to be seamless

Using mobile payments gets a whole lot less convenient when you have to fuss with setting up the app. Face ID will only win over Touch ID fans if Apple Pay is just as quick and easy to use as it is on an iPhone 7 or iPhone 8.

If it takes too long, if it isn’t reliably accurate or if you wind up having to repeatedly enter your backup pin instead, it might wind up being faster to whip out your credit card.


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4. Face ID has to be secure. Period

Security is Face ID’s most controversial issue for a good reason. If anyone can crack it, your more personal data is toast. And even if it can’t, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, himself a controversial figure, worries that being comfortable using your face as your password will lead to future “abuse”.

If Face ID faces any sort of breach, already uncertain buyers could very well rebel. To that Apple said at its launch event that Face ID has a 1 in a million chance of being duped — versus a 1 in 50,000 chance that someone can use their print to unlock your phone with Touch ID.

So far, Face ID has a strong recipe for security. All the processing takes place on the device — not in the cloud — using a secure part of the processor. Apple can never access your scans. That should make it just as secure as your Touch ID data.

face-id-scan

Face ID scans your face when you set it up, and should recognize you even when you change our appearance.


GIF by Alexandra Able/CNET

And if someone is forced to compel you to unlock the phone against your will, you have some safety nets. If someone shoves your phone in your face, you could theoretically close your eyes or look away, so long as the have the default “require attention” feature turned on. That’s not practical if you’re being threatened with violence, or jail time, but the same is true of Touch ID or passcodes.

Apple also makes it possible to disable Face ID in a second or two by pressing the side button and either volume button at the same time. Apple has a similar, likely unintended, workaround in place for the passcode: ten failed attempts trigger a complete device lockout.

5. Face ID’s accessibility features must work well

Face ID needs your eyeballs looking at the array. So what about blind people, people who often wear the wrong kind of sunglasses and people wearing eyepatches? Apple’s thought of this.  You can disable the requirement that the tech needs to see your attentive eyeballs, in the accessibility options. (Apple’s Federighi, once again, in John Gruber’s Talk Show podcast.)

Will it make Face ID less robust against break-ins? We don’t know, but it’s a necessary concession for Apple to make.

So, where does that leave us now?

Based on the new information dribbling out since Apple first announced Face ID, it certainly seems just as secure, if not more so, than Touch ID. As for the speed and convenience factor, well, until we can judge for ourselves on an iPhone X, we just have to hope.

Face ID comes with some really interesting, really sophisticated technology, and in addition to unlocking the phone and paying for good, it purports to do some pretty cool things. See: animojis and paying attention to when you’re paying attention. The camera tech behind Face ID could even take us well beyond phones.

But I’ve got to say it. Samsung phones like the Galaxy Note 8 give you six options for unlocking the phone: a pin, a pattern, a password, an eye scan, a fingerprint read, and a scan of your face (the latter isn’t secure enough for Samsung Pay). The iPhone X takes away the TouchID crowd pleaser to give you just two: a passcode and Face ID.

Couldn’t Apple have given buyers more options by putting Touch ID on the back like so many Android phones? And that’s one of Face ID’s other challenges: getting home button die-hards to love the new feature that exists at the expense of another. The only cure for that is time.

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