Nearly two years after the COVID-19 pandemic, Apple has made Face ID usable again in iOS 15.4 by And last but not least added the ability to use the face unlock feature while wearing a face mask.
I’ve been trying out the new iOS 15.4 beta for a few days and I’m pleasantly surprised at how well Face ID works with a mask – besides just enjoying being able to use my iPhone the way it was originally intended to work, instead of typing a six-digit passcode a dozen times when I leave the house.
The Face ID vs. Touch ID/fingerprint sensor debate was a conversation long before COVID-19 and the new norm to wear a face mask almost constantly when you’re in public institutions or traveling on buses, trains, or planes. But while masks are a great tool for preventing the spread of disease, they are a major barrier to making facial recognition tools like Face ID work for unlocking your phone, given the whole “blocking half of your face.”
However, iOS 15.4 aims to remedy this by making Face ID work easily when you’re wearing a mask, zooming in on details on the top portion of people’s faces to correctly identify them and unlocking the phone. It’s not Apple’s first attempt at solving the Face ID/mask problem: iOS 13.5 would recognize when you were wearing a mask and display the password prompt faster, and the company has added a feature for automatically unlocking your iPhone when you’re wearing an Apple Watch as the last iOS 14.5 update of the year. But the new Face ID mask support is a much more streamlined solution that has the advantage of eliminating the need to purchase additional Apple hardware.
Apple really wants to make sure customers know it’s adding the new Face ID option. After installing iOS 15.4 (at least in its current beta form), the first thing you see is a splash screen asking if you want to enable Face ID with a mask. Setting up the feature is relatively easy, though you’ll need to re-register your face (presumably so Apple can dial in even further into the details around your eyes).
Once you’ve done that, Face ID with a mask works – for the most part – very well, i.e. it works to unlock your iPhone when you look at it, even if you’re wearing a cloth face mask or more of a substantial N95.
However, there are a few weird quirks. If you use Face ID with a mask and wear glasses, Apple now asks you to take a baseline scan with every pair of glasses you own. And when I switched to another unregistered pair of glasses, Face ID didn’t work when I was wearing a mask. Face ID with a mask doesn’t work with sunglasses either.
Other failures I encountered were when I covered too much of my forehead, such as with a pulled down beanie with earflaps covering most of my head. But I also had some impressive successes: wearing my entire ski gear of a knit hat, face mask and goggles (albeit unusually transparent goggles) was still enough to get Face ID working and unlock my phone.
The downside, of course, is that Apple is doing warn that Face ID with a mask is less accurate than regular Face ID. As Apple notes:
Face ID is most accurate when set up for full face recognition only. If you want to use Face ID while wearing a mask, iPhone can recognize the unique features around the eye for verification.
How a lot Face ID’s less accurate when using a mask is harder to say though – but it’s worth bearing in mind that you might run into some missed unlocks when using the feature.
Still, the sheer convenience of being able to quickly unlock my phone without taking off my mask or entering my password over and over is worth the occasional failed unlock. And it’s especially useful for streamlining Apple Pay for things like paying for the NYC subway (rather than fidgeting awkwardly with my passcode during a frantic rush-hour crowd).
iOS 15.4 is still in public beta, so the usual warnings about running unfinished beta software on your main device still apply. And it’s very possible that Apple will keep Face ID mask support for a future update if it’s not happy with the way things work now. But hopefully in the next week Apple will broadly release iOS 15.4 and the crucial new Face ID feature to the masses and end our long nightmare of entering passwords.