Real world iOS 14.5 Face ID Unlock with Apple Watch performance

Now that iOS 14.5 is nearing official release, it’s time to check in on how far Unlock with Apple Watch for Face ID with face masks has improved over the beta testing cycle. The good news: Unlock with Apple Watch performance has improved from iOS 14.5 beta 1, the bad news: not so much. It still feels like a stopgap, it fails too often and Apple Music playback still hiccups with every unlock attempt.

I think performance will vary, a lot, depending on the user, the mask and the environment. For some, perhaps the majority, it will be enough. I find it fails me too often on the daily commute and in stores, usually at the very moment I need to launch dPOINT or dPay apps at checkout. I also get the feeling that Apple Watch battery life takes a hit too, but take it with a grain of salt along with my impressions. If it works for you that’s great, but the Unlock with Apple Watch end user experience will be all over the place.

It’s official: Face ID sucks with face masks

I was disappointed when Daring Fireball finally checked in on the Face ID face mask problem in the iPad Air w/Touch ID power button review. It summed up western tech journalist ignorance and indifference to a big problem that Face ID users in Asia have been dealing with since iPhone X day one. DF’s latest take on the issue in ‘Unlock With Apple Watch’ While Wearing a Face Mask Works in iOS 14.5 is even more disappointing, finally admitting that, “Prior to iOS 14.5, using a Face ID iPhone while wearing a face mask sucked.” This is pure ‘let’s not admit a problem until there’s a fix’ Apple apologia that is all too common on tech sites. DF hasn’t played straight or gotten it right when it comes to the big picture of Face ID. Then again the site is more into politics than tech these days.

Twitter followers pointed out that Apple went with Face ID knowing the trade-offs they were making in Asian markets but it was the right choice. I don’t know how much the Face ID face mask problem was on Apple’s radar during iPhone X development. But there was some arrogant, ‘we can blow off a few Asian customers’ attitude in that choice that Apple is paying for now. Face ID iPhone was quietly removed from how to videos on the Suica•PASMO promotion page in October. Face ID iPhone 12 sales might be driving 5G growth in the USA, but Tsutsumu Ishikawa reports that Touch ID iPhone SE sales in Japan are stalling the 5G transition.

I say this because there was certainly plenty of Apple arrogance when they blew off iPhone X Japanese users suffering from the notorious iPhone X NFC Suica problem. It didn’t matter because it was a iPhone problem…in Japan. It took me 3 exchanges to finally get a NFC problem free iPhone X revision B unit and I was one of the lucky ones. There were, and still are, plenty of iPhone X users fumbling in the dark. To this day iPhone X NFC problem search hits are the #1 hit on this site. Years later I am still outraged by Apple’s secrecy and denial of the issue. There was no excuse hiding the problem so that people would keep buying a defective top of the line product.

So no, I don’t think iOS 14.5 Unlock with Apple Watch is a solution for the Face ID face mask problem. It’s a stop gap until we get an ‘Apple finally figured it out’ iPhone that reviewers will gush over. And it performs like a stop gap: even in iOS 14.5 beta 2, one out of three Face ID with face mask attempts fails for me and performance is often sluggish, particularly glitchy when listening to Apple Music and using Apple Pay Suica transit.

iOS 14.5 Face ID sucks less for Apple Watch users, that’s all. People who make excuses for Apple’s hardware mistakes and missteps aren’t helping people make the right choice before plunking down hard earned money on expensive devices. Nothing is worse than having to live with somebody else’s mistake, except for having to live with somebody else’s deception.

iOS 14.5 Face ID impressions

It was just a year ago when iOS 13.5 introduced a small Face ID UI tweak that bypassed Face ID and went straight to the passcode entry screen but over time I did not find it very useful. Face ID took longer and longer to bring up the passcode entry screen, as if it was trying to look past the mask. While it was good that Apple finally acknowledged Face ID shortcomings with face masks after ignoring complaints from Asian users, it took a health crises to force Apple to do something about it. In the end it didn’t change anything.

And now we have iOS 14.5 with Face ID ‘Unlock with Apple Watch’, another stop-gap until Apple delivers a real solution. It will never work with Apple Pay, which it should not though many will wish for it fumbling with iPhone Face ID authorization in the checkout line. It’s probably most helpful when digging for point reward QR Code apps that don’t use Face ID for sign in. Will it help sell Apple Watches? Perhaps, but it also might dampen future iPhone upgrades with improved Face ID.

Some first impressions…it feels like what it is: a clever hack but a hack nevertheless, to do something Face ID wasn’t designed to do that re-routes the ‘chain of trust’ from one way to two way. This makes things much more complicated. Already there are complaints of Face ID unlock with Apple Watch not working when Apple Pay Octopus users are in transit. I also find it unreliable especially during Suica transit. Overall 1 out of 3 times it strikes out. I know the feature is beta 1, but I already get that iPhone X NFC problem vibe: deep down this feature isn’t going to work reliably…ever.

A mystery message when Face ID unlock with Apple Watch doesn’t work

The Return of Touch ID…or maybe not

Gruber finally clocked in on the Face ID with face mask issue in his iPad Air review:

Will this Touch ID sensor in the power button ever make its way to iPhones? I think not…adding Touch ID to the iPhone power button doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

Yes, across the world, many of us are wearing face masks whenever we venture outside the home, and Face ID doesn’t work with masked faces. (Some people report that it does work, sometimes, but it never works for me, and definitely is not officially supported.) But how would a Touch ID sensor on the power button work with an iPhone in a case? Most people use cases, and most cases cover the power button. That’s such a dealbreaker that I think the whole debate might end there. But even putting the issue of button-covering cases aside, how would Touch ID work alongside Face ID?

Practically speaking it would be nice to have Touch ID while wearing a face mask — trust me, I know — but conceptually it seems a bit mushy to have both Touch ID and Face ID on the same device. I think we’re more likely to see a better Face ID system that can identify us while we wear masks covering our mouths and noses than iPhones that have Touch ID sensors on the power button. If we, as humans, can recognize people we know while they’re wearing face masks, computers can do it too.

Gruber is somewhat sensible up to this point but then adds:

Touch ID that somehow works through the display, not the power button — that seems like an option worth pursuing, conceptual mushiness of dual biometric systems be damned.

Conceptual mush my ass. It’s too bad Gruber has never experienced Apple Pay Suica Express Transit, it would give him a better perspective and clarity on how big and important the Face ID vs Touch ID issue is for many iPhone users in Asian markets. As a regular Tokyo commuter I’m fortunate that Apple Pay Express Transit Suica makes Apple Pay on a Face ID iPhone tolerable when wearing a face mask, but the majority of Apple Pay users in Japan do the face mask passcode move.

Apple Pay launched after Touch ID for a reason: Apple Pay + Face ID/Touch ID is one complete thing. Apple Pay with passcodes is far more frustrating than a regular passcode unlock because it short circuits the entire Apple Pay experience and catches you at the worst moment when you least expect it, usually at checkout with the wrong Wallet card selected and people behind you. It’s so bad you want to go back to plastic.

There are no easy choices. An iPhone that does Face ID and Touch ID (in screen or button) would be expensive, risky, problematic and juggling both technologies will very likely suck UI performance-wise. We don’t need a repeat of the 3D Touch misstep because of cost and/or not panning out because Apple didn’t think things through.

Apple needs to see Face ID through, and it can, but developing it will take time. Even so there is a large installed base of Face ID devices now that will never work with face masks, users are going to be dealing with that issue for a long time. The real interesting thing for me is what Apple is telling customers on its own web pages. For example the Apple Pay Japan page for PASMO and Suica only shows Touch ID. It used to show Face ID too but that was removed with the Apple Pay PASMO launch refresh. Apple fully recognizes that Face ID is a marketing obstacle for Apple Pay in Japan.

Computers already recognize face masks, NEC face recognition technology does it very well. And we have Touchless Apple Pay on the horizon. The bottom line is…until Apple develops and delivers its own insanely great Face ID with x-ray vision, or licenses NEC face recognition technology, and delivers Apple Pay Touchless, Apple Pay on Apple Watch is the way to go.

If you need to enter your passcode

A reader asked me about using face masks with Express Transit. The great thing about Express Transit with Suica and Octopus is that the user doesn’t need Face ID or Touch ID to use transit or buy stuff. It’s very convenient to have, especially in our face mask era. iOS 13.5 added a small Face ID tweak for easier passcode entry when wearing a face mask. It helps with the basic unlock but for me regular Apple Pay authentication is still a pain.

The reader wanted to know if the iOS 13.5 Face ID tweak affected Express Transit. It does not. You don’t need Face ID to use Apple Pay Express Transit. But Face ID needs to be ‘on’ in order for Express Transit to work and finding the right information on Apple support pages is a little confusing. The reference page you want is If Face ID isn’t working on your iPhone or iPad Pro>If you need to enter your passcode:

The key sentences are outlined in red. Wearing a face mask is not a problem with Express Transit and Face ID turned on. However, “five unsuccessful attempts to match a face,” turns off Face ID and Express Transit. You need to enter your passcode to turn on Face ID and Express Transit again.

Unfortunately turning off Face ID wearing a face mask with five unsuccessful attempts without realizing it is easy to do and trips up a lot of Express Transit users who are not aware of it. That’s why I suggest turning off the ‘Raise to Wake’ option in Settings > Display & Brightness. Doing so reduces the chance of ‘five strikes’ and makes Face ID with face mask life a little easier.