With iOS 15.4, iPhone Face ID finally gets a critical new feature

But like all iOS updates, it comes at a cost
Grant Currin
A line of masked customers line up outside an Apple store. iStock / Robert Way

I have mostly negative feelings about updates to iOS, the operating system for iPhones.

Usually, the difference is hardly noticeable. Sometimes there’s a cool feature I end up using. Reaction emojis in iMessage, for instance, have become indispensable.

The one thing that’s certain about every update is that it pushes me and the rest of Earth’s one billion iPhone users just a little closer to getting a new phone.

According to technology researchers Michael Cowling and Amy Johnson, it's because "[m]anufacturers have to write OS updates to suit the latest hardware, so consumers who purchase it can take advantage of the latest features. In doing so, they must work around the fact that older hardware doesn’t have the same capacity."

New features simply won’t work on phones that are too old for manufacturers to make workarounds for.

"These workarounds mean older devices will run more slowly with the new OS installed, even for tasks the system had done for years," the researchers write

This isn’t unique to Apple, but the company has perfected the art of turning a new phone into an old phone very rapidly. You don’t become the most valuable public company by accident.

That’s why I’m not sure what to think about the newest iOS update, which came out earlier this week. In the “con” column, it’s an iOS update. In the “pro” column, it has a feature we all wanted most days for nearly two years: Face ID that works with a mask on.

Face ID is Apple’s benevolent facial recognition system. The logo smiles back at you! The five-year-old feature was Apple’s second big move to put biometrics into customers’ pockets. It’s a successor to Touch ID, the fingerprint scanning technology that came out almost a decade ago.

Face ID uses an infrared camera to make a 3D model of your face, which it then compares to the model you made while turning on the feature. It’s creepy. It’s convenient. I use it all the time.

What its designers didn’t anticipate was a respiratory pandemic. If you’re wearing a face mask, the infrared camera can’t see enough of your face to take a picture. That became annoying — incredibly annoying — when we started wearing masks in public all the time.

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Apple came out with some temporary solutions. The first fix was simple. A small software re-write caused the phone to prompt users to enter their passcode (that’s the other way into an iPhone) if it failed to recognize a user’s face right away. Another update let users with both an iPhone and an Apple Watch use the second device to unlock the first.

But there wasn’t a real fix — until now.

With iOS 15.4, iPhone Face ID finally gets a critical new feature

With the iOS 15.4 update, users can toggle on the option “Face ID with a Mask.”

Some text below the switch offers some information.

“Face ID is most accurate when it’s set up for full-face recognition only.”

Okay, so adding a mask makes it less accurate? That doesn’t sound great, but I trust Apple with everything else, so why not.

Later in the paragraph, it informs curious readers “iPhone can recognize the unique features around the eye area to authenticate.”

Goodbye Face ID, hello Eye ID?

No, they’ll probably save that one for iris scanning.

I put on a mask and took off my glasses to set it up. The first page is a warning, though it doesn’t look like one. Click “Use Face ID with a Mask” to set it up or “Don’t Use…” to go back to the previous page.

With iOS 15.4, iPhone Face ID finally gets a critical new feature

The next page is where the magic happens. Hold your phone at eye level, click “Get Started,” and—oh, wait.

“Remove your mask…” it says. The system wants to confirm my whole face matches the scan from when I first set up the feature. Easy enough.

And then… it’s done! I show the phone one neckroll’s worth of my maskless face and then I’m done. It didn’t need to see me in a mask at all. Classic Apple.

With iOS 15.4, iPhone Face ID finally gets a critical new feature

Now the comes real test. Will Face ID really recognize my masked mug?

I hold up my phone and — drumroll — no. Everything on the screen wiggles back and forth and passcode input comes up along with a little message.

“Remove anything covering the area around your eyes.”

It must be my glasses because once I take them off, my phone unlocks before I even realized it.

Problem solved.

The question now is whether this new feature — saving me, at most, the five seconds it takes to enter a passcode by hand — is worth it.

I feel triumphant now, but this new feature got me to download the update. There’s no doubt that pushes me just a bit closer to buying a new iPhone. More importantly, it pushes many metric tons of soon-to-be-discarded phones just a bit closer to the e-waste dumping grounds.

For their part, Cowling and Johnson might not approve of my decision to download the new update.

They counsel "[i]f your slow device is getting you down, the best option is to resist the urge to upgrade."

"You might get prompts directing you to install the latest OS version (and the frequency of these will depend on the company) but you can ignore them."

Whatever you say.