I’ve been traveling this past week, and the iPhone 13 Pro Max has been my trusty sidekick. Whether it’s boarding passes, camera duties, messaging, or keeping me occupied with ebooks and music, I’ve found myself staring at the excellent 120Hz ProMotion display a whole lot. Problem is, when the sensors above that screen stare back, they’re not seeing what they want to.
Face unlock – Face ID in Apple-world – has been a side victim of the coronavirus pandemic. Consistently wearing masks (along with regularly washing your hands, and being vaccinated) is one of the CDC’s big recommendations for avoiding COVID-19, and it’s a legal requirement when you’re in airports and on trains.
Having half your face obscured isn’t especially helpful to a system which relies on scanning it in order to unlock your iPhone. And, with how much I’ve been using the iPhone 13 Pro Max this week – and enjoying it, too, particularly the excellent cameras – its a hurdle I’ve been running into hundreds of times a day, if not more.
Apple’s workaround, of course, is a singularly Apple-y way of dealing with half-masked faces: you need to have an iPhone and and Apple Watch. The feature, launched earlier this year as an iOS 14 update, allows you to bypass security on the iPhone just as long as your Apple Watch is on your wrist and unlocked.
Now, leaving aside the fact that clearly not everyone who has an iPhone also has Apple’s smartwatch, this workaround actually held up pretty well. I’ve been using it on an iPhone 12 Pro Max since it was released, and while there were times it simply didn’t actually unlock, or would unlock without my intending it, it did make using iOS while masked more streamlined. Unfortunately, it’s not working any more.
Since switching to iOS 15 and the iPhone 13 Pro Max, I’ve lost the ability to unlock with Apple Watch. Trying to turn the feature on in the iOS settings simply gets me a “can’t create a secure connection with the Apple Watch” message. A quick search online confirms I’m not alone.
It looks to be an iOS 15 issue, not an iPhone 13 one, but since Apple’s latest version comes preloaded and you can’t downgrade it, anybody in the same situation as I am will probably find that distinction little comfort. I’ve tried all the “fixes” and suggestions listed online – rebooting the phone and the watch; updating to the latest software version of each; even unpairing the Apple Watch and then repairing it from scratch – and nothing works.
I’ve been traveling this week, so wearing a mask a whole lot, and it’s been a reminder of just how many times you need to unlock your phone. Even just checking the latest notifications, if you have iOS’ privacy feature which only reveals their content on the lock screen when iOS is unlocked, requires a PIN now. The iPhone 13’s screen notch may be smaller this generation, but that doesn’t really matter when Face ID can’t see enough of you to do its thing.
Meanwhile, I’m looking enviously over at devices like the new iPad mini, and its Touch ID sensor built into the power button. I can understand why Apple shifted away from a fingerprint scanner in the iPhone, and – when unmasked – I’m a big fan of Face ID. I particularly enjoy how it makes logging into apps, and unlocking payments, simple. Honestly, it took a global pandemic to get frustrated by it.
Rumors of a return of Touch ID to the iPhone have given plenty of people – myself included – a glimmer of hope about striking that balance of security and convenience again. Unlock with Apple Watch was generally functional, but still could be clunky in the same way that anything wirelessly-dependent (I’m looking at you, AirDrop) can periodically leave you longing for a physical alternative. Just as even that took its time arriving in iOS, however, it always seemed a fact of reality that if Apple really was intending to return a fingerprint sensor to its phones, that wouldn’t be in time for 2021.
As it stands, for a variety of reasons – not least vaccine holdouts – it looks like we’ll be masked-up well into 2022 and probably beyond. An iPhone 14 with a built-in Touch ID sensor probably will be just as relevant as an iPhone 13 would’ve been with that today. Talk about disheartening.
Security is, of course, one thing you should never compromise on. Tempting as it is to change the settings on my iPhone so that it waits a little longer to unlock, or shows the content of my notifications for anyone who glances at them on the lock screen, I know that’s a foolhardy thing to do. Instead, I’ll wait (semi) patiently for the inevitable iOS update which hopefully fixes iPhone unlock with Apple Watch, and punch in my regular PIN until that arrives.
All the same, I can’t help but wonder whether, as we rush to embrace new technology, being equally quick to leave behind what came before it might be a missed opportunity. I’m not someone who particularly mourns the loss of the headphone jack, but these past few days have certainly left me more sympathetic to those who discovered the tech world changed and, in the process, decided something that was important to them could actually be left behind.