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Commentary Phones

How iPhone X’s face scanner can win us over

Face ID is controversial and untested... and what was wrong with the fingerprint scanner anyway?

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 as unlocking the phone with your fingerprint? Could it even be better?

Convenience is perhaps the stickiest sticking point of all: Apple's Touch ID fingerprint reader is already able to quickly and easily unlock the phone. But the iPhone X strips away Touch ID and leaves you completely reliant on Face ID. Apple thinks you won't miss scanning your finger one bit.

CNET hasn'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, Apple's staff demoed Face ID and wouldn't let us try it out ourselves.  

I worry that Face ID won't be as accurate, speedy or dependable as Touch ID. I worry that with just a passcode PIN as your backup, any time Face ID fails is a time you're punching in that PIN.

These concerns are based on my experience with iris unlocking on the Lumia 950, and both face and iris unlocking on Samsung Galaxy S8Galaxy S8 Plus and Galaxy Note 8. Samsung's facial recognition feature takes a different approach than the iPhone X's, by the way, and frankly isn't secure.

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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 unlocking measure since, well, since Touch ID. And when we do finally go eye-to-eye with Face ID, here are the five things that'll convince us Apple made the right choice.

1. Face ID must be quick 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 usually keep your iPhone next to you on a table or desk, you already know how quickly you can unlock it with your thumb, even when it's flat on its back. 

And with a quick thumb-press as you're sweeping it out of your pocket or purse, it'll be ready to go by the time you're ready to read the screen.

Iris scanning takes longer, at least on the other phones I've tested. 

Unless you're leaning over the target, you'll need to lift the phone up to your face and bring it back down again before you're ready to go. 

For me, that's about 11 inches of extra distance my arm needs to travel to bring a phone to face level. Yes, we measured the difference between where I usually hold a phone and where I hold it when I use iris unlock.(If you're curious, I held the Galaxy S8 and used the Galaxy Note 8 to demo iris unlocking.)

How many times do you unlock your phone in a day: A dozen? More? How many times do you unlock it throughout the week? Imagine lifting the phone each time; imagine all that wasted movement.

There is one ray of hope. 

Apple's SVP of software, Craig Federighi, noted to Tech Crunch that you can also angle the phone (or your face) to beam in your eye, nose and mouth, without having to hoist the iPhone X way up high. 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 fast to unlock, I'm betting that the whole unless process isn't. After all, with a fingerprint reader, you're just pressing down on a device that's already in your hand.

On top of that, the second generation of Touch ID on the iPhone 6S and above is so fast, you hardly know it's there. Face ID will have its work cut out for it. 

Touch ID still has one more advantage, because it basically does three things at once:

2017-09-25-10-26-17

We'll see how forgiving those angles actually are.

Screenshot by CNET
  • 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 to the last app you used.

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 enter your backup PIN again and again, using your credit card might wind up being faster.

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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 someone cracks it, your personal data is toast. 

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, himself a controversial figure, also worries that Face ID will make you more comfortable using your face as your password, which will lead to future "abuse."

If Face ID faces any sort of breach, already uncertain buyers could very well rebel. Apple thinks a breach is unlikely. 

At its launch event, Apple said 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 your fingerprint.

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

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

OK, so let's say someone is compelling you to unlock the phone against your will, then what? Turns out Face ID offers a safety net. 

If someone shoves your phone in your face, you could theoretically close your eyes or look away, assuming you haven't messed with the settings. 

Apple also makes it possible to disable Face ID in a second or two by pressing the side button and one of the volume buttons at the same time. There's a similar workaround in place for the passcode: 10 failed attempts triggers 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, and those wearing sunglasses and eyepatches? Apple's thought of this.  

Face ID will work with some sunglasses, depending on the material. You can also disable the requirement that the iPhone X needs to see your attentive eyeballs, in the accessibility options. (Apple's Federighi explains this in John Gruber's Talk Show podcast.)

Will disabling Face ID make the iPhone X more susceptible to break-ins? We don't know, but it's a necessary concession for Apple to make.

So, where does that leave us now?

Face ID certainly seems just as secure, if not more so, than Touch ID. As for the speed and convenience, until we can test for ourselves, we just have to hope.

Face ID comes with some really interesting, really sophisticated technology in addition to unlocking the phone and paying for goods. 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 giving you flexibility in how you want to unlock your phone, it's lacking. For example:

iPhone X unlock options vs Galaxy Note 8


iPhone X Galaxy Note 8
PIN x x
Pattern
x
Password
x
Fingerprint read
x
Iris scan
x
Face scan x x

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.

This story originally posted September 25, 2017 and updated on October 7, 2017.