Face ID has been the primary way to unlock your iPhone since the iPhone X, when Apple ditched the Touch ID sensor in its flagship devices in order to increase the screen-to-body ratio. In a lot of ways, it was a super useful way to unlock your device that solved the biggest problem with Touch ID, namely that it doesn't work when your finger is covered. Which, for those of us living in the northern half of the country, is something we do pretty regularly during long stretches of the calendar.
Face ID was even better on the iPad Pro when it was added since it was able to detect your face whichever way you held the device. Not only could you use it to unlock your iPhone, but you could also use it to unlock saved passwords, authenticate apps, and even approve ApplePay and App Store transactions.
Then, you know, 2020 happened and we discovered that Face ID had the same major drawback as Touch ID. It doesn't work when your authentication device is covered. In this case, that's your face, which is a problem considering we've all been wearing masks for the better part of a year now whenever we leave the house. The thing about technology is that it isn't always built with the ability to foresee things like a global pandemic.
Now, Apple's fixing that problem.
Well, sort of. Face ID still doesn't work with a mask, but if you have an Apple Watch, Apple will let you use it to unlock your iPhone in iOS 14.5.
Technically, that software has just been released as a beta to developers, meaning it will still be a few weeks before you can start using it, but it's definitely a great step in the right direction. Trying to unlock your iPhone with a mask on isn't any fun at all when you're standing at the grocery store checkout.
There is a drawback, however, which is that the Apple Watch unlocks the iPhone in the same way it currently unlocks your Mac. That means it doesn't require any interaction to confirm that you wanted to unlock your device.
In theory, if someone picked up your phone, and was still close enough that it was connected to your watch, they'd be able to unlock it if you had this feature enabled and they happened to be wearing a mask. Fortunately, Apple gives you a notification on your Apple Watch to let you know your iPhone has been unlocked and gives you the option to lock it again. If you do, your iPhone will then require your passcode to unlock.
It also only works to unlock your device, and then only when it detects you're wearing a mask. It also won't work for Apple Pay, or for any apps that require authentication, like a banking app, for example. Those still require the use of Face ID or your passcode.
To use this feature, you have to be running iOS 14.5, and watchOS 7.4, both of which were just released in beta. It's also important to mention that just because a feature exists in a beta release, it doesn't necessarily mean it will end up in the final version released. Still, assuming it is, you can activate it by visiting Settings > Face ID & Passcode, and then turning on "Unlock With Apple Watch."
I tried it out for a while today, to the amusement of my children, who thought it was funny that Dad was wearing a mask around the house, and it worked reliably every time. That's a lot more than you can say about Face ID, even without a mask, to be honest. It's definitely better than having to enter your passcode every time you try to look at your iPhone while wearing a mask.