There are a lot of new features and changes rolled into the iPhone X, which arrives on Friday. But after using the iPhone X for a few days, the one that I think will make the biggest impact on the way we use our iPhones day-to-day is definitely Face ID. It's a huge feature that takes advantage of groundwork Apple has been laying for some time in iOS, but in the end it will triumph invisibly.
Face ID changes the game by separating the act of unlocking iPhone from physical interactions with the phone's screen or buttons. Put together with the Raise to Wake feature introduced with iOS 10, the natural act of lifting the iPhone X and glancing at it performs two tasks that used to require interaction: waking up the device and unlocking it. When I pull the iPhone X out of my pocket and look at it, it's already on and unlocked. I can decide what to do next.
This adds a new dimension to how I can use the iPhone X. Previously, when I looked at the lock screen of my iPhone, I could see my notifications, or swipe to access widgets or the camera controls. But interacting with notification bubbles, Siri, widgets, and the photo library (via the camera app) were necessarily constrained by security concerns. Tapping on a notification bubble or interacting with widgets will often require you to unlock the phone before continuing.
With Face ID, all those barriers vanish. Notifications open the relevant apps automatically. The camera shortcut provides you with access to your entire photo library. Siri has access to all your data. And all without having to take any additional steps to authenticate, because the authentication has already happened while you were seeing what was on the screen.
No more bad habits
I'll be honest: The combination of the Touch ID sensor with the iPhone's home button led me to bad behavior. My habit was always to lay my thumb on the sensor and then push the button, a combination that invariably led me to unlock the phone and send it to the home screen. The idea of gently laying my thumb on the home button and then taking it off in order to browse notifications rarely, if ever, occurred to me.
This is not to say that I didn't frequently pick my phone up just to check something on the lock screen. I'd do that too, to check the time or see if something big appeared in my notifications. But when I'd do this, I'd keep my thumb entirely off the home button. Then if there was a notification I wanted to tap on, I'd need to move my thumb to authenticate before continuing.
Face ID eliminates all these issues. When I pick up my phone, it's on and unlocked. I can read notifications and tap, or swipe up to return to the currently active app. That's why articles like this one by Mark Spoonauer at Tom's Guide miss the larger point. Face ID may not be as fast as Touch ID in the singular act of unlocking the phone (though I've never really felt that Face ID was slow at all), but Face ID makes the act of unlocking the phone largely an afterthought.
Face ID takes a multi-step process and eliminates it entirely. When I take the iPhone X out of my pocket, I'm not preparing to move through a multi-step unlocking process. Instead, I'm considering what I want to do: glancing at the screen to see if there are any notifications, or swiping to widgets or the camera, or wiping up to go back to my most recent app. The unlocking step just disappears.
This happens in third-party apps, too. Opening 1Password, or my home security video app, or my banking app, no longer requires a mode shift where I need to move my thumb onto the home button in order to authenticate. It's not that moving my thumb a few inches was a huge imposition, so much as it requires a break in concentration to do a little bit of bookkeeping in order to get me where I wanted to go. With Face ID, I just go where I wanted to go all along, no readjustment required.
Touch ID is a feature that makes it easier to unlock your phone; Face ID is a feature that makes you forget you need to unlock your phone. In fact, there's almost no point in trying to quantify how fast Face ID is when compared to Touch ID. How fast does it take to do nothing? The answer, you'll find, is no time at all.