I bought an Apple iPhone X on the day it launched in South Africa – 24 November 2017 – and it has been my primary smartphone since.
In terms of hand-on tests or reviews, four months is a decent stint – and I think I am qualified to make two statements:
- The iPhone X is an amazing phone, which looks great, is powerful, and handles all tasks with ease.
- Facial recognition as the only user authentication method (besides a passcode) is a dumb idea.
I make these statements as a smartphone user, not as a biometric-security expert.
The iPhone X is a great device – the screen is stunning, it looks and feels superb, its battery easily lasts over two days with my usage, wireless charging is cool, and my apps never lag.
I have also dropped it several times and there are zero signs of damage.
The only problem is when it comes time to unlock the device.
First time, not every time
Apple made a big deal of the Face ID system when it launched the iPhone X.
With the system, “your face is now your password”, and it got rid of the fingerprint sensor found on previous iPhones to allow for a massive screen with a thin bezel.
It spoke about the phone’s TrueDepth camera – which analyses 30,000 invisible dots to create a precise depth map of your face, and how an infrared camera reads the dot pattern.
“It captures an infrared image, then sends the data to the Secure Enclave in the A11 Bionic chip to confirm a match,” said Apple.
This sounds super impressive, and it is – the technology is very cool.
And in Apple’s defence, I would have bought an iPhone X if it authenticated my identity by having me cut a piece of my hair off and place it into the Lightning port (I like Apple devices).
This does not take away from the fact that Face ID does not work as well as advertised, though, and I often end up using my passcode to unlock my phone.
These are the scenarios I regularly encounter:
- The phone is at an angle
If your iPhone X is on your desk at work, you can’t unlock it without picking it up and holding it in front of your face or moving your head to where the device is placed and ensuring your face is perpendicular to the screen.
This means if the phone is 10cm from your hand, but at a 45-degree angle to your face, you cannot see home screen notifications or access any apps without using your passcode or moving the phone.
- You’ve just woken up
I don’t think checking your smartphone as soon as you wake up is encouraged by health experts – but you have to read those midnight emails early.
This means that when lying in bed with one eye stuck closed from sleep, or your face partially covered when lying on a pillow, you cannot unlock your phone. Time again for the passcode.
- It just won’t unlock
It only happens around 20% of the time, but there are cases where the phone is held in front of your face, your eyes are open, and it won’t unlock.
It is not a case of your face not being recognised, but rather the phone not detecting it has been lifted up and the user wants it to scan their face.
The solution is to either use the passcode, or press the lock button (to dim the screen) and then press unlock and swipe up on the display to activate Face ID.
- When it works best
There are two scenarios where Face ID works flawlessly.
If I am wearing sunglasses and raise my phone, it unlocks with Face ID right away. In a car or walking outside, the iPhone X likes the sunglasses look.
The other scenario is in very-low-light or near-dark conditions. When you raise the phone, the screen provides light which illuminates your face and it unlocks every time.
In an ideal world, and without any in-depth knowledge of the technical requirements or barriers, the iPhone X would have been better if it also had an under-screen fingerprint sensor, or maybe a fingerprint scanner on the back of the device.
The engineers at Apple are a lot smarter than me, though, and this may have ruined the device or made it too expensive.
Only having a Face ID system which does not always work can be frustrating, but technological advancements cannot always be smooth.