The iPhone X’s only unique feature is a fail (updated)

Lumia 950 owners saw this coming. Where we only wanted a simple fingerprint reader Microsoft decided they needed to impress us with the oh so fallible and awkward Iris Recognition.

Not one to learn from other’s mistakes, Apple decided to forgo the reliable Touch ID module on the iPhone X with a super-sophisticated 3D scanning module called Face ID, using technology from the 2010 first generation Kinect.

Now the first reviews are in, and it appears to work just about as well as we expect, and as demonstrated ably above by Craig Federighi at the unveiling of the device.

Steven Levy from the Wired is one of the first to be able to post a review of the device, and he writes:

It seems reliable at fending off intruders….  How it has dealt with my own real-life face is another matter. There have been times when, despite a clear view of my face, the iPhone X has ghosted me. (Apple tells me that perhaps I wasn’t making what the iPhone X considers eye contact. I wouldn’t want it to turn on every time my face was within camera range, would I?)

Eventually I devised a strategy. When waking my iPhone I think of it as De Niro’s mirror in Taxi DriverYou talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here! I then see if the little lock icon on the screen has released its latch. Alternatively, a good way to see when you’ve been recognized is to notice the generic messages on the lock screen saying “you have a notification” from Facebook, Gmail, or wherever. When you and your iPhone X make that turn-on connection, those flesh out with the actual content of the message. (This feature—withholding potentially private alerts until the phone was unlocked—had previously been available as an option but now is the default.) In any case, once I got the hang of it, I found I could dial down the De Niro and get it to unlock more naturally, though I am still mystified that sometimes it goes straight to where I left off and other times asks me to swipe up. And I really liked Apple Pay with iPhone X—having to double-click on the side button and then use Face ID was a clearer way to do transactions.

Staring rather intently at the camera sensor would, of course, be pretty familiar to Lumia 950 and 950 XL owners who have not already given up on the Iris reader and simply used the PIN instead, and it seems very soon millions of iOS users will also become very familiar with the action.

Update: The Verge has confirmed the anticipated issues with the Face ID that is to be expected from the technology (ie having to look at head-on, having to hold it close to your face, not working well in bright light).  The Verge write:

The good news is that FaceID mostly works great. The bad news is that sometimes it doesn’t, and you will definitely have to adjust the way you think about using your phone to get it to a place where it mostly works great.

In my early tests, FaceID worked well indoors: sitting at my desk, standing in our video studio, and waiting to get coffee. You have to look at it head-on, though: if it’s sitting on your desk you have to pick up the phone and look at it, which is a little annoying if you’re used to just putting your finger on the TouchID sensor to check a notification.

You also can’t be too casual about it: I had a lot of problems pulling the iPhone X out of my pocket and having it fail to unlock until Apple clarified that FaceID works best at a distance of 25 to 50 centimeters away from your face, or about 10 to 20 inches. That’s closer than I usually hold my phone when I pull it out of my pocket to check something, which means I had to actively think about holding the iPhone X closer to my face than every other phone I’ve ever used. “You’re holding it wrong” is a joke until it isn’t, and you can definitely hold the iPhone X wrong.

That’s a small problem, though, and I think it’ll be easy to get used to. The other problem is actually much more interesting: almost all of the early questions about FaceID centered around how it would work in the dark, but it turns out that was exactly backwards. FaceID works great in the dark, because the IR projector is basically a flashlight, and flashlights are easy to see in the dark. But go outside in bright sunlight, which contains a lot of infrared light, or under crappy florescent lights, which interfere with IR, and FaceID starts to get a little inconsistent.

I took a walk outside our NYC office in bright sunlight, and FaceID definitely had issues recognizing my face consistently while I was moving until I went into shade or brought the phone much closer to my face than usual. I also went to the deli across the street, which has a wide variety of lights inside, including a bunch of overhead florescent strips, and FaceID also got significantly more inconsistent.

It seems Apple has not in fact been able to defy the laws of physics.

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