Is the iPhone 6s Touch ID 2 sensor too fast?

Touch ID sensors on multiple iPhones
Touch ID sensors on multiple iPhones (Image credit: iMore)

Touch ID 2 made unlocking the iPhones 6s incredibly fast. So fast, some have complained it's now too fast. Specifically, too fast to see lock screen notifications. So, is it? And if it is, what can be done about it?

Spoilers: The answer is: "it depends". If your goal is to access lock screen information or options, then yes—it's demonstrably too fast. If your goal is to unlock your phone, then no—it might still be too slow.

Before reading this, it's worth going back through the recent articles by Craig Mod, Dr. Drang, and Joe Cieplinski for context. It shows how challenging it is to meet every expectation and make everyone happy.

The legacy problems

The iPhone and iPad have very few hardware buttons: Home, Sleep/Wake (On/Off), and Volume up and down. That's it. Yet, for technical reasons, two of them have historically performed the same job on single click: Wake up the device and present the lock screen.

Presenting the lock screen is important because that's the interface that prevents accidental or unauthorized access to the device. Before Touch ID, whether you clicked Home or Sleep/Wake, you had to slide to unlock and, optionally, enter a code to get in. They were two distinct buttons whose behaviors were conflated.

Since the lock screen was effectively the primary landing point for the iOS interface, Apple began adding conveniences to it like notifications, notification center, control center, fast camera access, Siri, continuity and suggested apps, and more. At the same time, to prevent bypasses, Apple has hardened its security. So, the lock screen became both status board and gatekeeper.

Then came Touch ID. With it, the iPhone or iPad wouldn't simply wake on click but authenticate and open on contact. That meant the two distinct buttons started to have distinct behaviors. The difference remained fuzzy at first because of the time it took the original Touch ID to register. After the initial click, you could still glance at notifications and even remove your finger and access other options before it processed the unlock.

Then came Touch ID 2. With it, unlock was almost as fast as the initial click. That made the distinction clear. Glancing at notifications or pulling your finger away to prevent unlock was now difficult. Sure, you could use a nail, unregistered finger, knuckle, or some other physical workaround to still make Home work like Wake if you really wanted to, but otherwise you had to break old habits and build new ones. You had to use the Wake button.

The potential solutions

Back before iOS 4 if you left an app and then launched it again, it restarted from scratch. Some people loved that because it was an incredibly easy way to bail out a game, for example. Then, with background processes and saved states, it stopped working and we had to learn how to properly force quit apps. This is like that.

It took me only a couple hours to adjust to iOS 4 multitasking. It took me about a week to adjust to Touch ID 2 unlocking. Now, when I really want to see the lock screen and not unlock my iPhone 6s Plus, I use a different finger or just hit the Sleep/Wake button to do it.

It's not optimal, though. If all you want to do is get to your phone, it's apps, and everything they can do, then you still have to see the visual distraction of the lock screen. If all you want to do is see the lock screen, you have to restrict yourself to what's arguably a less conveniently placed button or some form of digital contortionism.

You can't do away with the lock screen because you still have to have an interface to handle unauthorized or failed access attempts. And if you suppress it—or make Touch ID 2 so fast it blows right through it—people may wonder if their device had ever been locked at all. Uncertainty also creates anxiety, after all.

Making the process as fast as possible, and making notification center as identical to the lock screen presentation as possible, would help. It's really close already, so if anyone accidentally unlocks when they meant to just glance, one swipe and they get what they wanted anyway.

Lighting up the lock screen to see notifications—and perhaps one day, complications—could also be evolved. Like the Apple Watch, the lock screen could light up when you raise the device, when you tap on the screen, or when you 3D Touch press. (The first behavior has already been implemented on the iPhone with the old Siri raise-to-speak and the current audio Messages raise-to-play/reply.)

Those options would also come in super handy if Apple ever virtualized the Home button.

There's a rumor that Apple slowed Touch ID 2 down a tad before release to help balance all the expectations—both software and human—and that it could be even faster. That highlights how challenging a problem it is to solve. There's no doubt they're still working on it, though, and it'll be interesting to see what the teams come up with for iPhone 7 and iOS 10 in 2016.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.