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Why Apple might switch to Face ID instead of Touch ID for iPhone 8

There's been an incredible amount of noise and speculation over Touch ID on iPhone 8. Apple no doubt knows exactly what it's doing, but the decision-making process of Apple's past is finally echoing into media's present. And that makes it worth thinking about.

Way back in January 2015, I wrote about Apple deleting the physical Home button so the company could minimize the bezels in iPhone 8:

Imagine a future iPhone where the screen goes to the edge on both sides, disappearing not at the curve but as the curve. Imagine an iPhone where the FaceTime camera and earpiece take up almost no space, and the screen reaches almost all the way to the top. And imagine an iPhone where the Home button is replaced by some new technology that can still allow for a physical escape to a known state, that can still scan fingerprints and authenticate, but that also lets the screen reach almost all the way to the bottom.

We got the virtual Home button with iPhone 7, but, according to rumors, embedding Touch ID under the edge-to-edge display of iPhone 8 was more of a challenge.

Back to front

Previously, in the iPhone 8 rumor mill, we saw reports that Apple was considering going with Touch ID on the back of the device instead, similar to how many Android phones have done it. That's what Samsung, apparently, had to do with Galaxy S8.

Apple uses its own technology, built on what it acquired from Authentec just prior to the launch of iPhone 5s and Touch ID. That and an additional 6 months might let Apple succeed where Samsung did not.

Otherwise, well, Touch ID was only ever the best solution to a particular problem at a particular time — making authentication more convenient. That particular problem, though, now has other potential solutions.

Cutting knots

If Apple can't get Touch ID to work reliably enough beneath the screen and doesn't want to move it to the back, then the company has tied itself into a knot. But knots, as the cliché about lateral thinking goes, can also be cut.

Another way to solve authentication with convenience is facial scanning. Not the junky 2D scanning that's been bolted on to other phones to date but 3D scanning that can lock onto even more points of identification than fingerprints provide, within milliseconds, and do in a glance what Touch ID did on contact.

That's a hard thing to do, but then fingerprint scanners were junky before Touch ID as well. It often takes a company with the resources, vision, and integration of Apple to push exactly these kinds of solutions forward.

Samsung, for example, tried both face scanning and iris scanning in the Galaxy S8, but you had to choose one or the other. That was problematic because one worked better in bright light and the other low light. One was fooled by photos, the other not.

iPhone 7 Selfie

iPhone 7 Selfie (Image credit: iMore)

For face recognition to be a proper solution, it would have to work in bright light and lowlight and not be fooled by photos. (Just like Touch ID can be spoofed by CSI-grade fake fingerprints, it's possible even good face recognition could still be spoofed by CSI-grade facial constructions.)

If Apple could provide just that type of Face ID — one that scans "3D" for the deeper structure and not just the surface pixels and that works in a range of lighting conditions and not just one or the other and triggers in milliseconds so the moment you lift your iPhone, it's already unlocking — then we could have another winner on our hands.

Face ID could do for facial identity sensors what Touch ID did for fingerprint identity sensors.

Pay-ing debts

The only real complication to Face ID replacing Touch ID isn't technological — it's institutional. Touch ID launched with iPhone 5s, but Apple Pay was only added a year later with iPhone 6. Financial institutions had a year, more or less, to come to grips with the technology and its security.

If Apple replaced Touch ID authentication with Face ID on iPhone 8, how quickly could it get those same banks and credit unions on board? Would it be instantly accepted, because Apple, or would it require some time in the real world to be proven secure enough for Apple Pay adoption?

Given how poorly executed some competing fingerprint ID solutions have been — storing full resolution photographs in world-readable directories — it's easy to think no one really cares about this stuff. But everyone cares when it's Apple. And that's actually a good thing for Apple users. The highest scrutiny leads to the best solutions.

Face over finger

FaceTime on iPhone 7

FaceTime on iPhone 7 (Image credit: Rene Ritchie/iMore)

While Apple already knows what's coming, the rest of us have a few months of lag time to fill with more rumor, speculation, and imagination.

My beautiful dream is still ambient security, where myriad biometric sensors, including face, eye, fingerprint, voice, gait, and more constantly, passively determine authentication and, if it ever drops below a threshold, prompts for active re-authentication.

We're likely years away from that, but Face ID, in place of or in conjunction with Touch ID, brings us one sensor closer.

And, ultimately, it's not about the technology — it's about solving the problem.

Rene Ritchie
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.

36 Comments
  • It can and may be a hassle or have difficultly when using Face ID in a dark room. Does a person who wears specs need or have to remove them every time he/she unlocks his/her iPhone or making payments?
  • If they don't provide a method for easily unlocking the phone in the dark then it's not going to sit well with people. The great thing about the fingerprint is that it pretty much always works
  • Based on Microsoft's implementation on Windows Phones 950/950XL, and on the Surface and other Hello capable devices, no, darkness isn't an issue (as much as bright sunlight), and glasses on or off have never been an issue for me.. On the Phones, it is iris recognition based on IR light provided by the phone. That's why darkness is irrelevant, but bright sunlight can be.
    I like the feature, when it works. It is annoying when it doesn't. It looks and generally just logs me in. I do have to hold the device in a specific way, which you get used to, and isn't particularly different from where you are probably going to use your phone, but sometimes it is inconvenient. The annoying part is when it fails. It looks and looks and suggests you get closer or farther, and eventually just tells you to swipe up and PIN in. All that takes longer than if you had just swiped and PINed in the first place. Never knowing when it is going to fail I often swipe and PIN, just to make sure I get right in, if I'm in a hurry. The fingerprint reader on my iPhone and my Pixel, just work...unless they have decided I need to PIN to re-validate myself or something..
    I'm doubtful that Apple will get this bulletproof right the first time, and it will **** of a lot of people. It will be seen as a step back in the press and forums. BTW, I personnaly prefer the fingerprint reader on the back of my Pixel, over the front of my iPhone. I find the position more convenient. Wouldn't bother me if the iPhone reader were on the back. The could make shaped like an Apple ;) I was censored? Ok it will urinate them off.
  • When Apple came out with Touch ID, they nailed finger print authentication. When Samsung came out with the Iris scanner, they nailed it. It works incredibly well and extremely fast. Not to mention that it works in any Bright or low light situation. Not giving any excuses for Samsung but I think the reason why the fingerprint scanner was placed where it was is because they knew the Iris scanner would work so well, hardly anyone will bother using the fingerprint scanner. I think Apple will do the same thing if they indeed keep a Touch ID sensor on the phone. If Apple comes out with some kind of facial scanner, it's probably going to be some kind of Iris scanner because anything more complicated than that is a waste of resources. They'll market it as better than the competition, but it will be the same thing, which is a good thing.
  • It’s laughable to state the iris scanner in the S8 is better than the Touch ID solution. It struggles in sunlight and low light, glasses confuse it and you have to hold your phone awkwardly close to your face. It’s also extremely easy to bypass using a simple photo and contact lens. Touch ID is quick, reliable and works in any light and without having to even lift the phone up.
  • "It’s laughable to state the iris scanner in the S8 is better than the Touch ID solution." The OP never said the iris scanner it was better than Touch ID, just that it's as effective as the S8's fingerprint scanner. I had an Edge 7 for about a month until Samsung asked for it back, and the iris sensor worked probably 90% of the time and didn't care whether I was wearing glasses or not. The fingerprint scanner on my 7 Plus has a similar success rate but gets in a strop if my hands are cold or the home button has a smudge on it. Personally I would like Apple to pop the scanner on the back of the phone (it'd be cool if it was under the Apple logo) and incorporate some form of facial recognition or iris scanner.
  • Or simply place the Fingerprint Scanner on the side Power Button. The way Sony does it now. Done.
  • You can't because the surface area isn't big enough.
  • The iris scanner on my Galaxy S8 isn’t nearly as quick nor as reliable as TouchID on my iPhone 7, and it never works in sunlight. If I want to unlock it outside I usually have to find shade, like a smoker trying to light up in the wind except I’m holding my phone in front of my face at weird angles, or perform some hand gymnastics to reach that awkwardly-placed fingerprint scanner (a case makes it easier to find but no less awkward to use).
  • I hope if they do go this route the apps that allow for fingerprint authentication go to Face ID right away. Love not having to constantly have to put my password in and can just use my FP.
  • I'm still wondering if we move to "Face ID" how will Apple Pay work? Do you have to hold your phone still at the reader and then hold your face or put your eye to the FaceTime camera on the phone? I'm not seeing the benefits to this. Just with those questions in mind, I would think Apple Pay with "Face Pay" would have to work with a handshake keeping access to the Pay portion and then you holding the phone to the reader. Then there would have to be some time out or geofence so that if someone grabbed your phone after the handshake it would cancel. Still seeing Touch ID working so much better and seamlessly. Plus I don't have to be a contortionist to use Face Pay.
  • This is what I'm thinking. How do I place my phone on an (NFC) payment reader and put my face in front of it? The only thing I can think is that it would do facial authentication to unlock, then you place it on the reader to pay. But this is less convenient than entering a 6-digit pin IMO.
    I'm pretty sure I'd turn off facial recognition and just use the PIN if this is how it'll be.
  • It may be able to see your face at angles. People are thinking in a 2d way about this but what they are talking about is 3D facial recognition..
  • The biggest problem that I see with this is Apple Pay usage, especially at drive through's that accept Apple Pay. As one who uses Apple Pay at least once a day I can tell you that this would be a disaster. Currently the NFC out of the iPhone often requires me to stick my arm/hand out of my car to get the phone close to the reader (parallel to the surface of the reader). By using Touch ID this is not too difficult since I have my left thumbprint as one of the authorized prints. Can you now imagine having to stick my head out of my car (almost into the drive through window) so that my face can authorize the payment? Why this is almost something I would expect to see in a Saturday Night Live skit. One could also see the absurdity of carrying a tray full of food to a cashier and then having to lean over the phone you are holding in one hand while trying to balance the tray of food (and cup of soda), trying to get camera to recognize your face all the while keeping the phone close to the NFC reader. I would not be surprised if at least one time out twenty something will get spilled. Holding the phone with ones thumb over the Touch ID sensor is much more secure and much easier to handle. Surely Apple can see these potential problems and is smart enough not to get so enamored with new technology as to leave common sense behind.
  • Maybe you authenticate, then your phone is authorized for the payment as soon as it finds the reader.
    It still sounds like a worse solution, though.
  • You don't even know how it will work and you are saying ti's a disaster? lol. I'm sure Apple has worked out all the details so that it is a fast and seamless as possible. If they have made it less convenient then people will not use it. See Siri.
  • Wondering if there is a reader on the back of the phone that works in conjunction with the face reader. Kinda two step system.
  • I think this article is poorly thought out and misses two obvious points. TouchID will always be superior to FaceID for two reasons: 1) Fingerprints are more unique than faces are. They just are. And remember fingerprints are only "sort of" unique themselves. Statistically, there could easily be two or three people in any given large city with similar enough fingerprints to make TouchID work. 2) Recognition requires (in most situations) a "trigger" or button. This is built into TouchID where pressing the button triggers the scan. Face scanning will require either a separate button anyway, or (perhaps) could be triggered with voice commands. this makes it more awkward and ungainly than TouchID even if it works as well. Personally, I don't see it except as an additional layer of security. The whole idea of TouchID being replaced by FaceID is pretty silly IMO.
  • My Lumia 950xl has had a 'Face ID' for several years now. I'd take a fingerprint reader over it any day. It's very awkward in real world use having to show your face to a phone even when the technology works well. I also suspect that a fingerprint reader through a screen would be easy. It's a fingerprint reader through a random screen protector that would be a challenge. And that users would not be happy not being able to protect a phone screen. As a potential iPhone buyer I hope they have worked the fingerprint reader out, but it wouldn't surprise me if the home button still exists in some form - part of the ease of use is the simplicity of always being able to get out of trouble by pressing the one button as well as it being a reliable device unlock.
  • Keep track on how many times a day you unlock your iPhone without picking it up. For me it's a lot, phone sits on my desk and one quick touch and done, talking to my phone in quiet professional environment no thanks. Taking that convenience away will stop me from upgrading.
  • Why not just put the fingerprint sensor on the side of the phone like several others do?
    Like Sony Xperia Z5 has it integrated into the side power key.
    https://www.phonearena.com/news/5-phones-with-fingerprint-scanners-on-th...
    Why does it have to be under the glass or on the back? Personally, I find it on the front to be a little awkward anyway but it made sense to put it into the existing home button when we had one.
  • Because that doesn't let you make the phone runway model thin. 3D facial recognition in the Microsoft Surface devices is hit or miss at times, and iris scanning on the Samsung Note 7 was never consistent either. Good luck Apple...
  • I think you can still make the phone super thin (as much as it is now) and have the sensor in the in the button. But I conceded that it might require some design compromises Apple wouldn't want to make.
  • Man when you're wrong you really own it...
  • I hate to invoke the 'F' word, but this quote reeks of fanboy-ism. "Touch ID isn't a feature. It's a solution to a problem that can potentially be solved in a variety of other ways. Including Face ID."
  • I don't use any of this stuff. I hate having to jump thru hoops every time I pick up a phone/tablet/whatever. I press the home button, I'm done. My work phone uses fingerprint. It's a royal pita. I understand the need, because there is lots of company related info available on it. My personal devices have no such info, so I don't need it.
  • How is fingerprint such a pain?
  • The problem with FaceID over TouchID is that you have no option to ignore, with touch you can decide whether you put your finger or not, but with face you can't choose, it will scan your face automatically. If Apple doesn't embed the TouchID in the display it will be on the side power button that seems longer now. I still think the that button will be touch sensitive anyway
  • Remember Antenna-Gate "you are holding it wrong!" FaceID reminds of when Apple made the mistake of choosing design/material over functionality. FaceID especially when used with ApplePay seem to me like Apple is choosing bigger screen over functionality. I really don´t hope we get a FaceID-Gate and a response form Apple "you are holding it wrong!" when using ApplePay. I think best of all worlds is a reliable TouchID under a fullsize frontscreen. Lets all hope that Apple has the "magic" for that to happen. The discreetness of TouchID of really to prefer over FaceID.
  • If Apple is investigating facial recognition for authorization, I believe it'll be an additional security measure, not a replacement. Basically to make sure it is you holding your fingerprint up to the device and that you're alert/conscious. Or that it is you entering a password to access your account and not someone else. Having said all of that - I don't think there's anyway Apple is getting rid of Touch ID. It's just way too convenient and it works! And they've invested a lot of money and time in it. I'd be willing bet they've figured how to make it work under the display. If there's one thing Apple has proven time and time again, is that they know displays and how to weave new technologies into them.
  • Facial recognition doesn't work with identical twins. Fingerprints would. I also don't like *knowing* that my phone is watching me. On top of that, the fingerprint sensor on the back of my Nexus 5X is perfectly located. Apple should do that, and not a Samsung with the TouchID next to the camera sensor.
  • No! Don't even think about that.
  • I can only say I really hope Apple keeps the Touch ID. I have never ever had the same (or better) experience with face or iris recognition in comparison with fingerprint sensor. For me personally - unless Apple prooves otherwise - no Touch ID is a dealbreaker for me.
  • We are defending the removal of Touch ID before we even know it's gone for sure? There really is no solution in which Facial recognition is better than Touch ID. And when it was on the Samsung devices all Apple fans called it a gimmick. It's interesting to see how people are switching now...
  • Face ID is a cool way of unlocking your phone. But I don't think we should be depending on it the future. besides, you may unlock phone with a picture.
  • Yeah but why take away touch ID when you started implementing it for the macbook pro? Is it me or does it seem like apple is now lost at what it wants to do and Microsoft has the vision?