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iOS 14.5 will let Apple Watch owners unlock iPhones while wearing a mask

The feature debuts in a new developer beta, available now.
A man wears a face mask while waiting at an Apple Store before Apple's 5G new iPhone 12 go on sale, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in Shanghai China October 23, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song
Aly Song / reuters
Chris Velazco
Chris Velazco|@chrisvelazco|February 1, 2021 1:27 PM

While the full release won't arrive for some time, Apple just released the first iOS 14.5 developer beta today, and one change may be more immediately useful than all the rest. Once installed, the update will allow users to unlock their iPhones via Face ID even while wearing a mask.

There is, unfortunately, one major caveat: the feature only works if iPhone's owner is also wearing an Apple Watch. So long as the Watch itself is already unlocked, you'll just need to look at your iPhone as usual; after that, you'll get a haptic buzz on your wrist letting you know that the unlock was successful. As we understand it, the feature — which must be manually enabled before use — allows Face ID to proceed with an unlock despite much lower facial recognition accuracy because the nearby Watch has already been authenticated. You'll also be able to lock your phone from your Apple Watch, though it's worth noting that all other actions that might rely on a face unlock — like, say, approving an App Store purchase — can't be handled this way.

Given the need for frequent mask use, Apple has attempted to address this issue last May with an update that prompts Face ID to more quickly kick users into their passcode input screen when their faces are obscured. While a good idea in theory, the change wasn’t particularly elegant in practice — users have frequently been left waiting while iOS seemingly decides what to do. With all of this in mind, it’s little surprise that Apple is reportedly testing optical in-display fingerprint sensors that could debut in iPhones as soon as this year.

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Beyond improving Face ID, iOS 14.5 also brings support for Xbox Series S/X and PlayStation 5 controllers to iPhones and iPads, along with expanded compatibility for Apple's relatively new, on-demand Fitness+ workouts. Once the update is installed, the Fitness app will gain the ability to stream the audio and video of those workouts -- minus the exercise metrics gathered from the Apple Watch -- to third-party, AirPlay 2-compatible smart TVs. Perhaps most importantly, this beta will be the first to fully implement Apple's App Tracking Transparency measures, which require app developers to explicitly seek consent before collecting a user's Identification for Advertisers, a bit of code that allows companies to anonymously monitor your online and in-app behavior to serve you targeted ads.

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iOS 14.5 will let Apple Watch owners unlock iPhones while wearing a mask