Apple Watch Unlock Is as Great as It Sounds

Unlocking you phone while masked up is no longer a hassle

Key Takeaways

  • Watch Unlock lets you unlock your iPhone while wearing a face mask.
  • It works with any iPhone that has Face ID.
  • Watch Unlock is surprisingly fast, and as reliable as Face ID.
Apple Watch showing prompt to unlock iPhone


Apple’s new mask-friendly watch unlock feature for the iPhone is the exact kind of problem-solving design Apple doesn’t do any more.

When a scrappy startup needs to solve a problem, it creates a clever, low-budget solution. When a worldwide megacorp has the same problem, it throws money at it. No company has more money than Apple, which makes iOS 14.5’s new Apple Watch Unlock feature all the more impressive. It takes what is already there, and MacGyvers it to do something else. Yes, we just used "MacGyver" as a verb.

This is the kind of hack Apple usually seems to have trouble with. When it had a grand plan and a blank sheet of paper, it came up with things like the M1 Mac or the iPad Pro’s new screen. But when faced with putting a file browser on the iPad, it phoned-in the Files app, which is even more disappointing when you consider how good the Mac’s Finder is. Maybe Watch Unlock is a return to form.

Watch Unlock

This new feature lets your Apple Watch unlock your iPhone when you’re wearing a face mask. Before iOS 14.5, you’d have to use a passcode to unlock your iPhone while masked, which made it tempting to switch from a strong alphanumeric passcode back to a four-digit PIN. Watch Unlock kicks in when your phone detects that you—or someone else—is trying to access your iPhone while wearing a mask. It then checks to see if your Apple Watch is nearby (and also unlocked).

If everything checks out, it unlocks your iPhone, and simultaneously sends a haptic bump to your wrist. The Watch displays a warning notification, with a button to re-lock the phone immediately. If you lock it like this, the phone then will require your full passcode, no matter what.

In my testing, anyone wearing a mask can trigger the watch unlock, so it’s possible to circumvent the security. But in practice, it’s not so easy. You’d have to stand pretty close to the owner of the iPhone, and you’d have to prevent them from re-locking it. In terms of physical coercion, it’s not much different than forcing someone to stare at their phone to unlock it.

Game Changer

In use, Watch Unlock totally changes how I use the iPhone when outside. Before Watch Unlock, I’d take my daily walk with my phone in my pocket the entire time. It was there only to feed podcasts to my headphones, and I could control my podcast app with the Apple Watch.

Now, when I take a walk, I can pull out the phone and use it normally. The unlock is slightly slower than regular Face ID, but not by much. The iPhone 12’s Face ID is excellent, the fastest yet, in my experience. In speed terms, Watch Unlock is similar to the iPhone XS’s Face ID. In short, it’s plenty fast enough.

Watch Unlock only unlocks the iPhone, so you can’t use it to authenticate Apple Pay, for example. But that’s no problem, because you can use your Apple Watch to pay in stores.

Problem Solving

Watch Unlock really is excellent. It’s fast, reliable, and it Just Works™. It’s Apple at its best. But my favorite part isn’t the feature, itself. It’s that Apple solved the problem of Face ID and masks by cobbling together a solution from what it had on hand. This also means it’s available to anyone who already uses an iPhone with Face ID, instead of forcing us to buy a new phone. Yes, you need a watch, but you always could pick one up for cheap.

"In use, Watch Unlock totally changes how I use the iPhone when outside."

One also could say that Apple realized Face ID was a liability with everyone wearing face masks, and rushed to come up with a quick fix, instead of taking the more expensive route of redesigning the entire iPhone lineup.

Either way, Watch Unlock is a total win, and I love it.

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