Why Apple Watch Mask Unlocking Is the Best Thing Ever

No more fumbling with a passcode while masked up

Key Takeaways

  • In the iOS 14.5 and watchOS 7.4 betas, your Apple Watch can unlock your iPhone while you’re wearing a face mask.
  • Someone else wearing a mask can also unlock the iPhone, but you'll get an instant alert.
  • Unlocking is almost as fast and seamless as FaceID.
Apple Watch showing an "Unlocked by this Apple Watch" message and a prompt to lock an iPhone

With iOS 14.5, your Apple Watch will be able to unlock your iPhone while you’re wearing a mask. It could be the best new iPhone feature in years.

The iOS 14.5 beta, along with the watchOS 7.4 beta, tweaks FaceID to make your phone easier to use while wearing a mask. If you wake your iPhone and it detects that you’re wearing a mask, it will check your watch, and if you’re wearing that, it will unlock the iPhone. Simple as that. There are some limits to improve security, but the unlocking is almost as fast as regular FaceID. It may not be the best solution, but it’s an effective one.

"I think it's a great feature that combines security and convenience," Mac and security expert Kirk McElhearn told Lifewire via direct message. "The fact that it only works to unlock the iPhone, and can't be used to buy apps, use Apple Pay, or auto-fill passwords, ensures that it's safe." 

Complex, but Easy

Apple has really knocked this one out of the park. In use, you notice nothing. Just swipe up or tap your iPhone’s screen, and it unlocks. Your Apple Watch emits a small haptic tap, and an on-screen alert tells you that it has unlocked your iPhone. It’s very similar to letting your Apple Watch automatically unlock your Mac.

In short, you really don’t have to think about it, but the actual rules behind this function are quite complex:

  • If you’re not wearing a mask, FaceID is used as normal.
  • If FaceID detects a mask, it checks the Apple Watch.
  • Your Apple Watch must be on your wrist, use a passcode, and be unlocked.
  • The Apple Watch must also be near the iPhone, and have the wrist-detection feature enabled.

If all these criteria are met, the phone unlocks. You can then use it as usual. This trick even unlocks the "attention-aware" feature of your iPhone, the one that reveals the content of messages and other lock screen alerts only when you’re looking at the screen.

Security

Unfortunately, if someone else tries to use your iPhone while wearing a mask, it also will unlock. However, because the watch throws up an alert, you’ll know about it immediately. And the full-screen alert on the watch also lets you lock the iPhone remotely, which also disables FaceID. Next time, you’ll have to unlock the iPhone with your passcode. The exact behavior may change in future betas, or in the final release version.

iPhone showing "Unlock With Apple Watch" feature and other settings

Clearly, this feature reduces security, but it’s also better than the alternative employed by many people, which is either switching off their passcode altogether, or reducing it to a simple 4-digit PIN. 

Furthermore, while the Apple Watch can unlock your iPhone, it can't be used for any further authentication. For example, if you use Apple Pay on your iPhone, you’ll need your passcode.

If someone mugs you while you’re using this setup, they can access your phone. If your iPhone is lost, four- and six-digit PINs are virtually useless against current hacking tools. Cracking a six-digit PIN on an iPhone takes five and a half years, according to Apple, but that’s if you were to tap the numbers in yourself.

No More Bad Passcodes

In practice, many people use less than totally random PINs, and hacking tools will try common combinations like 123456 first. A study from the Horst Görtz Institute for IT Security at Ruhr-Universität Bochum found that six-digit PINs are no better than four digits, for this very reason. It’s far better to pick an actual phrase, containing numbers, letters, and typographic symbols.

"The fact that it only works to unlock the iPhone, and can't be used to buy apps, use Apple Pay, or auto-fill passwords, ensures that it's safe."

The advantage of FaceID and TouchID is that you’re rarely prompted for these codes, so using a longer, safer phrase is less of an inconvenience. With an Apple Watch unlocking the iPhone, you can keep using these secure passcodes even while wearing a mask. And for unsupported things like Apple Pay on the iPhone, you can just use your Apple Watch anyway. 

Out in the street, the difference could be huge. Now, it’s easy to grab the phone and, say, choose a different podcast or check a shopping list, without having to stand still and enter a long phrase. This feature is going to be huge when iOS 14.5 and watchOS 7.4 launch.

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