Why We Still Don’t Have Face ID on the Mac

Will we see it one day? Never?

Key Takeaways

  • Technically, the new M1 iMac is capable of running Face ID.
  • The Face ID camera is an expensive component. 
  • Maybe Face ID is going away completely?
Apple's all new M1 iMac in blue and pink

Apple

Everybody wanted Face ID on the new 2021 iMac. Instead, we got yet another underwhelming camera and a Touch ID keyboard.

What’s going on? Apple’s FaceID has been around since its 2017 debut in the iPhone X, and yet it has never been available in a Mac. Is there a technical reason for this? Does Apple think a biometric face-unlock is a poor match for a Mac? Or has it just not gotten around to it yet?

"Apple doesn't like to make an entire suite of sweeping changes to its product lines," Rex Freiberger, CEO of Gadget Review, told Lifewire via email. "They test new features out in a way that allows them to iterate if they do well and scrap them if they don't. While FaceID works and is successful on mobile devices, there's no guarantee it would work well on desktop."

The Case for a Face

There may be no machine better suited for Face ID than the iMac. Whenever you use it, your face is right there in front of the screen, exactly where the Face ID’s depth camera wants you to be.

Early iPhone versions of Face ID sometimes had trouble seeing you. Even the current iPhone 12, which has the most responsive Face ID yet in my experience, can’t see your face when it’s laying flat on your desk. You have to pick up the phone, or crane your neck to put your face in its field of view. 

Woman unlocking her iPhone using Face ID

Apple

Compare this to the iPad Pro, which has had a Face ID camera since 2018. The iPad’s camera has a slightly wider viewing angle, presumably to account for the fact that it can find itself on the top, bottom, or either side of the screen as you hold it. When the iPad is mounted on a keyboard case or a desk stand, Face ID is pretty much infallible. Tap a key on the keyboard and it wakes up, sees you, and unlocks. It’s so reliable, it’s almost like the iPad never locks.

The iMac is equally well-placed to read your face. Better, in fact, as the top of its screen is at eye level.

Technical Hitches

Before the M1 iMac, there were a few technical reasons not to include Face ID on a Mac. One was the MacBook’s screen is too thin to fit in the Face ID’s camera array. This array can fit into Apple’s thinnest hardware, the iPad Pro, but take a look at the tapered edges of a MacBook screen.

It’s also possible the Mac just couldn’t handle it. The A-series chips used in iOS devices have a secure enclave, a hardware feature that handles security duties, and keeps itself separate from the main system. Was that the problem? Perhaps, but not likely.

"They test new features out in a way that allows them to iterate if they do well and scrap them if they don't."

Apple’s T2 chip was a way to bring some of the iPhone and iPad’s security features to the Mac. It’s what enables Touch ID on the MacBooks, for example. And now, of course, the Mac is using the same M1 chip as the iPad, so any remaining technical barriers are gone.

The "M" Word

Perhaps, then, this is all a marketing decision. The new iMacs should be able to incorporate Face ID easily enough, but perhaps it’s just too expensive. The new 24-inch M1 iMac is well-priced, compared to previous models. And we know the Face ID array is expensive to make, compared to Touch ID. 

top of iPhone pointing out the camera, microphone, speaker, and other components

Apple

The array includes the selfie camera, plus a projector that beams tens of thousands of infrared dots onto your face, and a reader for those dots. One estimate, from 2017, puts the component cost for this TrueDepth sensor cluster at $16.70. Another says that it is closer to $60. That could be too costly to put in a budget iMac, just like Apple didn’t put it into the latest iPad Air. 

The iMac Pro

There’s another iMac still to come. Apple still sells the old Intel-based 27-inch iMac, and will have to replace it with an Apple Silicon version eventually. One possibility is it calls the bigger iMac an iMac Pro, which would let it load in more features and charge more for them. 

"Apple doesn't like to make an entire suite of sweeping changes to its product lines."

Could it be that this rumored ~30-inch iMac could be equipped with Face ID? The answer is a resounding "maybe." We can’t know for sure, but if Apple doesn’t add it to an expensive, pro-targeted iMac, then it will probably never add it to any Mac.

There’s one final option, though. Maybe Face ID is on its way out entirely. Face unlock proved to be a liability in 2020, and the latest iPad Air has proved Apple can build Touch ID into the power button. 

Maybe Apple isn’t adding Face ID to the Mac because Face ID isn’t long for this world.

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