iPhone 13 could have the one big upgrade we've been waiting for

iPhone 12 Pro Max review cameras
(Image credit: Future)

The iPhone 13 could fix one of the most annoying iPhone flaws since we've all started wearing masks. But it might not be ready for launch.

Apple's Face ID is arguably the best face-unlocking technology available on phones, as it can handle secure mobile payments as well as unlock your handset. But Face ID hasn't fared particularly well during the coronavirus pandemic.

Because Apple's face recognition feature needs to see your whole face — including the parts you should be covering with a mask when you're out in public to slow the spread of COVID-19 — you're reduced to entering in your passcode if you want to use Apple Pay or unlock your iPhone. But Apple could be working on a more permanent fix, a prominent leaker claims.

Jon Prosser writes that Apple is currently testing out revamped Face ID hardware that would be able to work with masks. Prosser's report, which is attributed to unnamed sources, claims that the hardware is being tested out using a prototype case that slips over the iPhone 12 to mimic the new Face ID sensors coming with this fall's iPhone 13.

"By our measurements, the prototype array matches the same layout that we saw in the iPhone 13 CAD files that we made public back in June," Prosser writes at Front Page Tech, which also includes a CAD rendering of the prototype array reportedly being used to test out the new version of Face ID.

iPhone 12 FaceID prototype

A CAD rendering of what Apple's Face ID prototype allegedly looks like (Image credit: Front Page Tech)

If the report is true — and Prosser has a mixed record when it comes to his Apple forecasts — it would be a very big deal for Apple and its future iPhones. Such a feature would allow iPhone users to unlock their phones while staying masked up, with no additional hardware or work-arounds required.

In the 18 months since the coronavirus pandemic introduced us to a world of face masks and social distancing, Apple has made a few attempts to make unlocking your iPhone less of a hassle when you're wearing a mask. That includes bringing up the passcode screen when Face ID detects a mask as well as an iOS 14.5 feature that lets you unlock your phone if you're also wearing an Apple Watch.

Of course, not everyone ones an Apple Watch (though Apple would love it if they did), and even then, the iOS 14.5 update only works with unlocking, not with verifying Apple Pay payments. Apple's going to need a more permanent solution, and that appears to be what the company is testing right now, based on Prosser's report.

What we don't get in the Prosser report is any sort of time frame as to when an updated Face ID feature could launch. With the iPhone 13 set to debut next month, that doesn't leave a lot of time for Apple to perfect what would seemingly be a pretty complicated feature.

Of course, the revamped Face ID doesn't necessarily have to debut at the same time as the iPhone 13. Assuming the new iPhones have the necessary sensors already in place — and the Prosser report suggests that they will — turning the feature on could be a matter of a future software update after the phones are already on sale.

That said, we'd take any report of an unannounced iPhone feature with a healthy amount of skepticism, no matter what the source. Until more details emerge, rumored Face ID improvements are closer to the "wishful thinking" end of the spectrum than they are to "almost certainly a reality."

Still, Apple clearly has an incentive to make its Face ID technology capable of working with masks. The rise of COVID-19's Delta variant suggests that masks are going to remain a part of the disease-fighting arsenal for some time. And it's going to be necessary for the smartphones we tote around to recognize that new fact of life.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.

  • watzupken
    There is a simple solution to this problem. Just add a finger print reader on the phone Apple. If Apple is so incapable of getting an under screen fingerprint reader to work, at least have the decency of adding a physical fingerprint reader. They claim how safe their phone is, until you need to keep pressing the code to unlock the phone each time in order to use it. So much for safe and private.