I’m worried that FaceID is going to suck—and here’s why

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Awkward ergonomics means Face ID will never be faster than a fingerprint sensor.

Face ID on the iPhone X uses a “TrueDepth” camera setup, which blasts your face with more than 30,000 infrared dots and scans your face in 3D. Apple says this can “recognize you in an instant” and log you into your phone.

None of that matters. Face ID is still going to suck.

This is not the first phone we’ve tried with a facial recognition feature, and they all have the same problem. It doesn’t matter how fast or accurate Face ID is, the problem is the ergonomics: you need to aim it at your face. This is slow and awkward, especially when compared to a fingerprint reader, which doesn’t have to be aimed at anything.

Consider the “taking it out of your pocket” use case: If you’re good, you’ll stick your hand in your pocket and grip the phone so your finger lands on the fingerprint reader. Touch ID works as both an “on” button and an “authentication” button. In one touch, you’ve turned on the phone and logged in. You haven’t even fully taken the phone out of your pocket yet, and it’s already on and unlocked. By the time you bring the phone to your face, the unlock process is finished and you’re looking at the home screen.

To use the iPhone X’s Face ID, you have take the phone out of your pocket, lift it up to your face, swipe up to turn it on, and only then can can you start the unlock process. The difference is probably one or two seconds, but for something you do 80 times a day, having the fastest possible unlock system really matters.

Consider authenticating with Apple Pay. With a fingerprint reader, you can slam your iPhone on the credit card terminal while holding your finger on the Touch ID button, and everything will just work. You’re continuously authenticating and beaming credit card data at the same time, which is easy, intuitive, and hard to mess up. According to Craig Federighi’s Face ID demo during the keynote, you now have to open up Apple Pay first, then aim the phone at your face so Face ID can work. Only then can you tap against the credit card terminal. That’s two extra steps.

A fingerprint sensor, because it works by touch, is basically active all the time. Anytime you need it, you just press it, and it will work. Facial recognition has to be specifically started by an app though. So to authenticate a payment, you now have to open Apple Pay first, because something has to tell the facial recognition system to turn on. If you ignore this and just put the phone against a credit card terminal without authenticating, I suspect Apple Pay will open and ask for a Face ID scan, which won’t work because the phone won’t be aimed at your face.

There’s also the “on a table” use case: where before you could just press the home button to unlock the phone, now you’ll need to pick it up and, again, aim it at your face.

We’ve kind of already experienced this with the Galaxy S8 (and Note 8). On that phone, Samsung didn’t do away with the fingerprint sensor entirely, but it has such an awkward size and location that the S8 might as well have not had a fingerprint sensor at all. The phone design asks users to rely on its Iris or face recognition for biometrics, and it’s just so slow. The “Let me take a selfie” pose that you have to make every time you unlock the phone is slow, tiring, and annoying. It requires a pause and a level of precision that just isn’t needed with a fingerprint reader.

I will admit I have not tried Face ID yet, but it’s hard to imagine a facial recognition system that solves the problem of having to carefully aim a phone at your face. We won’t get a chance to try many of these scenarios until we get some extended time with the phone, but it would take some serious magic to solve them.

With a nearly $1000 price tag, Apple is billing the iPhone X as its super-high-end, no-compromise phone, but the lack of a fingerprint sensor is going to be a big downside. Sure, there’s no room on the front anymore, but plenty of phones have an easy and ergonomic rear fingerprint reader, and it’s something Apple could have done while it waits for that mythical under-screen fingerprint technology to work.

Facial recognition is just not a good idea for a device that doesn’t always need to be aimed directly at your face. I can’t imagine Face ID won’t feel like a big step backwards compared to Touch ID. If my experience with the Galaxy S8 is anything to go by, I suspect a lot of users will just opt to type in a PIN.