I can finally love the Pixel 4's face unlock, thanks to dramatically improved app support

Google Pixel 4 XL face unlock settings
Google Pixel 4 XL face unlock settings (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Aside from battery life, perhaps the largest complaint about the Pixel 4 is its face unlock system. Not only did it require a larger top bezel on the phone, with a seemingly needlessly complicated array of sensors, but at launch it also had next to no support from developers. That really rubbed me the wrong way back when it launched. From my Pixel 4 XL review, back in October:

Despite how awesome face unlock is, it has limitations that are incredibly frustrating. The technology is clearly sound and secure. But face unlock's problem isn't technology, it's app developers.

Well, it took a really long time to get here, but now I'm finally in love with face unlock. After several months and a lot of complaints from owners, there's now a critical mass of popular and high-profile apps that support Google's face unlock. It's improved to the point where there isn't a single app that I need biometric authentication for that doesn't support face unlock.

Every app that I need biometric authentication for now fully supports face unlock.

We have a list of apps that support face unlock with nearly 70 apps, and I'm certain there are many more. But just browsing that list, you see a who's who of big-name financial institutions, password managers and payment apps — enough that I'm certain most people using a Pixel 4 today would have the same experience as me. I know there are probably a lot of people still waiting for a credit union app, a smaller password manager company, or a more obscure app to support face unlock; and sadly that'll likely be the case for a long time. But we're well on the decreasing side of the adoption curve, where most people will not have to enter a password manually on a Pixel 4.

Getting to this point of app support was really annoying, particularly in the last couple months where initial support had been added to many apps but the developers clearly hadn't cleaned up the interface to make it work seamlessly. But now it feels really consistent across the apps I use, and that's wonderful because it lets me just enjoy using face unlock for all of the other reasons I appreciated from Day 1: it's fast, seamless and works consistently in all environments.

With app support issues out of the way, I can now love face unlock for its consistency and speed.

Face unlock is one of those features that's mostly invisible, and that's what makes it wonderful. I just pick up my phone, and it's unlocked. When I enter a biometric-secured app, I see a small prompt on the bottom of the screen and then it's unlocked. I don't have to think about whether I'm using face unlock, or the security implications — I just know that when I'm using my phone, secure apps open, and when someone else is, they don't. That moves face unlock a big step beyond even the fastest and most ergonomic fingerprint sensors out there. It gets to the point of being subconscious; when I switch to a phone with a fingerprint sensor I look like an idiot lifting up my phone and being befuddled as to why it hasn't unlocked.

And because Google's face unlock is particularly advanced, like Apple's Face ID, it works incredibly well in all conditions and with tons of changing variables. Haircuts and facial hair have come and gone, and I haven't had to retrain it. Now that the weather is pristine in NYC, I actually have consistently good luck with face unlock working while I'm wearing sunglasses. The "require eyes to be open" option, which Google added after launch, doesn't even add a notable delay — it's still incredibly fast. And yes, much to my surprise, eye-open detection still works through sunglasses as well. Face unlock is one of those "it just works" features that is technologically impressive, but in daily operation, you'd have no idea — a perfect example of how Google builds things.

Face unlock works so well, I forget it's there — that's the best possible situation.

Most importantly, face unlock works this well without compromising security. I believe at this point we've squashed the "it isn't as secure as a fingerprint!" argument. Financial institutions wouldn't be adding face unlock to their apps if they weren't convinced it was secure. And for an added level of security, you can always use the eye-open detection option if you wish.

I understand why Google wasn't able to get app developers on board with face unlock from the moment the Pixel 4 launched, but it unfortunately marred first impressions of an otherwise amazing technology. Now with several months for developers to catch up, face unlock is an incredible feature of the Pixel 4 — and will hopefully continue to be on the Pixel 5, because I don't want to use fingerprint sensors anymore.

Andrew Martonik

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.