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

18 Comments
  • sundar needs to take a second from counting his billions and have his minions at the play store pull every app until they add face unlock. 50 apps since oct 2019....its a disgrace! Apple had no issue getting developers to add face unlock to their apps
  • There are certainly many more than just 50 apps — that's just 50 high-profile apps with millions of users each. The problem is, it'd be completely silly to pull every app that supports fingerprint and not face unlock ... considering only a few million people in the world have a Pixel 4 yet billions of people have Android phones with fingerprint sensors. I'm frustrated about the situation too, but that'd be completely asinine to pull apps that don't support face unlock. The calculation just doesn't work. It's been slower going, but Google did somewhat of the right thing here: let developers leave their apps in the Play Store, but the next time they update they have to support the new API for face unlock. So they can hold out, but they won't be able to make any changes until they support the new security feature.
  • That would be an incredibly stupid move. Try to bear in mind, if there are 50 apps that support face unlock, that's more apps than pixel 4 units sold.
  • No, it think there was at least 52 Pixel 4's sold...
  • Apple didn't need to get developers to add support. They structured the function so that the OS takes care of authentication and passes the information to the app. The developer does not need to know if it is being done via Face ID, Touch ID or some future Butt Sniffing ID. https://9to5mac.com/2017/09/28/will-touch-id-apps-work-with-face-id/
  • Yes, that's the kicker there. If the OS handles authentication, the apps don't need anything else.
  • This is yet another area where where Apple kills Google's current phones and Android in general as face unlock isn't widely supported by apps on the Play Store like they are on the App Store on iOS and that's the advantage of running a tight ship like Apple does.
  • I am glad they are bringing the fingerprint sensor back. It is one of the things that kept me from buying a Pixel 4.
  • Unless you're wearing a mask.
  • Well that's a short-term issue. Fingerprint sensors don't work with gloves, either, yet people in cold climates manage using their phones in the winter just fine.
  • No way I'd move to just face unlock, I don't see TD Bank, simple bank or venmo. Your article is wrong they still have a long way to go be to supported as well as a simple fingerprint sensor. Especially when you use a in display fingerprint sensor, your fingers are already on the screen. They effort is ludicrously small. I'm sure the times you have to type in a password because a app doesn't support face unlock are far more and much more annoying than pressing your finger to the screen it's already on. When Samsung adopts it I'll consider it. No other Android manufacturer has the power to make face unlock on Android universally supported by all apps. I wouldn't buy one from Samsung though, I hate their phones.
  • Simple and Venmo both have face unlock support. And TD Ameritrade has added it, so I wouldn't be surprised if its other TD property apps weren't far behind.
  • So, when are they allowing this to expand to other Android phones with secure face unlock?
    Although I also have a FP sensor, it's annoying when the face unlock does it's job, but you have to turn the screen off and unlock via FP sensor or PIN code instead. And yes Beno, before you say it; security firms tested and found that Apple's Face ID and HTC's 3D face mapping take EXACTLY the same amount of work to bypass.
  • No other Android phones have secure face unlock. I blame very stupid fanboys who wanted a bezeless display as a metric, they're the problem. Thanks to them, we have fast, defeat-able, face unlock scheme in a flagship device like the Note10 and S20 series that has zero security. Lame *****.
  • You are right that the Note 10 and S20 have lame face unlock. But, you are wrong that no other Android phones have secure face unlock. The U12 Plus uses a three dimensional depth map, like Apple. I don't know why you'd be surprised, since HTC has more experience in depth mapping technology. Huawei, Honor, and Motorola have had reasonably secure face on some devices in the past in the past, but I'm not sure if they matched Apple's security level.
  • Ah but can HTC use their face unlock for mobile contactless payments? I doubt it, Apple made sure Face ID worked with Apple Pay and is secure unlike Face unlock for Android that can't even be used for Google Pay because it STILL isn't secure.
  • Google's not doing anything to hold back other companies from having a secure face unlock. So long as they reach the proper security level with their own technology, they can use the API.
  • Apple made sure that all apps supported Face ID unlike Google who was slow to make their face unlock mandatory on the Play Store.