It's ridiculous that the Pixel 4's been out for two months but only a handful of apps use face unlock

Google Pixel 4 in hand
Google Pixel 4 in hand (Image credit: Android Central)

Much has been made about many aspects of the Pixel 4 that hinder its usability, chief among them being battery life. But one thorn that's continually poked at my side since first receiving my Pixel 4 XL has been weak app support for face unlock authentication.

Face unlock's problem isn't technology, it's app developers.

As I noted in my Pixel 4 XL review, "face unlock's problem isn't technology, it's app developers." Face unlock works incredibly well, and I actually prefer it to a fingerprint sensor, but it's entirely useless if apps don't support it. And when they don't, you're worse off using a Pixel 4 than a Pixel 3 or any other phone out there because you don't have a fingerprint sensor to fall back on. You're back to using usernames and passwords on your $800+ phone.

We maintain a list of apps that support face unlock, and while I can't claim it includes every face unlock-enabled app I know we have most — and all of the notable names. And the list is sad: it's still under 30 apps nearly two months after the Pixel 4 launched. That shortlist may include some of the most popular apps out there, but there are hundreds of thousands more that currently rely on biometric authentication that simply can't be used with face unlock.

A few of my most-used apps now support face unlock, but there are dozens more that don't.

The situation is better than it was on Day 1. I now have Bank of America, Enpass (in beta) and Google Pay using face unlock, which is a good amount of my daily biometric authentication usage. But there are still several apps that I'm using daily, and particularly weekly, that need authentication every time they're opened that haven't been updated. It's a constant frustration; and I'm not a fringe case, these are big apps with millions of downloads.

I took a poll of the Android Central team and found a massive list of apps that rely on biometric authentication that haven't yet added face unlock support. Huge financial institutions like Capital One, Chase, American Express, U.S. Bank and Discover, plus other money-related apps like Cash, PayPal, and Wealthfront. And you can only imagine how long it's going to take to get credit unions and smaller regional banks to update. Not to mention other apps that don't necessarily rely on biometrics every time you open the app but are nice to have it on for purchases and account management.

Some of the biggest financial institutions haven't yet updated — and it doesn't seem like a priority.

Theoretically, any app that uses the biometric authentication API for fingerprint and releases an update to the Play Store going forward has to target the latest version of the API that automatically includes face unlock. But that clearly isn't enough of a stick for Google to wield to get developers to push updates quickly, considering the slow adoption rate we've seen thus far — and it may actually delay updates as they wait to roll out several improvements at once. There's a classic Google problem here where app developers don't see a need to rush out an update to support the latest Pixel (or Android version) when it represents a tiny fraction of its user base.

Thankfully, one of the biggest mitigating factors to the frustratingly slow expansion of face unlock support is that many of the most popular password managers are adding it. So long as you password manager (and goodness, I really hope you're using a password manager!) has face unlock and supports autofill, it's just a couple of taps to call up the username and password for whatever app you're trying to log into. But that's a hurdle to jump through that you didn't have to with your last phone that had a fingerprint sensor, and that's tough to swallow when you're ostensibly upgrading to a new phone with new technology.

I don't know what this face unlock situation will look like as we get into 2020, but I sure hope it picks up the pace. Because it only further taints my view of the Pixel 4.

Andrew Martonik

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