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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 (opens in new tab) 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 was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

8 Comments
  • if sundar took a second or two from counting his billions he could fix this is a minute.....apps out of the playstore until developer updates for face unlock. Simple!
  • I think that'd be a really "simple" way to make a lot of developers very angry
  • But isn't that what Apple threatens developers with? And seriously, developers from Chase, TD, whatever would get it done because A: they don't want their app pulledfrom the Play Store because their bosses would freak out and B: Because customers would freak out.
  • Funny enough some of the apps I use, I've seen with updates when I go to the Play store and go to My apps & games. But after I update still no Face unlock support. So is Google even enforcing the have to support that new biometrics api if you submit an update through the store?
  • Same here. Various banking apps, credit card apps, insurance apps. I've had many updates but no face unlock. Clearly this is not a Google requirement, or at the very least not an enforced one, which essentially makes it not a requirement.
  • The most important app for me which is LastPass had it from day one. So rest of it is moot for me. If you don't use password manager or password manager that supports face unlock I can see how this is an issue and get frustrating.
  • Well, The Pixel 4 is not an Apple or Samsung, so it's not going to get a flood of recognition. Plus, there's only a handful of phones with SECURE face unlock right now.
  • Well, the worst selling "mainstream" android phones with a new feature that breaks all compatibility with the old FP API's with a new feature that requires work to be done by developers by a company that is likely to drop the feature by the pixel 6 is not exactly the most compelling of reasons. Atleast when Apple brought out Face ID it was seamless and worked on day 1 for anything that supported touch ID.