Why Google dropped the fingerprint sensor on the Pixel 4 (and why that's a bad thing)

The Pixel 4 is missing what many feel is a vital part of a smartphone: the fingerprint sensor. It will be the first Pixel phone to ship without one and the first to use Google's new Face Unlock setup as the only biometric option to unlock your phone or authenticate for apps and payments. That leaves a lot of folks wondering why did one thing (a fingerprint sensor) need to go away so another thing (Face Unlock) could be used when the two things seemingly don't interfere with each other?

There's really only one reason why Google removed a fingerprint sensor from the Pixel phone — because it wanted to. But it's important to look at why Google might not have wanted a fingerprint sensor on the back or under the glass of the Pixel 4 rather than just call it another strange decision by Google's hardware team.

Dropping the fingerprint sensor makes the phone thinner and leaves room for important features like ... Active Edge.

A big part of the reason is probably aesthetics. Google wants its Pixel to be sleek and slim and when adding things like IR sensors and multiple cameras and Soli chips it would have had to make the Pixel 4 a smidge thicker to include a fingerprint sensor around back. Since an in-display sensor isn't accurate enough to match how well the fingerprint sensor works on the Pixel 3, Google wasn't about to take that route either. Making phones as thin as possible is something every manufacturer seems to want and Google isn't likely to be an exception to that rule.

An obvious answer that everyone wants to call out ties into the phone's aesthetics — Google wants to copy Apple. And that's partially true; Google wants to build a phone that it sees as elegant and simple, without a bunch of fancy extras that would make someone need to visit a help article to use. Apple notoriously removed Touch ID from the iPhone in lieu of Face ID and a lot of people think that's why Google is doing the same on the Pixel 4. I think this is more of a coincidence than any direct copying and that Google has wanted to do it for a while but needed to wait for some smart group of people to figure it all out.

Part of the "figuring it out" comes with the inclusion of a Soli sensor. Soli is a small chip that uses RADAR to detect precise movements at a short-range, and it has the potential to drastically improve Face Unlock. Per Google:

As you reach for Pixel 4, Soli proactively turns on the face unlock sensors, recognizing that you may want to unlock your phone. If the face unlock sensors and algorithms recognize you, the phone will open as you pick it up, all in one motion. Better yet, face unlock works in almost any orientation—even if you're holding it upside down—and you can use it for secure payments and app authentication too.

Having a sort of early-detection system for the complex setup that Face Unlock on the Pixel 4 uses has the potential to make it great. We want the components used to detect our face to work "instantly" yet certainly don't want them running all of the time eating away at the battery. Having a very low-power sensor notice you're reaching for a locked phone and then warming up the LEDs, cameras, and IR detectors for Face Unlock so that they are ready is pretty awesome. At least on paper.

All of this sounds great, but it also needs to be as good as what we're already used to with a fingerprint sensor. That's going to be tough, but Google seems to think it has done it. The biggest problem though is that there are plenty of people who don't want a sensor running all of the time or to use their face as a password to unlock a phone or authorize their bank app. With the removal of the fingerprint sensor, that means those people either have to adapt or buy a different phone.

Maybe dropping the fingerprint sensor wasn't a very good idea after all.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • What I really hate about face unlock is the absence of a lock screen. Normally I could switch on the phone and the lockscreen showed me the time and notifications. With face unlock it directly jumps to the start screen (or wherever I switched of the phone). That's a step in the wrong direction.
  • Usually when you turn on face unlock, you have the option for it showing the lock screen or unlocking your phone immediately.
  • Given the market penetration of the Google hardware, the real question is: will the fingerprint support in Android languish and, eventually, splinter into the vendor-specific variants?
  • So when exactly will banking and other applications begin using facial recognition for secured entry? That will be when I can try Pixel 4. Oh well, back to Samsung...
  • I was thinking the same thing, you have banks and password managers that use the fingerprint scanner.
  • Should be out of the box, like Apple. Android 10 finished adding face unlock as a valid security identity, and they laid the groundwork for alternative security back in Android 8.
  • Copying Apple again...urgh.
  • Exactly! Following /copying Apple and wanting to be like the Apple of the Android. "Google wants to copy Apple. And that's partially true?" That's exactly true Jerry. Just like Google going with gesture navigation after Apple did it is probably another coincidence, right? LOL! Just like system wide dark mode that was rumored in iOS 12 but postponed to iOS13 that Google decided to follow. They always had a small dark theme but never had a system wide one until "Apple does it or is rumored to be doing it." Plain and simple they re just following Apple. Android is looking more and more iOS than ever. And, the reason for that is they want to lure iOS users to something they are already familiar with.
  • Its not like Google following Apple has not worked out for them. It has in spade to this point, its exactly why Android is a clone of iOS but more open. I am one of those people who wants us to move on from the iPhone OS template, but it does not look like its going to happen. Google is too happy with the current status quo and since Apple's ambition is not to sell an iPhone to everyone, but to sell expensive iPhone, then Google don't think they are a big threat like a Microsoft who wants the same thing Google wants, which is to be everywhere.
  • I heavily use FP scanner for alot of applications. I hate where Google wants to go with this. Oh well. Guess I'll stick with Samsung for now.
  • OnePlus will be getting my money
  • This is some straight-up ********. "Well Apple did it, so we have to as well" NO GOOGLE YOU DON'T
  • So stupid. Face unlock will never beat a fingerprint scanner unless they can detect when I'm wearing a hat and sunglasses. Sure, fingerprint scanners don't work through gloves, but that's obviously not something they can overcome, which is why having two methods of biometric unlock is smart. This just makes no sense.
  • Lol any good face unlock can work with glasses and a hat. If Google's can't they are way behind apple.
  • Agree. That's about the only thing I miss about the iphone I had for 6 months. Face ID was really good. I like my S10+ a lot, but I'm looking forward to hearing how well Google's face unlock works. I'm tempted to jump ship from Samsung.
  • Seems like the pixel will be DOA
  • I wish they chose a larger battery with all of the space they saved. I'll get used to face unlock.
  • Dropping the finger print sensor is Stupid. Bad for people who wear eyeglasses sometimes.
  • Lol they work with eyeglasses/sunglasses.... 
  • Do people really care about device thickness that much? Would anybody notice if a phone was a couple millimeters thicker???
  • I'd be happy with a few more millimeters thickness for a bigger battery!
  • I've never used a FP sensor. I don't lock my phone at all. I also don't 'bank' on my phone, so I'm not sure what someone would 'find' on my unlocked phone. Don't loose it, don't let anyone look at it. It isn't that hard. I stopped buying Google phones anyway when they sold Motorola and started charging Apple prices.
  • I wish manufacturers would think about the fact that many of us have employer-mandated security policies on our phones. It doesn't matter whether I like face unlock or not; the fact, is my employer does not support face unlock under its security policy. Maybe someday they will, but corporate security departments tend to be cautious about such things; they only started to allow fingerprint sensors fairly recently. So yeah ... I guess I'm done with Pixels.
  • So? Nothing says you can't opt for PW/PIN, or your company can for you. You don't have to enroll your face, just like you don't have to enroll your fingerprint.
  • Well, I guess I can save my money. I can't imagine giving up the ease of FP unlock, especially in a dark room. My Pixel 2 is just going to have to continue hanging in there.
  • People who haven't experienced good Face Unlock really shouldn't make up stuff. My Lumias and iPhone work just fine in pitch dark. Besides, when you pick up your device in the dark the screen comes on anyway, illuminating the heck out of your face.
  • The fingerprint sensor is a convenient way to login to your bank app without have to type your password and is more secure
  • I am in dark rooms all the time at night and in the morning before work and use FP unlock for faster access to my phone (since location-based smart unlock is so inconsistent!). Unless face unlock works in almost pitch dark environments, this is gonna suck for me.
  • It's going to suck for everyone that uses it.
    Pitch black room
    Hairstyle change
    Facial hair change
    Glasses change
    And if someone else looks enough like you they could potentially unlock your phone. No two people have the same finger print.
    These are all going to hinder Face Unlock. Google needs to allow both biometric options to be available in case Face Unlock doesn't work. Google is assuming it will work 100% of the time.
  • Again, none of these are a problem with Apple's implementation, nor was it with Nokia's. Just because all you know is Samsung, doesn't mean that's all there is.
  • no fingerprint scan, no deal. too many passwords to remember and using fingerprints makes things so much easier and imo, secure.
  • I still feel like fingerprint scanner on the back is the fastest. By the time you pull your phone out of your pocket it's already unlocked, due to your fingerprint position. I don't think face unlock, and fingerprint scanner under the screen are as fast maybe fancier, but not as fast. Options are great, but don't remove efficient other means.
  • I would not have purchased one in the first place for various reasons... but no fingerprint sensor makes it even easier to move along...nothing to see here, and way too much money for the privilege! LOL
  • without fingerprint sensor, this phone is a non-starter for me.
  • I was actually considering the 4xl for my next phone until I found out that it didn't have a fingerprint sensor.
  • lol, android users are already crying because they already know it's going to suck compared to Apple's version.
    FaceID is awesome but android users know, the quality here will be half and google will share your face with everyone in the world and likely be fooled by any picture of you.
  • FaceID is far superior than any fingerprint sensor I've ever used. I hope more phones implement what Google and Apple have done in their phones.
  • Disappointing...Fingerprint scanner and facial recognition are different mechanics and appeal to different users. I have become accustomed to the ease of single-handed authentication to the device and applications. At the same time, I have zero interest in facial recognition (if I had a phone with that feature, I would just leave it disabled).
    The only question now that the Pixel 4 landed with a disappointing thud (for me, anyway) is do I wait a year for Pixel 5 or start looking at who else has a pure android experience (and fingerprint scanner). Anyone have a recommendation?
  • So, will have have to remove my hat and sunglasses for it to work? Honestly, at this point, my password manager (1Password) and all my money apps are separately secured; why do I even need to lock my phone? AND - those apps that are fingerprint secured will work with P4 as soon as I install them - or I have to wait until they are updated?
  • Can't stand face unlock.
  • I've gotten every pixel phone thus far, currently using the Pixel 3. My next phone will not be the pixel 4, I'm not a fan of the facial recognition and prefer the fingerprint sensor.
  • So, for apps that utilize the fingerprint scanner for authentication, will they need to update to face unlock or is that baked into the OS and it'll automatically switch when you have the app installed on a Pixel 4?
  • So, the assumption is that face unlock has improved dramatically such that people of color can be recognized consistently? Face recognition software is 10 times more likely to misidentify black faces compared to white faces. Why does Google follow this dead end after Apple when the color of a fingerprint is doesn't factor in whether your phone will recognize you. I'll be keeping my Pixel3 forever.
  • My current S9 can do face unlock also. It works fine. I just don't like it, so I don't use it. I use fingerprint because it suits the way I use my phone.
    I was planning to buy the pixel 4, until it was announced that it didn't have a fingerprint scanner.
    I don't want my phone to unlock as soon as I look at it. I want my phone to unlock when I choose to unlock it.
    It seems Google has made the assumption that the only reason someone wouldn't use face unlock is if it didn't work reliably. Some people don't use face unlock, because they don't want to use face unlock. It's that simple.