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Google copied a signature iPhone feature for the Pixel 4, but missed one huge element

Updated Oct 21st, 2019 7:00AM EDT
Pixel 4 vs. iPhone 11

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Google confirmed the Pixel 4’s main features several months before actually announcing the phone, but that didn’t stop the leaks. All the Pixel 4 rumors that followed were easy to verify, considering we all knew what the Pixel 4 would look like and what its signature features would be. Unsurprisingly, Google copied the iPhone again, with Apple continuing to be its main inspiration for the Pixel line so far.

Not only did Google have to admit that it needed more cameras on the back of the phone to improve photography, but the Pixel 4 is the latest Android handset — and the most important one — to replicate one of the most important iPhone features in recent years. That’s 3D face unlock, Google’s response to Face ID, which launched on the iPhone two years ago. But Google forgot to also replicate one of Face ID’s key security features.

Before hardcore Android fans email me about how Android had face unlock before Apple: Yes, the Galaxy Nexus came with face unlock all the way back in 2011, as did several other Android phones, including many Samsung flagship devices. That’s 2D face unlock, which turned out to be less secure than expected, as various people proved it could be hacked with photos, and I’m not just talking about the older versions. Even the face unlock that Samsung used on the Galaxy S and Note phones until not too long ago could be hacked that way. For that reason, face unlock was never deemed to be secure enough for mobile payments or to login to sensitive apps.

Nobody involved in the process of making these phones, including Google and Samsung, ever brought 3D face unlock to market before Apple did. Sure, many of them may have tried it behind closed doors, but nobody actually took the risk to move forward with it until Apple did it. You know how we know? Well, Samsung and Nexus/Pixel phones have never been well-kept secrets, and a major feature like 3D face unlock would have leaked well before its official arrival. In fact, the iPhone X’s Face ID leaked before Apple announced it too.

Image source: Apple Inc.

Manufacturing the components required to read 3D maps of one’s face was difficult, and Apple had to postpone the iPhone X’s launch from late September 2017 to early November to make sure it had enough supply to meet demand. After that, Apple made several strategic investments to ensure it would have enough parts for future iPhones and iPads. Analysts said that Android makers would need two years to copy the feature, and that turned out to be true. Aside from the Pixel 4, only a handful of phones also support 3D face unlock  — Xiaomi, Huawei, and LG flagships are among them.

The smartphone makers that couldn’t copy Face ID dropped 2D face recognition from their phones (Samsung), or kept pushing a super fast but less secure 2D face unlock on their devices (OnePlus).

The fact that Google has adopted 3D face recognition for the Pixel 4 is great news, as it means that Android will have native support for the feature. And 3D face unlock on the Pixel 4 will work just like Face ID on the iPhone. Yes, Google says that Motion Sense radar will make the feature even faster than other secure face unlocks, which is a clear dig at Apple.

But Google forgot to replicate a key Face ID feature, one that gives you more control over your security, even if that means slightly slowing Face ID response. That’s attention detection, or Require Attention, as Apple calls it.

When enabled, Face ID will verify that your eyes are open and looking at the phone before performing the unlock. That means the phone can’t be unlocked if you’re not looking at it, sleeping, or dead, as the tweet above hilariously put it. That’s a feature you should enable on the iPhone, and then never touch it. Who knows when it’ll pay off.

Meanwhile, the Pixel 4 has no such option. At least, it’s not there in the first Android 10 release. Even if it slows down Face unlock, Google should copy Apple’s attention detection feature to increase user security.

Google’s support page for face unlock does not indicate that an attention detection feature is present in the software, or hint that it’ll be added anywhere down the road. But the company acknowledges the fact that the phone can be unlocked if held up to your face, even if your eyes are closed:

Your phone can also be unlocked by someone else if it’s held up to your face, even if your eyes are closed. Keep your phone in a safe place, like your front pocket or handbag. To prepare for unsafe situations, learn how to turn on lockdown. To prepare for unsafe situations, learn how to turn on lockdown.

You can “lockdown” your phone to “turn off notifications, fingerprint or face recognition unlocking, and Smart Lock,” but the feature has to be re-enabled every time you unlock the phone, which is hardly convenient.

UPDATE: Google reached out to BGR saying an Eyes open feature for the Pixel 4’s Face unlock is in the works – read everything about it at this link.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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