Face Unlock isn’t a gimmick anymore, and is certainly better than nothing

When Google first announced Face Unlock as a security option for Android 4.0, I immediately dismissed it as a marketing gimmick. After all, face unlock on laptops and other devices has been around for a while, but never really worked very well. I confirmed my stance on face unlock when I got my Galaxy Nexus, and found that Face Unlock didn’t work very reliably, and didn’t have much of a point for me.

I didn’t give Face Unlock another look until I got the LG Nexus 4. Normally, I use a 6-digit PIN to unlock both my phone and tablet, but decided to give Face Unlock another look on the Nexus 4. Initially, my results were mostly the same, until I noticed an option that either wasn’t present, or I didn’t notice, in Android 4.0: Improve Face Matching. Strategically placed in the “Security” menu directly underneath “Screen Lock” option, the setting only appears when Face Unlock is enabled. What it does is scan your face in different situations in order to allow Face Unlock to work more quickly, more of the time.

After just a day of adding new images to Face Unlock in various lighting conditions and even with or without glasses, the results became apparent. Instead of having to sit and wait for face unlock to recognize me and only work half the time as it did for John, the recognition is almost instant in most lighting situations. Most of the time, the second most of my face is in the camera’s view the device unlocks, and sometimes I don’t even have to try to look at it.

I still don’t set either of my devices to lock until five minutes after the screen turns off as suggested by John, but I don’t mind Face unlock nearly as much now that it works in almost any situation and is sometimes faster than sliding to unlock. The one problem that is still inherent with Face Unlock is that it doesn’t work in dark or near dark conditions, but Android is now better about immediately switching to the PIN lock backup in dark situations than it was before.

There are still plenty of security concerns about Face Unlock, and indeed it probably isn’t nearly as secure as the pattern lock that stumped the FBI. However, I do think that face unlock is good for at least one thing: People that don’t like typing in passwords. In Android 4.2 on both the Nexus 7 and Nexus 4, Face Unlock can be nearly instant with face matching improved, and is often not much slower than sliding to unlock. This should be great for those who don’t like the annoyance of typing in PIN codes, because while the occasional password may be required, most of the time pointing the device in the general direction of your face will work.

This is all obviously very subjective, but I know quite a few people who finally began using lockscreen security when the upgraded to devices where Face Unlock actually works well. Considering all the things people keep on their smartphones, sometimes including bank account information or apps and almost always email access, Face Unlock is better than nothing, even though it may not be as secure as other security. As such, although I at first thought Face Unlock was a gimmick, it is now accurate and fast enough to find a use for those who don’t like typing passwords out, even if it isn’t as secure as a PIN. If this can convince any number of people to begin using lockscreen security on their mobile devices, then I can certainly see the point of Face Unlock after all.

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Aaron Orquia

Aaron Orquia is an associate editor at Pocketables. He has been using Android and Linux since he bought his first computer years ago, and his interest in technology, software, and tweaking both to work just right has only grown stronger since then. His current gadgets include a OnePlus One, a Pebble smartwatch, and an Acer C720 Chromebook.

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6 thoughts on “Face Unlock isn’t a gimmick anymore, and is certainly better than nothing

  • January 28, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Not sure I agree that it’s better than nothing. It makes it ever so slightly harder to get into someone’s phone, but a picture of them is all you need. Heck, the image in this post is now enough for anyone to unlock your phone. Having it enabled at all gives you a false sense of security, which I think does more damage than the low protection it offers.

    There’s also the point that if you do use this, you shouldn’t put your name and contact information on the lock screen, as then thieves could actually find out who you are and get a picture. However, without such information on the lock screen, someone honest that finds your phone has no way of getting back to you.

    Face Unlock is IMHO just a ridiculous feature that proves what an epic pile of shit Android is becoming.

    • January 28, 2013 at 4:27 pm

      To prevent people unlocking the device with a picture, there is a setting that makes the feature wait for blinking to unlock the phone. Admittedly, this does eliminate much of the speed gained by improved recognition, but should make the feature much more secure.

      Also, while it could give a false sense of security to some, the majority of people that I see using Android devices that aren’t conscious of security will remain logged in to sensitive personal accounts whether they think they have security or not. In those cases, face unlock is certainly better than nothing, because they won’t change their actual security practices either way.

      It obviously isn’t meant to be a serious form of security, and no one should think that it will really protect their personal information, but for people who already leave such things unguarded, face unlock can’t hurt. Also, this post at least doesn’t seem to trick face unlock on my Nexus 4, I tried it at least 5 times.

      • January 28, 2013 at 5:26 pm

        I haven’t tried it with the blinking requirement, however if the non-blinking version is any indication, 2 minutes in photoshop to create an “eyes closed” version of the image should do it. I have repeatedly unlocked Android phones where the blink requirement was not enabled using the contact image I’ve had for the owner’s phone, just to prove how ridiculous of a feature it is.

        What really pissed me off is that Google introduced this in the same version they restricted third party access to deactivating the pattern unlock, citing security concerns. That’s like telling someone not to play with a matchstick while you yourself are playing with TNT.

        • September 13, 2013 at 11:55 am

          Wow you are really dumb, how 2 photos, one with the open eyes and other with closed eyes will fool this?

  • January 28, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    I’m pretty sure the option to improve face matching was always there (at least it was in HTC devices I’ve used), but you are right – the feature is getting better.

  • January 29, 2013 at 8:22 am

    If people are going to such lengths to break into your phone as photshop pics from the internet then i probably wouldnt be keeping ANY important info on a phone. For the regular peeps like me who have never had anyone try to steal their phone for info or to make a call it works just fine.


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