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The Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 go head-to-head for your face.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Google’s new Pixel 4 picks up some fascinating new camera features, motion-sensing radar and live transcription, but secure face unlock is the feature you’ll come to know most intimately. With the Pixel 4, Google follows in Apple’s footsteps, doing away with biometric fingerprint scanning and relying on your face to unlock the device. In fact, Google hints that its approach is even faster than Apple’s Face ID feature for iPhone. So I tested it out.

But before we get to the good stuff, you should know how face unlock works on the two phones, because they’re slightly different. Both the iPhone (any model X or newer) and Pixel 4 use an infrared sensor to project dots on your facial features that are then used to create a unique depth map of your face. But — and this is important — Google’s approach also hinges on a small chip inside the phone that senses your motion using radar (like picking up the phone) and hands off to the dot projector to do the unlocking work.

You can’t unlock the Pixel 4 without the aid of Motion Sense. And you can’t unlock the iPhone without swiping up from the bottom of the screen. In certain situations, both of these checkpoints can slow you down.

I tested out which face unlock was easier to set up, and which phone was faster and more convenient to use in four typical scenarios: lifting the phone up to your face, leaning over the phone to unlock it when it’s resting on a table, unlocking the phone when laying down and using it in complete darkness. Here’s what I found out.

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The better setup process

It’s equally straightforward to set up face unlock on the Pixel 4 as it is on the iPhone (I used the iPhone 11 Pro). They both gamify the initial face-scanning process, giving you a goal as you slowly turn your head in a circle so the phone can scan all your angles. Clear the blue blocks for Google, complete the circle for Apple.

The Pixel 4’s setup process slowed me down with false misses when I apparently wasn’t turning my head correctly. Apple makes you scan your face twice, but it’s quick and painless. All in all, I prefer the iPhone’s method. (Scroll to the end for the full setup process for each.)

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Setting up face unlock on the Pixel 4.


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The lift-to-unlock method (screen off)

Pixel 4 wins this round for pure ease. If you’ve enabled Motion Sense, which is the radar-powered suite of gesture controls built into the phone, then lifting the device to your face also unlocks it by the time you’ve finished picking it up — no swiping necessary. 

Here’s how it works: A radar-driven sensor detects that you’re reaching for the phone and wakes the screen, prepping the system to scan your face. It then hands off to the face unlock software, which uses a dot projector to scan your face and identify that you are you. The whole thing consistently takes place in about a second (of course it depends how fast you’re moving).

The iPhone process isn’t hard, but it does take longer. You can lift the phone to wake and unlock it in one swoop, but you’ll still need to swipe up on the lock screen to get in. It’s a fast motion that can take about the same time as the Pixel 4, assuming your reflexes are sharp. It just requires one more step and if you don’t swipe up from the bottom of the screen, you’ll waste time trying again.

The lean-over

When you’re too lazy, tired or occupied to pick up a phone that’s laying down just to unlock it, you might want to wake it up by leaning over it and leveling your eyes at the front-facing camera. This doesn’t work terrifically well on either the Pixel 4 or iPhone 11, but Apple’s experience is more consistent.

While the Pixel 4’s radar is really good at picking up the motion and presence of my hand reaching for it, it’s a lot less good at registering my head hovering over the display. After much trial and error, I figured out that you can reach your hand up toward the sensor (but not too fast), and then lean in to unlock. Otherwise, hovering alone usually isn’t enough to trigger the facial scan, even when you press the lock button first.

The iPhone 11 needs you to press the lock button to wake it up, but once you do, it quickly registers your gaze and requires just the swipe up from the bottom to get in. I had more success unlocking the iPhone this way overall.

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The Pixel 4 isn’t as consistent as the iPhone 11 when it comes to having some leeway over looking at your phone directly.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The lay-down routine

Like you, I use my phone when I’m laying down — on the couch, when I wake up, you name it. Depending on whether you’re flopped on your side or on your back, one of these phones definitely unlocks better than the other.

The Pixel 4 was extremely responsive to me picking it up and holding it over my face when fully supine, but much harder to get into when I was reclining on my side, especially if any hair fell in my face. The iPhone was better at making eye contact when I was on my side, but you still have to swipe up from the bottom, which is much more precarious when you’re holding it squarely over your face because it means you’re only holding your heavy phone with one hand. 

Unlocking the phone in darkness

Both phones worked flawlessly in a pitch-black room, so long as I raised the device to my face. The Pixel 4 was also easy to unlock when I stood still and raised my hand up from the bottom of the phone — it won’t work if you do it too fast. This action triggers Motion Sense to wake up the face scanner and then it’s smooth sailing. 

Which one’s faster overall? The Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 Pro were neck and neck, by the time you add all the factors together with swiping and waving. In theory, the Pixel 4 should be faster, since you don’t have to touch the screen at all. But if you need to trigger Motion Sense first, then it can take the same amount of time as a quick flick on the iPhone 11.

Read on to learn how to set up face unlock on the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11, and weigh in on everything we like and don’t like about Google’s new phone in our Pixel 4 review.

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Face ID on the iPhone XR.


Josh Miller/CNET

How to set up Pixel 4 face unlock

Go to Settings > Security > Face unlock. Choose your backup screen unlock method, like a pattern, pin or password. Then, you’ll choose the kind of information you want to see on the lock screen: all notifications, some or none at all. Click Next, then Start. 

You’ll see your face surrounded by a spherical grid of blue blocks. You’re done scanning when you’ve “uncovered” all the blocks by rotating your head in all directions. That’s it. Once you confirm that you’re all set, you’ll have the option to limit using face unlock to unlocking your phone, signing into apps and authenticating mobile payments, and skipping the lock screen.

iPhone 11 Pro Face ID setup

Go to Settings > Face ID & Passcode. Go through the process to set up your passcode, then select Set Up Face ID. Click Get Started to scan your face for the first time. You’ll see your face framed and need to move your head slowly in a circle to complete the first scan. You’ll do this one more time.

After confirming that Face ID is set up, you can toggle off options to unlock the iPhone, use Face ID for the iTunes and App Stores, Apple Pay and Password Autofill.

Originally published earlier this week.

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Marco Bitran
Husband and father of two children under age 5, Marco also enjoys walks in nature, squash, running road races, and photography. He regularly contributes significant time and resources to the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the MSPCA and other animal rights organizations, and the Bitran Charitable Foundation. Marco has also volunteered and consulted for public housing support organizations such as the Somerville Homeless Coalition, created by the local community’s grassroots response to the social crisis of homelessness.

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