The conundrum of Android 13 and Pixel 6 facial recognition

Will face unlock ever come to the Pixel 6 phones? And will it arrive with the new Pixel 7? Jack Wallen ponders these questions as well as how the answer might affect Pixel owners.

Google Pixel 6 Pro - High Tech Smartphone, showing rear camera and case and box
Image: russell102/Adobe Stock

Once upon a time, I did some tests of the Android facial recognition system and found it to be far more secure than what the rumors had declared. Those tests were done on the Pixel 4 device, which was plagued by a tragically underpowered battery.

By the time the Pixel 5 device rolled out, facial recognition was a thing of the past for Google flagship phones. The Pixel 5 reverted back to a fingerprint sensor. That was somewhat fortuitous, because shortly afterward, COVID and masks put the kibosh on using facial recognition. The Pixel 5 had an outstanding fingerprint sensor but was fairly underwhelming otherwise.

Do you see the pattern forming? Since the Pixel 3, those devices each had a bit of an Achilles’ heel. With the 4, it was the battery, and with the 5, it was the CPU.

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Google realized its missteps and returned the Pixel line to flagship status with the 6 and 6 Pro. Both phones were impeccably designed, powerful and stood toe-to-toe with the competition. I’ve found the Pixel 6 Pro to be a stellar example of what Google is capable of. However, there is one issue that has caused considerable ire in the Android community.

The Pixel 6 Pro — very much a flagship device — did not ship with facial recognition. Even though it had the hardware to pull off the feat, Google failed to enable it.

Why is this such a problem?

First and foremost, one of the best things about Android (similar to Linux) is users have choices. Don’t like the user interface? Install a new home screen launcher. If you don’t like Gmail, then install any number of email clients. But when faced with that lagging fingerprint sensor on the Pixel 6, your only choice is to use either the PIN or pattern.

However, there has been hope on the horizon. Back with Android 13 beta 1, it was discovered that mentions of facial unlock were found not just for the Pixel 6 but the Pixel 5. At the same time, with every new feature drop for Android 12, the community assumed that would be when the devices would finally receive the update that includes facial recognition.

That never happened with Android 12. No matter how many rumors swirled about, it has yet to come to fruition. There were also rumors that a YouTuber named Brandon Lee discovered references to Face Unlock on the first beta of Android 13. I’ve scoured my Pixel 5 running Android 13 beta 4, and there’s zero indication that face unlock is a part of the OS.

If you take a look at this commit (submitted March 02, 2022, and uncovered by 9to5google) you’ll see this line:

[ DO NOT MERGE ] Enable user_vote_bypass for UDFPS and face unlock

To me, that’s not a clear indication that Pixel 6 devices will get face unlock, but it certainly adds fuel to the fire. And with the Pixel 7 on the horizon, there’s no clear indication if that phone will include face unlock. This is a mistake.

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With every iteration of the Pixel line of phones that ships without face unlock, the community perception is that the devices are inferior to the latest iPhones. Google has the hardware and the skills to bring face unlock front and center, but for reasons unknown to pretty much everyone, they continue to hold the feature back.

What gives?

We all assumed the Pixel 6 devices had the necessary components to make face unlock a reality. Given that Google pulled face unlock from the Pixel 6 at the last minute, I am led to believe the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro both have the hardware to support the feature. That being the case, why hold back? Is it a security issue?

I honestly don’t know. And I don’t think anyone outside of Google has the answer. But seeing as how the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro both have issues with the fingerprint scanner, Google would be wise to add the feature.

But, if I’m being totally honest here, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Why? Because history clearly shows Google is all about the future and not the past. Why bring face unlock to the Pixel 6 when the Pixel 7 is on the horizon? Should Google add face unlock to the 6, it would easily bring the 6 devices on par with the latest iPhone release. I would imagine that Google would rather those users spring for a shiny new Pixel 7 instead.

But there’s the rub: Seeing as how there’s no indication if the Pixel 7 will ship with face unlock, it lessens the justification to upgrade. The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are both outstanding flagship devices that only miss out in this one regard.

With that in mind, if Google doesn’t bring face unlock to the Pixel 7, I would venture a guess that it could seriously put off a lot of users. Although face unlock isn’t a make-or-break feature, it certainly does go a long way to help make the devices more convenient. And if Google learns one thing from this, it’s that consumers place convenience above many other features. They want simplicity and reliability of use. With face unlock still missing, both of those desires take a hit.

So, if you’re listening, Google, do yourself and every Pixel user on the planet a favor and make face recognition a reality for both the Pixel 6 and Pixel 7 devices. Put these rumors to bed and bring this much-requested feature to life.

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