What's The Best Way To Unlock Your Android Phone?

Photo: NordWood Themes, Unsplash

There are a number of different ways to unlock an Android smartphone or tablet. In fact, you probably have a favourite one you’ve been using for as long as you’ve owned your device. We’re all creatures of habit, but you might want to consider other unlocking methods that might be more secure, convenient, or expedient.

Here’s a quick overview of all the different ways you can unlock an Android smartphone — or, at least, all the ways we could do it on a Google Pixel 2, which might differ a little (or greatly) from your personal android device. YMMV.

Choosing an unlocking technique

Screenshot: David Murphy

On the Pixel 2, changing up your unlocking technique is as easy as pulling up the App Drawer, tapping on Settings, scrolling down to “Security & location,” and tapping “Screen lock” under the “Device security” section. Don’t tap the gear icon to the right of the “Screen lock” option unless you want to set specific options for whatever method you’ve selected.

Option 1: None

Convenience: Astronomical

Security: ????????????

Screenshot: David Murphy

You like living on the edge. That, or you keep your device at home one-hundred per cent of the time and have no fears that anyone will be able to physically touch it, press the power button, and do everything and anything they want. This method is the fastest way to get into your device. It’s also the least secure, which should be obvious, since “none” implies that you are using no security or protections whatsoever. Godspeed.

Option 2: Swipe

Convenience: Notifications and speedy device access

Security: ????

Swipe, unlike “None,” puts a single screen between you and an unlocked device—the lock screen, even though it’s not really doing much “locking.” I find the Swipe option more convenient than None, as you can tap your smartphone’s power button to see all of your notifications instead of having to swipe down when your device opens to the last screen you were using.

Option 3: Pattern

Convenience: How fast can you draw?

Security: Harder to associate with personal details than other methods

Screenshot: David Murphy

To me, the “Pattern” feels more secure than a conventional PIN, as it’s a lot harder to associate familiarity. By that, I mean that a friend trying to get into your device can try any combination of numbers they think you enjoy: Your pet’s birthday, your own birthday, the ol’ “1234" or “0000,” et cetera.

A pattern targets up to nine individual dots in a specific order, and who knows what funky Tetris shape is your favourite — or how you’ve modified your favourite shape by adding an extra component (or two) to throw would-be device unlockers off the trail. That all said, a complicated pattern takes longer to draw out than a PIN, so the more secure you make your device, the harder it’ll be for you to unlock, too.

Option 4: PIN

Convenience: How long is your PIN?

Security: How weird is your PIN?

Screenshot: David Murphy

Ah, the trusty PIN code. I think a PIN is a reasonable security measure that balances convenience with protection. It’s faster to type a longer PIN code than draw out a pattern, and much faster if you’re fussing with a simpler keypad versus typing out the letters and symbols of a conventional password. The strength of your PIN depends on your laziness: Obviously, a quick “1111" is going to be a lot easier for someone to guess (or notice, over your shoulder), than a more complicated seven-digit PIN number, as long as you aren’t using something obvious — like your phone number. Don’t do that.

Option 5: Password

Convenience: Not very convenient at all

Security: Incredibly high, depending on how much typing you want to do

Screenshot: David Murphy

If you’re a masochist, you can always type the letters, numbers, and symbols of a complicated password into your device to unlock it. While this can be a lot more secure than a PIN or a pattern, it’s going to be incredibly annoying to do — even on a semi-frequent basis (more on that in a bit). You’re more likely to cheat by using a shorter, more easily guessable password, because you won’t want to enter a 25+ character passphrase on your device whenever you’re prompted. (It’s a lot easier to type in big passwords, or use a password manager, to log into websites you infrequently visit on your desktop or laptop compared to your smartphone, which you likely use all the time.)

Bonus Option: Pixel Imprint

Convenience: It doesn’t get much easier than this

Security: Know any super-spies?

I’m willing to bet that you probably use your finger to log into your device. That option isn’t listed under the “Screen lock” section of Android’s “Device security” section, rather, within a separate “Pixel Imprint” option. If your device has a built-in fingerprint reader—and I hope it does—you can hold your smartphone like you normally do and authenticate in merely by pressing a digit on the correct spot.

On my Pixel 2, there’s a big, bold warning that “Your fingerprint can be less secure than strong PIN, pattern, or password,” but I have yet to find one of my friends dusting my laptop for prints or using tape and glue to recreate my print and authenticate into my device. People have lives, you know.

Screenshot: David Murphy

You’ll still have to set up a backup authentication method—pattern, PIN, or password—when using a fingerprint to log in. As Google notes, Android will ask you for this backup method in a few instances:

  • Your fingerprint isn’t recognised after a few tries

  • You restart (reboot) your phone

  • You switch to a different user

  • More than 48 hours have passed since you last unlocked using your backup method

Bonus Option 2: Smart Lock

Convenience: Time to retire those stunna shades

Security: Great, as long as your therapist doesn’t enjoy Chianti

Feeling pretty? If you set up a Screen Lock with your device — which includes any of the aforementioned techniques, including Pixel Imprint — you can then tap on the “Smart Lock” option under “Device security” to try out a number of other fun authentication techniques. This includes “on-body detection,” which leaves your device unlocked if it detects you’re walking around (or on a run, for example); ”trusted places,” which automatically unlocks your device in certain locations; and “trusted face,” which lets you unlock your device by staring at it.

Screenshot: David Murphy

Each technique balances security and convenience in a different way. I might set up trusted places in my house, but I’d be less inclined to do so in an apartment complex, dorm, or work (in case you leave your phone in a common area or fear someone will mess with it if you leave it on your desk during a bio break). I’m a huge fan of unlocking devices by staring at them, assuming you don’t have an evil twin, a friend who likes to make masks of your noggin’ for no reason whatsoever, or like to pull a Bono and wear sunglasses everywhere you go.


Comments

    Glaring omission: Smart Lock / Trusted Devices.
    If you have a smartwatch or other Bluetooth device on your person, you can use that to keep your phone unlocked while it's in range. Your earbuds or car BT could do the job, too.

    "Pixel Imprint":
    Is that only what it's called on Pixel phones? On my Samsung, fingerprint lock is under Biometrics in the Screen Lock section, right where this article says it isn't.

    One flaw with the pattern security is that it's often possible to see the pattern on the screen. Glossy screen + oily fingers = a visible mark on screen. That said, I use it myself, mostly because there's nothing that really needs security on my phone.

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