Google promises another Pixel 4 software update, this time for the screen’s refresh rate

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Every major phone launch has a “-gate”: a drama about some problem or worry with the hardware. With the Pixel 4, there are several: the battery may be too small, the face unlock works with your eyes closed, and now the conditions at which the screen will refresh at 90Hz and when it will ratchet down to 60Hz are pretty confusing. Google calls the feature “Smooth Display,” but its reception has been anything but smooth in the past 24 hours.

Google previously said it adjusts the refresh rate depending on what’s happening on the screen to improve battery life, but yesterday some Redditors figured out that refresh rate also drops down to 60Hz if the screen brightness is set below 75 percent. Further investigation from the Android community revealed that it may stay up at 90Hz at lower brightness levels if the ambient lighting in the room is bright enough.

It’s all very strange, so we asked Google for a statement and it has replied with a little more detail on when the screen changes its refresh rate and — most importantly — a promise of a software update. Here’s the full statement, emphasis mine:

We designed Smooth Display so that users could enjoy the benefits of 90Hz for improved UI interactions and content consumption, while also preserving battery when higher refresh rates are not critical by lowering back down to 60Hz.

In some conditions or situations, however, we set the refresh rate to 60Hz. Some of these situations include: when the user turns on battery saver, certain content such as video (as it’s largely shot at 24 or 30fps), and even various brightness or ambient conditions. We constantly assess whether these parameters lead to the best overall user experience. We have previously planned updates that we’ll roll out in the coming weeks that include enabling 90hz in more brightness conditions.

So there you go: there are a lot of situations that will cause the screen’s refresh rate to drop down, certainly more than you might assume.

That makes two software updates Google has promised for the Pixel 4, the other being an update that requires your eyes to be open for face unlock to work. That update is due “in the coming months,” while this screen refresh update is set for the “coming weeks.”

One of the reasons to buy a Pixel phone instead of another Android phone is the guaranteed software updates. Somehow I don’t think anybody was thinking about updates for face unlock and screen refresh rates when they made their preorders, but here we are. It’s great that Google is so quickly addressing complaints — but it would have been better if they didn’t have to in the first place.


This face unlock "controversy" seems so overblown to me. Ok, sure, being able to unlock your phone with your eyes closed means the phone is technically less secure. But is that really a realistic worry? If you’re genuinely afraid that someone will either a) kidnap you and unlock your phone against your will or b) steal your phone and unlock it while you sleep, you probably have bigger things to worry about.

Yeah and my phone shouldn’t be one of them.
What I don’t understand is the pass people are giving Google for something that has been standard since Apple implemented face ID the first time. The right way.
There is literally no reason for Google to provide a subpar experience. Especially on a $800+ phone.

Yes, fair point. Google shouldn’t have let this happen, no question. But—does anyone in the real world actually consider it a dealbreaker, and is it actually a realistic thing to worry about? I don’t think so. So in that sense, the phone really isn’t all that less secure in any meaningful sense because almost no one is going to encounter the situation in which it is less secure. Being able to trick the phone with a photo would’ve been a different story. I don’t mean to be a Google apologist at all, but this doesn’t seem worthy of a "-gate" moniker…

You’ve never had to face police brutality, or border patrol from the wrong side of the desk have you?
Mind you me neither. I’m not playing the victim card here.
But shit happens. It’s a privacy and security feature. If you’re not doing it properly, you might as well not do it at all.
And obviously that’s not getting into things like kids unlocking your phone while you sleep, your brothers/sisters doing the same, maybe the person you’re currently in a relationship with etc.
And just FYI (not that I’m claiming I’m some kind of standard) yes, this was part of the reason I canceled my Pixel 4 pre-order

I mean, come on. If you’re talking about police and border patrol trying to access your phone, I’m pretty sure they can get you to keep your eyes open to unlock it, lol. Just as they—or a sibling, or a partner, or anyone else—could have used your finger to unlock your phone without your knowledge and/or consent before face unlock was a thing. This just seems really overblown to me as an issue that people actually care about.
If it mattered enough to you that it contributed to your cancellation, obviously that’s fine, you do you, haha. But I suspect you’re in the vast minority.

If you’re gonna talk about the "vast minority" of people who cancelled their Pixel 4 orders, let me also remind you that the type of customer who would buy a Samsung or Apple device over Pixel, is the majority.

The average everyday Joe/Jane who is not techie, would ask the carrier salesman, which phone they should buy. They would be asking questions about what features come with this phone. Asking things like, can I do X or Y with this? Will Instagram work? Can I share pictures with my family and how would I do that?

90Hz refresh rate…what does that mean to them? A phone with radar that you can swipe between songs – neat, but what else can it do? Oh it detects your presence so you can unlock you phone faster…is that creepy or is it legit?

FaceID that they’ve heard from Apple, that they know is secure, that’s not up for debate. OK so the Pixel 4 has it too, but far less secure, and banking apps won’t accept it at its current state – unlike with the iPhone.

At this rate it’s no better than face unlock that you can buy from phones that are half the price. Why not just get those instead, then?

I’m not sure what this has to do with people choosing to buy another phone over the Pixel. The people who would cancel the phone because it can be unlocked with their eyes closed is a tiny minority.

Anyone that’s an average Joe/Jane talking to a carrier salesman is by definition not someone that pre-ordered a Pixel 4, haha. And I didn’t say that a vast minority of people are canceling their pre-orders: I said that I think a small minority of people would consider this specific issue to be negative enough to be worth canceling over. Maybe the various "issues" together would.

It’s not that banking apps WON’T accept it. They just haven’t updated their apps to work with the Android 10 biometric API yet. You have some valid points, just not that one.

This is a lot of words for an argument to remain entirely unclear.

I’m with exygenysys on this one. How is closed eye detection going to protect you from police / border patrol brutality? If they’re so brutal, aren’t they just going to torture you until you open your eyes or knock you out and hold your eyelids open?

They could do that but that sort of stuff leaves marks. Easier to hold accountable.

before going to US border, enable lockdown mode.
Or better yet, just stay out of police states, like the US….

I would like to point out that the worst case situations you describe are why the lockdown feature on both the iPhone and Android were created, right?

Any sort of biometric security won’t stop them from getting into your phone. It’s very much legal in America for someone to force you to touch your finger to a fingerprint reader. Personally, even when going through TSA security, I lockdown my phone, which requires my full account password to unlock.

That won’t stop a little brother/sister, but neither will a fingerprint reader. They can touch the phone to your sleeping hand, and it’ll open.

Expectations have risen since the implementation of FaceID. The people defending this have to convince us that a much newer and more complex technology is no more secure than the technology it’s replacing.

I was never going to buy a Pixel honestly, but I find that approach to technology unacceptable.

As for police brutality, if you are concerned about being knocked out by the popo, use pattern unlock and forgo the biometrics. Which a fingerprint scanner can be used on an unconscious person as well.

If Google wasn’t going to increase security then why bother spending massively on this technology?

@exygenysys – It’s not just that, its all the false positive you will get with not implementing the eye contact feature. Google even admit the phone will unlock even when you don’t intend it to.

This may be my ignorance, but does the "eye" feature mean that it actually detects when you’re looking at the screen, as opposed to just having your eyes open? I thought it was just the latter, but I might be wrong

Yes, it detects when you are looking at the screen then unlock, its like an acknowledgement.

Why is everyone ignoring the fact that this is in no way a regression from having a fingerprint sensor? Other than a jealous spouse, the scenario of getting kidnapped, or having the phone unlocked forcibly without your consent, are both real problems for your fingerprint as well.

I think the point though was that the Face unlock — like FaceID — was supposed to be more secure than a fingerprint unlock. It was the point of switching — not just that we wanted to not use our fingers.

Agreed. FaceID is much more complex but it is easier to use (don’t even move a finger!) and more secure, which are goals that are often hard to achieve together.

As if its hard to press a sleeping or dead finger against a fingerprint sensor. Way overblown issue. If someone wants in your phone that bad, its not that hard to do on any phone.

Sleeping people will likely wake up once you move their hands, because most people don’t leave their fingers sitting there facing up while they are sleeping.

Many security conscious people register a different finger than their thumbs. If you try a thumb and fail several times, it starts asking for the passcode.

Also, iPhone’s Touch ID requires a living finger. If someone uses a dead one, it doesn’t unlock.

Again, with attention requirement with the Face ID, if you try to make the owner look, and fail, it will lock it down and ask for the passcode.

With the Pixel, as soon as you are facing your phone it gets unlocked easily, regardless of whether or not you want it to be.

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