Google Smart Lock: The complete guide

Google Smart Lock can simplify your smartphone's security and save you time. Are you taking advantage of all it has to offer for Android?

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Think fast: How many times a day do you pick up your phone to look at something? Unless you live in the tundra or have far more self-control than most, the answer probably falls somewhere between "quite a few" and "more than any sane person could count." Assuming you keep your device properly secured, that means you're doing an awful lot of unlocking — be it with your face, your fingerprint, or the code you tap or swipe onto your screen.

Security's important, but goodness gracious, it can be a hassle.

Thankfully, there's a better way. Google Smart Lock provides a variety of options for keeping your Android phone unlocked in preapproved, known-to-be-safe circumstances. It’s an easily overlooked but incredibly useful feature that lets you create a sensible balance between security and convenience. And once you set it up, it's simple as can be to use.

Here's a step-by-step guide to turning Google Smart Lock on and taking full advantage of everything it can offer.

Google Smart Lock: The Android options

On any reasonably recent Android device, you can set up Google Smart Lock to keep your phone unlocked in certain trusted situations but to require your PIN, pattern, password, or biometric authentication at all other times. It's the best of both worlds, in other words: effective Android security without unnecessary annoyances.

To activate Google Smart Lock on Android, you'll first need to have a PIN, pattern, or password set for your phone (which you should already have, regardless!). Then, in Google's version of Android:

  1. Open the Security section of your phone's settings.
  2. Tap "Smart Lock."

On Android phones where the manufacturer has made modifications to the operating system, the Smart Lock section may be located in a different area of the device's settings. On Samsung phones, for instance:

  1. Open the Lock Screen section of your phone's settings.
  2. Tap "Smart Lock."

However you get there, once you've opened the Smart Lock section, you'll be prompted to put in your PIN, pattern, or password — and you'll then see a list of available choices:

On-body detection: Fire up this option, and your phone will remain unlocked whenever you're holding or carrying it — so long as you've already unlocked it once. That way, if you unlock your phone to use it and then put it back into your bag or pocket while walking around, you won't have to unlock it again the next time you pick it up. Anytime your phone is set down or not in motion for more than a moment, it'll require authentication again.

Trusted places: Perhaps the most useful Google Smart Lock element, this option allows you to set specific locations — by business name, street address, or manual map placement — at which your phone will never put up a lock screen or require authentication (in theory, at least; the function can sometimes be a bit finicky and require occasional fine-tuning). You'll obviously want to be selective about what places you choose, but configuring this to recognize somewhere like your home can be a helpful way to avoid authentication where it's generally not needed but keep your phone secured in all other areas.

Trusted devices: If you'd rather have Google Smart Lock recognize a Bluetooth pairing, this next option's for you. It empowers you to tell your phone to skip the lock screen anytime it's connected to a specific Bluetooth device — say, your car's audio system or your gym headphones — when you know the phone will always be in your control.

google smart lock android 2020 JR Raphael/IDG

You can add any Bluetooth device that's been paired to your phone as a trusted device and then let it keep your phone unlocked whenever it's connected.

Voice match: This one's in the midst of being phased out, but on older Android phones, you might still find an option for it. At this point, that option will typically just take you to a screen where you can configure your phone's voice activation system to let you interact with certain Google Assistant functions without having to unlock the device — but it won't actually keep your phone unlocked, as the other Smart Lock functions will. And it won't be around much longer.

Trusted face: This final option is only likely to be present if you own a really old Android phone — and even then, quite honestly, you probably still won't want to use it. Android's 2011-era facial recognition system was never entirely consistent, reliable, or secure, for that matter. It's been replaced with more modern and effective face unlocking mechanisms that exist as their own standalone entities and are not connected with the Smart Lock brand.

With the other Smart Lock options, though, you can achieve a sensible balance of security and convenience — and at the end of the day, that's only going to help you keep your information safe while keeping your sanity intact.

This story was originally published in December 2018 and updated in March 2020.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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